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A nation in need of good and virtuous farmers

Ben Yale Published on 28 June 2012

Editor’s note: This column was Ben Yale’s final contribution to the magazine. He passed away suddenly June 13. A tribute to Ben’s life and contributions to the dairy industry will be published next issue.

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Independence Day comes with fireworks, parades, festivals, patriotic music and, at least for me, at my latitude, wheat harvesting. Combines empty their golden harvest into wagons and trailers.

Overflowing wagons and trailers parade along the highways to the mills and railheads proclaiming the wealth of the land. The sound of machinery fills the quiet rural scene.

Daily in milk houses, liquid white gold fills tanks and silos. These all celebrate America – a celebration of its abundance and its people, especially its farmers.

Our history is a history of people who have done their job and done it well. Farmers represent the best of those who keep us, and the world, fed. With filled bellies, we have an America strong and free.

There are fewer of these farmers today. People who study these things tell us that of all of the 300-plus million Americans, less than 5 million are farmers – somewhere between 1 and 2 percent.

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This is not because of a failure of farming but because of its success. The less time a people spend making their food, the more time they have to add to the culture and to the economy.

In the late 18th century, when our country was born, it was not that way. Estimates put farmers as high as 90 percent of the population. Even those who lived in the towns and cities often had livestock, with a cow or chicken tucked among the horses in the livery. Livestock grazed on the commons of many towns and cities.

These commons were also a place of public meeting and discourse and, throughout the colonies in the 1770s, increasingly a place for a debate about independence from a country an ocean away. Out of these debates came votes, assemblies and then delegations to the Continental Congress.

On August 2, 1776, fifty-some delegates attended the session in Philadelphia. On the agenda that day were resolutions authorizing George Washington to employ as many Stockbridge Indians as he saw fit, sending some arms to a safety committee in one of the states, demanding reports of how funds were dispersed and consideration of articles of confederation, a constitution of sorts, among the states.

But journals for that day show that the first item was “the declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed by the members.”

The signing was the result of a resolution passed two weeks earlier, July 19, which reads, “Resolved, That the Declaration passed on the fourth be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of ‘The unanimous declaration of the 13 United States of America,’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.”

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Ordinarily an act of a congress or legislature was engrossed by the signing of its presiding officer and a recording secretary or clerk. But this was no ordinary document. It was not just a resolution of a group of states, but a personal statement by those men who voted for it.

Above their signatures was this last phrase: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Among the 56 men who eventually signed this document were lawyers, merchants, scientists, plantation owners and farmers. The two known true farmers, John Hart of New Jersey and John Morton of Pennsylvania, played significant roles in bringing the resolution to the Congress and passing it unanimously.

When the call for the Congress went out earlier that year to consider independence, the call said that any decision to declare independence would have to be unanimous among the states. State legislatures had to authorize their delegates to vote that way and one state had to authorize its delegation to move for such a resolution.

After months of debate, that time came when Richard Henry Lee, on May 15, at the direction of the Virginia legislature, moved, “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

While sentiment was strong for such a result and a majority of the delegates supported independence, it was not unanimous among the states. When first presented, delegates from five states were not even authorized to support such a motion.

Over the next several weeks, messengers were sent to these assemblies to change their votes. In at least one case, Pennsylvania, a new assembly was called for with a new election.

In nearby New Jersey, the Royal Governor, William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin, frustrated efforts of the assembly to vote to send delegates and vote for independence.

The people of the state formed a new Provisional Assembly to fill that void. Among those elected was farmer John Hart. Hart farmed several hundred acres of land, a sizeable amount for a traditional farmer.

Another signer to the Declaration, Benjamin Rush, said that Hart was “a plain, honest, well-meaning Jersey farmer, with but little education, but with good sense and virtue enough to pursue the true interests of his country.” Though educated today, farmers, especially the dairy farmers I know today, are plain, honest, well-meaning, with good sense and virtue enough. They love their country.

The newly formed assembly declared William Franklin an enemy of the people and ordered him arrested – he spent the rest of the war in prison in Connecticut and later moved to England where he died.

It also ordered the delegation in Philadelphia to support independence. The New Jersey delegation there refused and resigned. Hart was among those who replaced that delegation.

While a unanimous vote was required for final passage, majority votes could move the process along. In June, a majority authorized a committee of five to draft a declaration. On July 1, the Congress met as a committee of the whole and after a debate approved the draft of the resolution which had been written primarily by Thomas Jefferson.

The states, each with one vote, cast their vote. Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against the resolution. New York and Delaware abstained. With a majority of eight, the resolution passed the committee. The next day, July 2, the whole Congress would vote.

Overnight, South Carolina changed its vote and Delaware’s one-to-one tie was broken when a third member showed up and voted for independence. That left Pennsylvania and New York. Royal troops had forced the New York assembly to move and it could not vote in time to direct its delegates. It would abstain.

That left Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin and George Clymer supported independence, but John Dickinson and Robert Morris opposed. Tied, the delegation could not support the vote for independence.

On the eve of the vote, John Morton, a Pennsylvania farmer and a new delegate from a recently elected assembly, arrived. He joined with Franklin and Clymer to allow Pennsylvania to vote in favor of independence.

On July 2, the Lee Resolution calling for independence was approved, 12-0-1. (New York later that month voted its support). The Congress then moved to consider how the Declaration would read.

On July 4th, the Congress approved the Declaration of Independence which began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Passing such a resolution presented challenge enough but making it a reality was even more difficult. Bullets replaced ballots, armies replaced assemblies and congresses, war strategy replaced debate and blood replaced ink. For more than five years, independence was fought and won in war.

All of the other signers faced their own risks. They were wanted criminals by the Crown, declared traitors and, as such, potentially subject to gruesome death. Some were chased down and arrested by British or loyalist forces, others had their properties pillaged and burned. Some were wounded and killed in the war.

Even where they lived, neighbors and others were enemies. The people were divided between separatists and loyalists. The difference between son William and father Ben Franklin was not uncommon. New Jersey loyalists captured New Jersey signer Stockton.

During imprisonment, Stockton signed a loyalty oath to the King. He was the only one to do that. Hart, on the other hand, fled from place to place, even staying in forests and caves to avoid capture.

He gave of his treasure. During one planting season, he allowed Washington to quarter his 12,000 troops on his land, ending any hope of a harvest that season. The British, during their passage through the area, destroyed about everything else he had. Early in the conflict his wife died; shortly afterward so did he, before the victory arrived.

Farmer John Morton went on to chair the committee that wrote the Articles of Confederation but, at the age of 53, died in April 1777, before it was adopted and the independence he declared was won.

With the luxury of seeing the result of those courageous men and the sacrifice of lives and treasure of the men and women who fought the fight, it is easy to associate ourselves with the valiant and the winners. But we were not there, so we only imagine.

That war has been fought and won but the challenges to our freedom never let up. It is not the issues of a stamp tax or a tax on tea, but the idea that someone who has never been on a farm can dictate how we grow our crops, where we raise our animals, how we milk our cows, what, if any, water we can use, how we house our livestock and what we sell it for.

Using the power of the vote, the 98 percent can, through legislation and referenda, shackle and control the production of agriculture. Even the marketplace, which could cover the costs of such burdens, is in the hands of the majority, not those who grow it.

Beating back the adversaries of weather and pests and markets, they fight to produce the food that keeps this nation fed and whole. While farmers continue to keep this nation strong, their enemy is not a foreign state but their own.

And they fight against an ever-growing government that wants more and more from the farmers for less and less. Not only are our fortunes and honors at stake but those of our children.

We properly look back and honor the people who brought us independence. We honor those who died for all of us and those that gave in other ways. Those were essential gifts.

So, too, is that of food. Will those who follow us look at what we did and honor us for feeding our country? Will there be any freedom left for them to enjoy? Good things do not just happen. They still require honest, well-meaning farmers with good sense and virtue enough to pursue the true interests of their country. In times of need, one or two at the right time is enough. PD

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Ben Yale
Yale Law Office

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