. . . [I]t has seemed to me less a choice than a necessity to oppose the boomer enterprise with its false standards and its incomplete accounting, and to espouse the cause of stable, restorative, locally adapted economies of mostly family-sized farms, ranches, shops, and trades. Naïve as it may sound now, within the context of our present faith in science, finance, and technology -- the faith equally of “conservatives” and “liberals” -- this cause nevertheless has an authentic source in the sticker’s hope to abide in and to live from some chosen and cherished small place -- which, of course, is the agrarian vision that Thomas Jefferson spoke for, a sometimes honored human theme, minor and even fugitive, but continuous from ancient times until now. Allegiance to it, however, is not a conclusion but the beginning of thought. -- Wendell Berry, 2012 Jefferson Lecture
In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, agrarian belle lettrist Wendell Berry indicts corporate industrialism for its role in the degradation of land communities and land-use economies and not so subtly hints that American philanthropy was an outgrowth of this degradation. Berry reflects on the tension represented by the memorial statue of tobacco magnate James B. Duke at Duke University:
one side of his pedestal is the legend: INDUSTRIALIST. On the other side is another single word: PHILANTHROPIST. The man thus commemorated seemed to me terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy. But I did know the connection. I felt it instantly and physically. The connection was my grandparents and thousands of others more or less like them. If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of “philanthropy.”
A recent essay at Front Porch Republic by Will Hoyt on “The Flaw in Jefferson’s Idea of Ward Republics" prodded me to think more about how the agrarian tradition -- where I have at least one foot firmly planted, having been raised in the South on similar agrarian sentiments -- might shed light on our philanthropic traditions.
In a manner that resonates with Berry’s concern about the displacement of personal knowledge by statistical knowledge, Hoyt proposes that Jefferson’s adoption of the section-and-range logic of land survey in place of the metes-and-bounds system of medieval feudalism helped dissolve the bonds between ownership and obligation, between use and the form of stewardship forged in the mutual obligations of lord and vassal, obligations that also seemed to stretch across generations. “Starting in 1785,” Hoyt tells us, “it was possible for land ownership to have zero obligations attached to it. The land was yours to use as you, the purchaser, saw fit.”
We are the rattlesnake nation, the nation that says don’t-tread-on-me. Defiance is written into our genetic code, and that particular stance—-indeed, the very word itself-—means "de-fealtization." Look it up. To defy is to "throw down the glove," or release from fealty.
Americans with little knowledge of the feudal land system can get a glimpse of it in the popular television series Downton Abbey, which depicts the Earl of Grantham’s patronage of his estate and the challenges he faces in trying to align the fate of the estate with the future of his oldest daughter, barred from inheritance by continuing feudal entail. The would-be contemporaries of the earl living across the pond had long abolished such old feudal rules -- and perhaps it is of ironic importance to the filmmakers’ telling of this drama that Grantham’s wife is an American whose dowry has somehow been tied into the entail on the English estate.
For Hoyt, the tension in Jefferson’s agrarianism is that the new survey system he implemented undermined the mutual obligations of feudal law and “made possible the commodification of land at the same time that it reduced fraud and facilitated widely distributed ownership.”
Townships ought (in Jefferson’s estimation) to function as mini-republics. “It is by dividing and subdividing . . . republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself . . . that all will be done for the best,” Jefferson explained. The key? “Distributing to everyone exactly the function he is competent to” and “placing under every one what his own eye may superintend.” That way, each citizen becomes “an acting member of the government” rather than just a voter who shuffles representatives in and out of office, and the nation as a whole becomes practically invulnerable to attack -- both from without and from within.
Jefferson’s agrarian plan to “institutionalize decentralized political power” through the township system, which would establish a fractal-like republic of republics, was thus pretty much doomed from its inception.
Hoyt’s essay opens a window on a continuing dilemma of American civilization and philanthropy, which is that we live in tension with our own history. Our language, our legal system, and our liberalism anchor us firmly in the British tradition; our puissance as domesticators of the American continent from sea to shining sea and as fabricators of its raw materials into industrial and commercial empire draws us firmly and always toward a distinctly American future, toward some (increasingly secular) variant of the dream of a “City on a Hill.”
Hoyt may be on to something here. With the commodification of so many subsistence and even luxury goods, both the industrial capitalists and their critics, those early and continuing advocates of social justice, began to focus on the material aspects of human well-being. The capitalists transforming raw materials into unprecedented wealth; their critics calling for political action to ensure that this wealth was more equally spread among the people. Both the capitalists and the welfarists (mostly Progressives and social liberals in America, though Communists and Socialists elsewhere) looked increasingly to the state to help them achieve their goals, forging the corporate liberal welfare state that is still with us.
Neither this narrative nor Hoyt’s, however, helps us explore sufficiently the alternative path that American history traveled for a while. It was a moment in this other path that Tocqueville observed when he described the capacity of the American people to engage themselves in many new forms of obligation, not merely in the contracts of commerce but also in the vast number of voluntary associations in which people came together to promote more communal goals. Even more than in township government (except perhaps in New England), it may have been in the vibrant self-organizing character and institutions of the 19th-century Americans that Jefferson’s little republics flourished and in which people were fully participating as active participants in the process of self-government. Tocqueville believed we needed a “new science of association” to understand the essential features of the new techniques of self-government Americans were working out.
Without clarity and self-reflection about what they were doing, however, Tocqueville thought that it would be challenging for Americans to protect their “democratic” associations from either being crushed by majority tyranny or corrupted by the soft despotism that would increasingly align the quest for equality with an accruing power of central authority.
The agrarians may be right that the land, if one relates to it with a sense of obligation and, for Berry, affection, can help foster the independence and vigilance needed to preserve liberty and decentralized self government. But if land is what we need, and Hoyt is right about the tensions in our very systems of marking out the land for ownership, we must consider whether there are other new logics of obligation which might help sustain liberty. I believe such a logic of obligation did emerge in Americans’ attachment to the rule of law itself.
George McCully has argued that we should see the American Revolution as a philanthropic moment that in its voluntary, associational, and civic character “more closely resembled traditional philanthropic practice than it did traditional political practice.”
McCully points us to Hamilton’s observation in Federalist 1:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.
This idea will add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism, to heighten the solicitude which all considerate and good men must feel for the event. Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.
Hamilton was not confident that the Constitution would be ratified without attention to the self-interest of the citizens of the states, but the production of the Federalist Papers suggests that he, Madison, and Jay believed that reasoned argument could help Americans see the virtues of the new constitution. We see foreshadowed here Tocqueville’s insight that democracy’s fate would be closely tied with the capacity of the people to reflect upon self-interest, rightly understood. Tocqueville observed:
The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self-command; and if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits.
These virtues and habits are certainly found in the successful farmer, therein may be the heart of the attraction of agrarianism to Jefferson and to our modern localists. The question we must ask, though, is whether these virtues might be cultivated apart from the ownership of land. I suspect, in fact, that it is not in the land per se, or in the material component of other forms of wealth, that we find the springs of liberty. Rather it is in the relations that a man has with realities outside himself, whether in the form of land or money. There is no determinism in either agrarian or industrial economic forms. Since the beginning, America has offered an abundance of land and, eventually, money, but it is arguable that the path of liberty has nevertheless turned onto the road to a new serfdom. (Hayek's term takes us historically backward not to the status of medieval vassals but to the even lower status of those in bondage!)
Perhaps to find the genuine landscape that will best sustain liberty and the inducements of philanthropy we look not so much to Jefferson’s dream of a landed republic as to the realities of the associational world which Tocqueville observed. It was the relations that Americans came to have with their fellow men that provided the most fertile soil for self-government to plant strong roots. Tocqueville commented on the easy social discourse and mutual affection of Americans, and noted that the population did not ask its most opulent members to sacrifice their money for the public good but rather to yield their pride. The politician, induced by the need of votes but also from affection for his countrymen, easily rubbed elbows with the people. The people, by virtue of their local freedom and democratic spirit, readily came together to help one another. It was not so much equality of condition but a conviction of equal dignity that united Americans.
Equal dignity, more so than equality of economic condition, shows its importance in the ways that Americans held themselves together in mutual submission to the rule of law. Neither widespread property ownership, nor even the pervasive willingness to treat other persons with dignity, was sufficient to secure the Americans’ experiment, however. Liberty necessitated that Americans embrace one more relation, which was to place themselves in a form of fealty to the rule of law itself.
The Mayflower Compact established a new “civil body politic” and its subscribers promised “all due submission and obedience” to its laws. The survey that mattered most was not that of dividing the land but that for limning the extent to which the colonists’ lives and livelihoods were mutually entwined. Their descendants who fought the War of Independence, framed the federal Constitution, and traversed the overland trails into the heart of the continent internalized the purpose of law itself, seeking both to govern their affairs within the law and to eschew enacting legislation that would privilege one person, one faction, one company, one class, or one cause over another. My colleague, American historian G. M. Curtis, speaks of this as the "constitution mindedness" of the American people, and it seems to me to be a cornerstone without which even an agrarian settlement of small farmers would fail. Americans didn’t bind themselves to property and lords. They bound their lives, their fortunes, and their honor to one another under law, and no egalitarian material arrangements -- whether distributed freeholds or distributed welfare benefits -- are likely to foster liberty if the spirit of personal responsibility, the constitutional submission to the rule of law in political relations, or the philanthropic spirit of mutual regard in interpersonal relations is lost for good.
In the end, neither land, nor love, nor law can restrain man unless he lives in obligation to his conscience. Obligation cannot be dispensed with, in this Hoyt is correct. But it is the denial of transcendent reality rather than the commodification of property that ultimately makes man defiant. The flaw was not as much in Jefferson’s plan, as in the rise of a humanitarian universalism that dissolves the roots we must have in particular places and their traditions. This is the insight that Michael Polanyi, a man of science, came to as he looked back on the road freedom had taken in the twentieth century not merely to the soft despotism of which Tocqueville warned, but to a harder totalitarianism that threatened the world. I can do no better than to give you Polanyi’s words at length:
I believe to have shown that the continued pursuit of a major intellectual process by men requires a state of social dedication and also that only in a dedicated society can men live an intellectually and morally acceptable life. This cannot fail to suggest that the whole purpose of society lies in enabling its members to pursue their transcendent obligations; particularly to truth, justice, and charity. Society is of course also an economic organization. But the social achievements of ancient Athens compared with those of, say, Stockport -- which is of about the same size as Athens was -- cannot be measured by the differences in the standard of living between the two places. The advancement of well-being therefore seems not to be the real purpose of society but rather a secondary task given to it as an opportunity to fulfill its true aims in the spiritual field.
Such an interpretation of society would seem to call for an extension in the direction towards God. If the intellectual and moral tasks of society rest in the last resort on the free consciences of every generation, and these are continually making essentially new additions to our spiritual heritage, we may well assume that they are in continuous communication with the same source which first gave men their society-forming knowledge of abiding things. How near that source is to God I shall not try to conjecture. But I would express my belief that modern man will eventually return to God through the clarification of his cultural and social purposes. Knowledge of reality and the acceptance of obligations which guide our consciences, once firmly realized, will reveal to us God in man and society. (Polanyi, Science, Faith, and Society)
Perhaps what is essential for us to embrace of the Agrarian worldview is less the necessity of land, but the realization that man needs to grant authority to realities outside himself. What Polanyi discovered in his commitment to scientific truth and his dedication to the society of science is very similar to what Berry finds in the land and its communities:
We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.
We might ask whether we need confront the industrialist with the farmer, or whether we might be more philanthropic to call each man through his vocation, be it farming, fabrication, or football, to recognize the boundedness of that vocation, to accept the limits of its special knowledge, and to join his personal and local knowledge with that of others within the larger “civil body politic.” It is indisputable that the modern commercial economy has lifted more people to greater material wealth than ever before possible in history. Perhaps we do not have to repudiate this phenomenon in order to reclaim a shared knowledge that there may be natural limits in the ability of greater wealth to make us happier people. But it is certain that we must reclaim a sense of being on this historical path together, capable of deliberating where we would like it to take us.
Our philanthropy, our identification with the fullness of what it means to be human, must celebrate all the facets of human accomplishment, be they in a bountiful harvest, a structurally sound bridge, a precisely tuned instrument, a perfectly pitched baseball game, or a fit rendering of justice. Without losing the things that make us each who we are, we must learn also to say with Terence that nothing than concerns man is alien to us. And because we know that all the possibilities of mankind, for good and for ill, lie in our own hearts, we must foster the associations with one another that elevate our affections and our interests so that we may successfully meet the challenges of our own place in time.