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A MAN IN LOVE WITH THE SOIL
ONE December day in the year 1788 a Virginia gentleman sat before his desk in his mansion beside the Potomac writing a letter. He was a man of fifty-six, evidently tall and of strong figure, but with shoulders a trifle stooped, enormously large hands and feet, sparse grayish-chestnut hair, a countenance somewhat marred by lines of care and marks of smallpox, withal benevolent and honest-looking—the kind of man to whom one could entrust the inheritance of a child with the certainty that it would be carefully administered and scrupulously accounted for to the very last six’pence.
The letter was addressed to an Englishman, by name Arthur Young, the foremost scientific farmer of his day, editor of the Annals of Agriculture, author of many books, of which the best remembered is his Travels in France on the eve of the French Revolution, which is still read by every student of that stirring era.
“The more I am acquainted with agricultural affairs,” such were the words that flowed from the writer’s pen, “the better I am pleased with them; insomuch, that I can no where find so great satisfaction as in those innocent and useful pursuits. In indulging these feelings I am led to reflect how much more delightful to an un-debauched mind is the task of making improvements on the earth than all the vain glory which can be acquired from ravaging it, by the most uninterrupted career of conquests.”
Thus wrote George Washington in the fullness of years, honors and experience. Surely in this age of crimson mists we can echo his correspondent that it was a “noble sentiment, which does honor to the heart of this truly great man.” Happy America to have had such a philosopher as a father!
“I think with you that the life of a husbandman is the most delectable,” he wrote on another occasion to the same friend. “It is honorable, it is amusing, and, with judicious management, it is profitable. To see plants rise from the earth and flourish by the superibr skill and bounty of the laborer fills a contemplative mind with ideas which are more easy to be conceived than expressed.”
The earliest Washington arms had blazoned upon it “Cinque foiles,” which was the herald’s way of saying that the bearer owned land and was a farmer. When Washington made a book-plate he added to the old design spears of wheat to indicate what he once called “the most favorite amusement of my life.” Evidently he had no fear of being called a “clodhopper” or a ”’hayseed!”
Nor was his enthusiasm for agriculture the evanescent enthusiasm of the man who in middle age buys a farm as a plaything and tries for the first time the costly experiment of cultivating the soil. He was born on a plantation, was brought up in the country and until manhood he had never even seen a town of five thousand people. First he was a surveyor, and so careful and painstaking was he that his work still stands the test. Later he became a soldier, and there is evidence to show that at first he enjoyed the life and for a time had military ambitions. When Braddock’s expedition was preparing he chafed at the prospect of inaction and welcomed the offer to join the general’s staff, but the bitter experiences of the next few years, when he had charge of the herculean task of protecting the settlers upon the “cold and Barren Frontiers . . . from the cruel Incursions of a crafty Savage Enemy,” destroyed his illusions about war. After the capture of Fort Duquesne had freed Virginia from danger he resigned his commission, married and made a home. Soon after he wrote to an English kinsman who had invited him to visit London: “I am now I believe fixed at this seat with an agreeable Consort for Life. And hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced amidst a wide bustling world.”
Thereafter he quitted the quiet life always with reluctance. Amid long and trying years he constantly looked forward to the day when he could lay down his burden and retire to the peace and freedom of Mount Vernon, there to take up again the task of farming. As Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Revolution and as first President of the Republic he gave the best that was in him—and it was always good enough—but more from a sense of duty than because of any real enthusiasm for the role of either soldier or statesman. We can well believe that it was with heartfelt satisfaction that soon after independence was at last assured he wrote to his old comrade-in-arms the Marquis de Chastellux: “I am at length become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, where under my own vine and fig-tree free from the bustle of a camp and the intrigues of a court, I shall view the busy world with calm indifference, and with serenity of mind, which the soldier in pursuit of glory, and the statesman of a name, have not leisure to enjoy.”
Years before as a boy he had copied into a wonderful copy-book that is still preserved in the Library of Congress some verses that set forth pretty accurately his ideal of life—an ideal influenced, may we not believe, in those impressionable years by these very lines. These are the verses—one can not call them poetry—just as I copied them after the clear boyish hand from the time-yellowed page:
These are the things, which once possess’d
Will make a life that’s truly bless’d
A good Estate on healthy Soil,
Not Got by Vice nor yet by toil;
Round a warm Fire, a pleasant Joke,
With Chimney ever free from Smoke:
A strength entire, a Sparkling Bowl,
A quiet Wife, a quiet Soul,
A Mind, as well as body, whole
Prudent Simplicity, constant Friend,
A Diet which no art Commends;
A Merry Night without much Drinking
A happy Thought without much Thinking;
Each Night by Quiet Sleep made Short
A Will to be but what thou art:
Possess’d of these, all else defy
And neither wish nor fear to Die
These are things, which once Possess’d
Will make a life that’s truly bless’d.
George Washington did not affect the role of a Cincinnatus; he took it in all sincerity and simpleness of heart because he loved it.
Nor was he the type of farmer—of whom we have too many—content to vegetate like a lower organism, making scarcely more mental effort than one of his own potatoes, parsnips or pumpkins. As the pages that follow will reveal, he was one of the first American experimental agriculturists, always alert for better methods, willing to take any amount of pains to find the best fertilizer, the best way to avoid plant diseases, the best methods of cultivation, and he once declared that he had little patience with those content to tread the ruts their fathers trod. If he were alive to-day, we may be sure that he would be an active worker in farmers’ institutes, an eager visitor to agricultural colleges, a reader of scientific reports and an enthusiastic promoter of anything tending to better American farming and farm life.
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