A Story of Three Farmers

There were once three farmers named George, Tom, and John. Two were located in southern climates with long growing seasons and fertile soil; one was much further north, limited in the crops he could choose. In fact, later in life, he started planting trees instead of hay.

They lived in colonial times when over 90 percent of the population were farmers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams we know as our first three presidents, but each owned and operated farms before, during and after they held office.

The Brief Moment When Mount Vernon Graced Brooklyn | Brownstoner
Mount Vernon (brownstoner.com)

Mount Vernon is Washington’s famous estate on the Potomac River in Virginia. In his day it included five farms on 8,000 acres. When he was at home, he rode on horseback 20 miles across the fields and back to inspect their progress. When in New York or Philadelphia, he counted on weekly reports from his overseers.

After tobacco crops of his ancestors depleted the soil, Washington turned to grasses, wheat, and other grains, practicing crop rotation and using manure for fertilizer. He raised cattle, sheep, chickens and mules, which he said ate less and worked harder than horses. His love for horses prompted him to buy an Arabian stallion which he raced in Alexandria. Hogs and turkeys ran loose in the woods.

He had inherited some slaves at age 11; at the time of his death he owned 215 people of color who worked up to 14 hours per day in the fields. He also hired white farm hands.

Monticello, Home of Thomas Jefferson – Works – Delaware Art Museum
Monticello (emuseum.delart.org)

Not far away on a mountain, Thomas Jefferson worked his farms like a scientist, experimenting and recording the results of growing 70 species of vegetables and 176 kinds of fruit trees. Some seeds he’d gathered in Europe while ambassador to France.

His experiments caused the neighbors to label him “the worst farmer in Virginia.” He installed a 10 foot-high wooden fence around his Monticello gardens, “not to let even a young hare in.” His plantation also included 5,000 acres of clover and grain which he inspected daily, noting the difference to the soil made by contour plowing, crop rotation and organic fertilizer. His stock included cows, pigs, sheep, chickens — and fish, which were maintained in “live wells.”

Like Washington he inherited slaves from his family and his wife’s family, growing to 600 in number, who did the major work in the fields.

Peacefield (hisour.com)

God speed the plough and prosper the stone wall. — John Adams

John Adams differed in many ways from Washington and Jefferson. He owned at various times a fraction of their real estate, 40 to 100 acres called “Peacefield” in Massachusetts. As a young man, his father took him to the fields and had him work to exhaustion. “Well John, are you satisfied with being a farmer?” he asked.

His son replied, “I like it very well.” His father said, “Well, I don’t…so you will go back to school today.” He graduated from Harvard University when the student body only numbered 100, and became a lawyer and judge. He used profits from his practice to buy more land, and on the circuit made a point of gathering new information about working it. In a letter he gave a recipe for fertilizer which contained seaweed, marsh mud, potash, dung and kitchen waste.

When Adams was far from home in various government offices, he left the management of the farm to his wife, including purchasing and selling land (See a former post on Abigail – Nabby – Smith at https://amazingbirdcollection.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/nabby/). In one of the surviving 1100 letters they wrote to each other, he said, “I fear your crop of hay falls short. Contrive every means for the maintenance of the stock and increase food for the cattle.” Other animals they owned included horses, sheep and chickens.

The Adamses had no slaves, hiring workers when needed. In his last years, John reflected, “There is nothing to try men’s souls nor to excite men’s souls but Agriculture…God speed the plough and prosper the stone wall.”

George Washington emancipated his slaves at his wife’s death. He had said in 1786, “I never mean to possess another slave by purchase,” and also that he would have liked to see a plan adopted by Congress in which slavery would be abolished by slow, sure progress.

Thomas Jefferson gave seven of his slaves, all members of the Hemmings family, their freedom, but did not include Sally, who is said to have bore him several children. The rest of the enslaved people at Monticello were sold at auction to eight different bidders to pay back Jefferson’s debts. The man who wrote that all men were created equal in 1776 had once likened slavery to holding a wolf’s ear — one could neither hold him, nor safely let go.

This is a season of reflection. In late summer gardens and flowers wither, dropping their last unpicked fruit and blooms. While there are still warm rays from the sun, thoughts of tillers and planters turn to clearing out and getting the dirt ready for next spring.

Washington, Jefferson and Adams all knew the feeling. We must not lose or hide the example they showed replenishing the earth.

But to own another person to do the work was not, and will never be, right.

~ ~ ~

Information for this post came from John Adams by David McCullough, smithsonianmag.com, mountvernon.org, whitehousehistory.org, masshist.org, arnoldin.arboretum.harvard.edu, bostonteapartyship.com, monticello.org, nps.gov/articles.

It’s My Party…

Leslie Gore’s hip song of the 60s has nothing to do with politics, but its opening words are strangely appropro today. The complete line is, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to,” which many Americans are feeling when it comes to Republicans and Democrats.

Political Animals: Republican Elephants and Democratic Donkeys | Arts &  Culture | Smithsonian Magazine
1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly (Smithsonian Magazine)

Perplexed at who to vote for because we don’t agree with all of anybody’s platform, what are we supposed to do? Not vote at all?

Would you be surprised to know that our founding fathers were opposed to political parties? “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally,” George Washington said in his 1797 farewell address.

The next president, John Adams, dreaded nothing so much as a “division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.”

Then came Thomas Jefferson, who pretty much caused the big split as he disagreed with Alexander Hamilton on how much power the federal government should have. “A man under the tyranny of party spirit is the greatest slave upon the earth, for none but himself can deprive him of the freedom of thought.” Of course, he was speaking of the party he opposed.

James Madison, our fourth president and Father of the Constitution, warned of “mischiefs of factions” and believed that the government could prosper without parties. “I have always considered their existence as the curse of the country,” he stated.

George Washington chose Hamilton for Secretary of the Treasury and Jefferson for Secretary of State, hoping he could get the opposing leaders to work together in the country’s interest. Hamilton wanted a national bank, and more federal power, which he got. Jefferson, the Virginian, who wanted more power for the states, believed New England would benefit financially at the expense of farmers.

The first two political parties were the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, which soon were known as the Whigs and the Democratic-Republicans.

In 1828 the Democratic-Republicans became the Democrats. Andrew Jackson won on their ticket. In 1834 the Whigs became the National Republicans, and by Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 we were in our current two-party system, the Democrats and the Republicans. The big issue then was, of course, slavery. Other issues, including entering the first world war, the Great Depression, and abortion, have headlined the liberal and conservative divide since then.

Third party experiments have been compared to bees: “They sting, then they die after one or both parties restructure in response.” An example is Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, second in 1912 to the Democrats and Woodrow Wilson. Businessman Ross Perot took 20 million votes away from Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. in 1992.

Party bosses such as the Daleys of Chicago and the Tweeds of New York fulfilled some John Adams’ fears.

A topical list of the roles of a political party includes: running candidates for office, checking the other party, informing the public, and organizing the government. One source states that what they agree on are liberty, equality and individualism, maintaining the Constitution, and the election process. After the last election, who is sure of any of that?

Yuval Levin, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, stated in March of this year: “Trust in our highest institutions is broken..a lot of elite journalists now step out on their own onto a platform like Twitter…building their own following.” I remember concluding in a paper I wrote in college that the biggest thing affecting mass media in the future would be the public’s relationship with them. I wasn’t far off.

Remember the absence of civility in the 2016 presidential debates? Civility is, as defined by Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you want to persuade your enemy, you must redeem your enemy.” Other advice includes these statements: The people you disagree with will still be there tomorrow, so don’t cut every tie. We shouldn’t disagree less, we should disagree better.

“We can only do good by not trying to do the impossible good,” Theodore Roosevelt said, under the theme of Practical Politics.

Voters have traditionally changed their thinking as they age. When young they leaned toward the Democrats, but turned towards the right as they experienced home ownership, marriage and children. In 2020 many red states turned blue, possibly showing a switch in attitudes of Generation Xers and Milleniums.

Maybe in the mess, someone who was never elected to anything had the best idea: “In truth, I care little about any party’s politics — the man behind it is the important thing.” –Mark Twain

May better men step up to leadership of our country. We can still hope.

(Sources: harvard.edu, notable quotes.com, brookings.edu/research, prospect.org/politics, loc.gov, ushistory.org, open.lib.umn.edu)


Abigail Adams in the early years of her marriage.

Manager.  Correspondent.  Editorial Writer.  Wife.  Mother.  Grandmother.  Advocate for women’s rights.  While any of these words might describe a woman of today, they also hallmarked the life of our second first lady at the end of the Eighteenth Century.

I recently looked into some biographies to portray Abigail Adams for a couple of fifth grade classrooms.  The daughter of a minister and his wife, “Nabby” Smith was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1744.  Typical of the time, she and her sisters weren’t sent to school as their brother was, but absorbed reading lessons at home.  Nabby’s father’s library, most of all writings of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, was a source of many hours of happiness for her.  Family discussion of current events formed the basis for the opinions she developed early on; the French and Indian War began when she was ten.

By seventeen when she became acquainted with John Adams, Abigail was a well-rounded young woman.  She married the country lawyer, ten years her senior, at nineteen.  They set up housekeeping in Braintree (now Quincy) on the Adams farm, in a house next to his mother’s.

While John was away in Boston or at circuit court, Abigail remained at home to tend things.  She was by all accounts a very hard worker.  The couple had six children, four of whom grew to adulthood.  Their first was a girl also named Nabby, their second, a boy named John Quincy.  By 1770 the young family was in the midst of an embroiled colonial relationship with England.  John was called upon to defend the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre.

At the time of Lexington and Concord in 1775, he wrote to her to “flee to the woods” in case of danger.  During the Battle of Bunker Hill, she took John Quincy by the hand and climbed Penn’s Hill in the distance to watch.  A good friend, whose children were in her care, was killed in the melee.

John represented Massachusetts at the First Continental Congress, and was on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence at the Second.  “Remember the ladies,” she told him, “and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of husbands….we will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice.”

She was adamant that girls be given the same opportunities for education as boys.  “How can the republic produce heroes, statesmen and philosophers if it does not produce learned women?”

All the while she was writing, she was managing the farm.  She bought and sold property, got rid of an overseer who wouldn’t do his work, and shared in the physical labor of preserving food and making clothing.  From their sheep she carded wool, spun the yarn, wove the yarn into cloth, then cut and sewed it.

In 1783 she was able to visit John in France for several months, while he worked as ambassador and John Quincy served as his secretary.  The portrait above was painted there.

John and Abigail, who considered themselves best friends, exchanged over 1,000 letters during their marriage, but this is one she wrote to her sister.

John Adams served as Vice President under George Washington for eight years, during which time she helped Martha host public receptions, in New York and then Philadelphia.  John was elected President in 1796; for the last four months of his term in November of 1800 the first couple moved into an unfinished President’s House in the swampy new town of Washington, D.C.  Abigail famously hung her laundry in the East Room.  Less well-known is the fact that at least one politician called her “Mrs. President.”

It had not been a contented time for the couple, with Federalists and Anti-Federalists at each other’s throats.  John’s friendship with Thomas Jefferson was severely strained (she was able to help repair it at the end of her life).  Abigail, never one to curb her outlook, had to be careful.  “My pen must grow cautious,” she wrote.  “There is envy and hatred and uncharitableness in all three branches of government.”

Finally, they were together again at home in Massachusetts.  The new state was enormous, including what we know as Maine until 1820.  Just as had happened in the original colony of Carolina earlier, the center of government was far from those living in the north.

Abigail and John enjoyed following the success of John Quincy’s political career in their retirement, and also growing number of grandchildren, some of whom stayed with them.  She would live to be 73.  Her husband, though, reached 90, passing away on July 4, 1826, as did Thomas Jefferson.  It was the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.


As I straightened the bow on my white lace cap, my audience had questions.  “What games did your children play?”

“Some the same as you, tag and hide-and-seek.  They had marbles made of clay.  And they played an outdoor game called quoits, a lot like horseshoes.”

“Did you own slaves?” they wanted to know.

“No, our family was firm against it.  In fact, the issue of slavery almost stopped our country from starting in the first place.”


“I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in those who have deprived their fellow creatures of theirs,” Abigail Adams stated.  But in order to unite, the northern states had to compromise with those in the south.  It would cause a civil war on American soil not quite a hundred years after she and so many others worked to form the new nation.


Images from http://www.firstladies.org

Humor in Rough Rider’s Uniform


“Nobody ever had as good a time as I did as president,” Theodore Roosevelt reflected in 1909.  His serious side, which included negotiating peace between Russia and Japan, breaking apart trusts, and preserving the wilderness for generations of Americans, was balanced with pillow fights and outdoor adventures with his children — and boxing matches and Japanese wrestling with friends in the White House.  He often drew funny cartoons in letters he wrote to his family.

TR loved to tell stories and laugh at them.  He said, “When they call roll in the Senate, the senators don’t know whether to answer, ‘Present,’ or ‘Not guilty.'”  His eldest child was notorious for living it up, to which he responded, “I can be president of the United States or I can control Alice.  I cannot possibly do both.”

Those who served as chief of the executive branch before and after him could let their sense of humor show, too.

George Washington: When a junior officer boasted he could break a spirited horse and was thrown off head over heels, Washington was so “convulsed with laughter tears ran down his cheeks.”  He also wrote in a letter about a duel:  “They say Jones fired at his opponent and cut off a piece of his nose.  How could he miss it?  You know Mr. Livingstone’s nose and what a capitol target it is.”

John Adams: “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress.”

Abraham Lincoln: “If I were two faced, would I be wearing this one?”  Lincoln’s stories were legendary — it was not always what he said but how he said it.  He was an expert mimic.  During the horrible days of the Civil War he often got relief by listening his two secretaries with knee-slapping laughter.  “Tell it again, John!” he said to young John Hay.

Calvin Coolidge: After a hostess said she’d made a bet she could get more than two words out of him, he replied, “You lose.”  He said in 1929 he didn’t want to run for president again.  There was no chance for advancement.

Franklin Roosevelt: “Twenty-two minutes,” he said, when asked what the next Fireside Chat was to be about.

 Harry Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

Lyndon Johnson made some famous analogies but that doesn’t mean they should be repeated.

Jimmy Carter: “It’s nice now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers.”


Ronald Reagan, a natural storyteller, was the only president with a prior career in entertainment.  He poked fun at himself: “Just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all thirteen states.”   When horseback riding with Queen Elizabeth, her mount passed a substantial amount of gas.  She apologized: “I’m sorry.”  Reagan shot back, “Why, Your Majesty,  I thought it was the horse.”

George W. Bush: “These stories about my intellectual capacity really get under my skin.  For awhile, I even thought my staff believed it.  There on my schedule first thing every morning it said, “Intelligence Briefing.”

Barack Obama: At an observance of International Woman’s Day he said, “I salute heroic women from those on the Mayflower to the one I’m blessed to call my wife, who looked across the dinner table and thought, ‘I’m smarter than that guy.'”

Some information in this post came from http://www.npr.org, http://www.revolutionaryarchive.org, http://www.alternet.org, and http://www.politicalhumor.org.