A nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors.
The new Harper's features a short essay entitled "The Necessity of Agriculture," in which Wendell Berry says that it is hard to exaggerate the importance of the love of farming. "No doubt there are people who farm without it, but without it nobody will be a good farmer or a good husbander of the land. We seem now to be coming to a time when we will have to recognize the love of farming not as a quaint souvenir of an outdated past but as an economic necessity."
But Berry fails to acknowledge the social reality of farming. Agriculture used to be fundamentally penal in nature (and prison farms still exist). When God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden, he said, "Cursed be the ground because of you. In sorrow you shall eat from it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistle shall it sprout for you, and you shall eat the grasses of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." Farming has always been the work of slaves and serfs.
Among the 6,000 people of Ur in 2000 BC, 2,500 were agricultural laborers. Of these, a number were overseers and supervisors. Only the lowest in social rank actually tilled the fields. This has remained constant for about 4,000 years now. Why did the manorial economic system, the system of serfdom, remain in place from early Roman times through the late middle ages? It is because farming ranked as one of the least pleasant of tasks.
Berry quotes a marvelous passage from Goethe's Faust in which Mephistopheles praises farming as "a natural way to make you young." That is, indeed, the devil speaking, for God certainly never said anything like that. It's a very attractive and romantic notion, hatched by eighteenth-century idealists, and quickly put into practice in farming communes throughout Europe and the United States. The Amish and the Mennonites still live by this creed; so do, to a lesser extent, the Israeli kibbutzim. Long may they prosper and increase! I buy locally grown food, I love to visit farms like these, and I certainly sympathize with Berry's points.
But why doesn't Berry praise mining instead? After all, metal has been fundamental to human life just as long as agriculture, both mining and farming have been the tasks of the lowest ranks of humans, and both were successfully industrialized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in order to reduce the proportion of the population employed in these degrading tasks. But do you ever hear about the love of mining?
Farming may long remain a chore which few people can love. More power to them. Perhaps they'll win in the end, as Berry and I hope. But if history has anything to say about the future, most farming will remain a task performed by slaves, serfs, peasants, and machines.
During the Revolution, chaos reigned. Contemporary historians estimate that the American population was split in thirds between Patriots, Loyalists, and folks who didn’t know which way to turn. When the War began, most Americans had been in favor of some kind of reconciliation with Britain: they were willing to remain in the British Empire but tied only to the king, with Parliament having no authority over them at all. As late as 1776 most Americans were monarchists. But after the War began in earnest, America split apart. The Patriots elected representatives to the Continental Congress and sent soldiers to Washington’s army; the Loyalists were tarred and feathered, had their property confiscated, and often emigrated to England; and those on the fence had to choose between one and the other. For six years the Colonies were without any truly legitimate government: anarchy, mob rule, and terror reigned.
In the middle of all this, Robert Jones published his infamous pamphlet, Against Liberty, in Vickery, Backland’s largest city. Jones, who had come here in 1724 at the age of four, had lost everything: his property had been confiscated, his crops had been burned, he’d been tarred and feathered and paraded through the streets, and finally he’d left for London. Subtitled A Prophetic Warning, and drawing on the writings of such defenders of monarchy as Plato, Dante, and de Maistre, Against Liberty described Jones’s vision of America under the Patriots’ rule. It would be “a life of slavery and subjection to the iron-fisted tyranny of the majority, a life more like death than liberty.” Jones theorized that the more people in power, the more oppressive the power would be, so that a democracy, in which power was vested in the majority (“the mob”), would be inherently more oppressive than a monarchy, where all power was vested in one person. In Patriotland, Jones’s imaginary democracy, all preferment was granted according to how well a citizen fit in with the tastes of the majority, not according to his ability. These tastes—which were of the decidedly lower-class variety—ruled not only over the realm of politics, but over all culture, from what food was grown to what music was played. Under a monarchy, however, or so Jones argued, the tastes of the king and his aristocracy allowed natural excellence to flourish. Similarly, under a democracy exceptional men would be punished for being different, and in Patriotland the prisons were filled with men of genius; in monarchies, however, the prisons held precisely those rabble-rousers who would rule Patriotland. In a hundred years, Jones prophesied, Patriotland would become a nation in which every citizen would imitate his fellows, and, nobility having vanished, nothing would be left but a mass of mediocrity.
This pamphlet was immensely influential in Backland, where it was circulated widely. The colony, like Georgia, was already a hotbed of Loyalist sentiment, but Jones’s pamphlet actually made it possible to openly voice Loyalist creeds. Jones himself returned triumphantly in 1779 and organized a pro-British militia. He damned the Continental Congress, characterizing them as pawns of the French—a view which, by the way, was shared by John Adams, John Jay, and Ben Franklin—and, in a famous speech, proclaimed, “Give me monarchy or give me death!”
Meanwhile, his cause was being defeated by Washington’s army. By 1781, after Washington’s victory at Yorktown, Britain’s only remaining holdings were New York, Charleston, Vickery, and Savannah. Lord North, the British prime minister, resigned, King George III drafted a letter of abdication, and Cornwallis’s army returned to England. The Patriots had won. And by the time the Treaty of Paris was signed, Britain had ceded the entire fourteen colonies to the newly established United States of America.
While the rest of America’s Loyalists had fled, Jones’s army remained, entrenched at Fort Vickery, supported by a large majority of Backlanders. Washington didn’t take them very seriously, especially since they were entirely without British support. Backland Patriots drafted a state constitution and had it ratified by ignoring Jones’s supporters; Backland became the seventh state to join the Union. Everyone figured that sooner or later Jones and his followers would just go away.
But that never really occurred to the men in Fort Vickery. As soon as the peace treaty had been signed—ceding Vickery to the USA, to the great surprise of Backlanders—Jones—who considered himself a prophet, not a leader—sent his right-hand man, Caleb Turner, on a special mission to King George III: he was to plead that Backland remain a British colony.
Turner, however, had other ideas. He was 35, tall, with a full head of dark hair hidden under his wig. After a backwoods upbringing and years of military service, he had a ruggedness, a manly bearing, entirely foreign to the Court at London. He was easily the most handsome man there. And, having had few if any contacts with women during the years of the Revolution, he quickly formed a huge appetite for the pleasures of the flesh. It was rumored that during his first week in London he bedded nine different ladies, including several who were married to Lords, though that appears to me extremely unlikely. Needless to say, these rumors did not endear him to the Court.
Turner reasoned, quite correctly, that if he followed Jones’s instructions and asked King George to reacquire Backland, and if the king accepted, this would put Backland at war with the other colonies, who wanted no British on their soil. On the other hand, if Backland were to become an independent nation, they could remain at peace with the United States, and he could then ask King George to make him Backland’s first king. Turner met with the king in private; there are no records of their conversation. But we gather that Turner’s first proposition met with George’s approval, while his second was refused—or at least postponed. At any rate, Turner wrote to Jones that England had rejected the proposal that Backland remain a Crown Colony, and that King George would appoint a king for Backland.
Turner lobbied hard for the position. He got himself engaged to the eighteen-year-old daughter of the Duke of Windsor; she flatly refused to consider any other suitors, no matter what their station. The duke therefore was most desirous to have a king rather than a colonial commoner as his future son-in-law. But King George wasted little time before deciding to appoint his second cousin, Francis Colchester, as Backland’s King Francis. Turner broke off the engagement and returned to Vickery empty-handed.
King George had required that Backland’s borders be secured before Francis’s arrival, so Jones’s militia, armed with additional ammunition supplied by the British, spread throughout Backland, handing out muskets to anyone willing to fight for king and country. After heated debate, the Continental Congress decided to expel Backland from the confederation, although Washington preferred to take the state by force. The expulsion, however, was more acceptable to most congressmen, who generally considered Backland an embarrassment, and not worth the expenditure of arms; in addition, Francis had taken the precaution of sending certain powerful congressmen emissaries bearing expensive gifts. So on August 3, 1783, Francis Colchester, who had arrived from England the night before, was crowned King Francis I of Backland. Years later some wag calculated that August 3 could also be called “The 34th of July,” so the date was dubbed Dependence Day.
Francis was sane, 46 years old, had been married for eight years, and was expecting his first child (who turned out to be stillborn). He had never before been to America, but he was capable and wise, and he knew that the first thing he had to do was consolidate his power. Immediately after the coronation he decreed a new tax, which he called an establishment tax, a one-time fee collected from all property holders, which he promised to prudently invest, allowing Backland to gain economic independence from the rest of the former colonies.
All economic and diplomatic ties with Backland were soon severed by the U.S. Congress. King Francis now felt he had a free hand. Backland’s leading Patriots were tried for treason and executed; other Patriots either fled or were deported. Hundreds of slaves labored for eleven years to build an immense twenty-five-foot-high wall along the U.S. border, with barbed iron spikes hammered into the mortar and sticking out from between the stones. Francis knew that he had ready customers for all Backland’s exports—rice, indigo, deerskin, lumber, beef, pork—in England. He invested wisely, spent wisely, taxed heavily. And Backland thrived.
As for Caleb Turner, he continued womanizing; he started drinking too. Subject to manic bursts of energy, he accomplished some significant things, such as establishing Backland’s first hospital, organizing a land-clearing crew for agriculture and lumber-production, and opening four racetracks. However, between these efforts, he led a life of complete dissipation. Although he never married, it is said that his progeny numbered in the dozens.
And as for Robert Jones, he was named the first Duke of Vickery and became very wealthy. Under Francis, he was almost twice as rich as he’d been under George III. And he wrote a now largely forgotten sequel to Against Liberty, a pamphlet called Republic of Infamy, in which he engaged in an imaginary dialogue with a U.S. republican rogue. During most of the dialogue, Jones enumerated the injustices he’d endured at the hands of the Patriots—a pretty tedious account; this was followed by a what-have-I-done-to-deserve-this series of questions. The only surprising thing about the pamphlet was what Jones’s imaginary Patriot answered: with unconcealed anger, he simply retold the history of the Revolutionary War, illustrating the triumph of democracy over monarchy by force—a might-makes-right argument that, considering U.S. history, actually makes perfect sense. As Jones might say, what is majority rule but the command of the strong over the weak?