George Washington is the most famous example of a farmer-turned-politician. He reluctantly left his sprawling plantation overlooking the Potomac River to command the Continental Army for seven exhausting years. He got the worst of 16 battles over that time but he kept his army together and won the very last engagement of the war at Yorktown. He emerged the hero of the new nation and promptly shocked the world by hopping into a carriage to get home to his farm. He only managed a few years out of the spotlight before he was hauled back to the capitol to serve as the nation’s first president.
Washington liked to give the impression he was wealthy but, like most farmers, he was land-rich and cash-poor. He complained that the only financial instrument that had held its value during the upheaval was the mortgage on the farm. He was so hard up that in 1787 he had to borrow 500 pounds from a friend to make the trip to New York to be sworn in as president.
George was often compared to the Roman statesman Cincinnatus (519 BCE to 430 BCE), another farmer who was called upon to take charge of a chaotic government. There is a statue of Washington in the rotunda of the capitol building that shows him standing in front of a single-furrow plow and wearing a determined expression that the sculptor captured while watching him dicker with his neighbour about the price of a sheep.
When I worked at Queen’s Park in the 1970s as a speechwriter for a cabinet minister, the whole building still ran on an agricultural timetable. Workmen were busy scraping a century’s worth of tobacco smoke off the ceiling of the legislative chamber and the floorboards still showed the marks where the members had missed the spittoons. There were lots of farmers on both sides of the House in those days. The high holiday for farm activism came in the middle of February when people from across the province converged on Toronto for three big events: The Cattlemen’s Dinner at the Skyline Hotel followed by the conventions for the Association of Agricultural Societies and Good Roads at the Royal York Hotel. Any person who was seriously plugged in back home could spend 10 days in the city never more than 100 feet from an open bar and a shrimp ring.
Queen’s Park emptied out for a week of glad-handing and promises and deal-making in the hotel hospitality suites. A good time was had by all and the delegates eventually staggered home feeling better than if they’d won a Lion’s Club draw for a trip to Nashville.
Flash forward 40 years and how things have changed. Farmers now make up only 1.4 per cent of the population and farm programs account for an even smaller portion of the budget. There are no votes to compete for anymore and no gravy trains to jump on. We seldom see a farmer assume the reins of power anywhere these days and they are sorely missed. People like Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter left indelible marks on the body politic. In this country we owe a huge debt to people like E.C. Drury and Eugene Whelan.
Farmers are by instinct resourceful and sceptical. They tend to be tolerant and resistant to impulsive action. People who work the land generally have a cosmic sense of what is enough, what will do. These are all characteristics that would serve brilliantly in the public arena. We desperately need them back.
Washington supervised a rowdy Congress that hammered out a new constitution and then he laboured another eight long years in the highest office to show people that a democracy could work without descending into chaos. His teeth fell out and his strength ebbed away. When he finally escaped, he only got to enjoy two brief seasons at his beloved Mount Vernon. In the fall of 1799 he rode out in the rain to check his fences, caught a cold and fell into the hands of his doctors who finished him off by Christmas.
A sad story and a cautionary one to be sure. He may have had a thankless role but he still enjoyed the last laugh. Since he had no children to take over the farm, he left his Mount Vernon property to the nation.
It continues to lose money to this day.