Sunday, August 30

An Uncommon Common Man

During his term as Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson traveled to Baltimore on official business. He asked for a room in the city’s best hotel. Not recognizing the great man--who always traveled quite modestly without a retinue of servants and dressed comfortably in soiled working clothes--the proprietor turned him away.

Soon after Jefferson’s departure, the innkeeper was informed that he had just sent away the author of the Declaration of Independence and hero of the War for Independence. Horrified, he promptly dispatched a number of his employees to find the Vice-President and offer him as many rooms as he required.

Jefferson, who had already taken a room at another hotel, was not at all flattered or amused. He sent the man who found him back with the message, “Tell the innkeeper that I value his good intentions highly, but if he has no room for a dirty farmer, he shall have none for the Vice-President.”

It was not merely the spirit of democratic solidarity or of judicial propriety that piqued Jefferson’s ire in that situation. He had always prided himself as a man of the soil first and foremost. He was America’s preeminent agrarian theorist. He was an avid gardener and a skilled botanist. His gardening journals have inspired generations of farmers and planters. And his agricultural innovations helped to make American harvests the envy of the world.

He strongly believed that an attachment to the land was the chief mark of an advanced culture. He believed that the fate of a nation was ultimately decided by the attitude of that nation to its soil. He said, “Widespread distribution and careful stewardship over property is the most tangible attribute of liberty. The faith of a people, the vision of a people, the destiny of a people may be divined by its corporate concern for the soil.”

To be sure, Jefferson was often a conflicted intellectual, an inconsistent moralist, and an impractical idealist, but his ideas of land, the dignity of labor, the essential nobleness of common men, and the vitality of the agrarian virtues made Jefferson the undisputed father of American populism.

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