Sunday, March 30, 2014

Some things never seem to change



James Taylor Lewis (1819-1904) was born in Clarendon, New York and moved to Dodge County, Wisconsin in 1845.  As a young lawyer, he served as District Attorney and County Judge before entering state politics.  During a productive and popular political career, Lewis served in the Wisconsin State Assembly, in the State Senate, as Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and as Wisconsin's ninth Governor at the end of the Civil War.  On September 23, 1857, he addressed the members of the Columbia County Agricultural Society at Wyocena, Wisconsin during their Annual Fair.  Before today, I had never heard of Governor Lewis even though I was born and raised in Wisconsin not far from his home.  The Wyocena text came to me completely by accident.  Many years ago, while living in Lodi, Wisconsin, I purchased a nondescript packet of old papers at a local garage sale.  They were mainly farming documents and financial records of a farmer in the Wyocena area—curiosities, but not very compelling.  The packet sat untouched for some 30 years until I happened upon it this afternoon.

Amidst the papers, I came across a small booklet titled "Proceedings of the Columbia County Agricultural Society for 1857".  Along with a few pages of general information about the status of agriculture in the county was included the text of the address by James Lewis on that day in September.  The speaker opened with a general discourse about the value of agriculture to health and welfare and the value of labor to the "happiness of the human race".  How do we assure health and happiness?  Here are his words from more than 150 years ago:

"We answer that labor, exercise, is one of the most important avenues to both.  And here I shall meet some of the errors of the present day, and some too that are doing more harm, doing more to sap the foundations of society, to destroy the happiness of the race than perhaps all others combined.   I refer to the opinion thas seems to obtain at the present day, more particularly in our large towns and among the younger portion of the community, that happiness lies in ease and idleness and that labor is dishonorable.  Hence so many throng our cities and towns seeking to live without labor.  Hence so many thieves and robbers.  Hence so much dishonesty and so many pests to society.  Hence the necessity of so many poor houses and prisons......."  

At this point, taking a page from Horatio Alger, Lewis expounded at some length upon the nature of all life on earth, that it prospers in motion and dies in stagnation.  Getting back to humans, he said,

"Go, watch the course of that young man who has no useful employment for either his body or his mind; see him saunter along through life with no end or aim, no point in view, but ready at any moment to turn aside from the path of rectitude.... His mind is uninformed, hence from ignorance he falls into the misfortunes which necessarily befall ignorance and folly.  

"If you wish your children to be wise and happy, train them to habits of industry.... Place before them some useful employment and give them such inducements as will make their task a pleasant and a joyous one, and you are certain to promote virtue."

The world has changed in many ways since 1857, but the fundamental Puritan ethic that molded people like James Taylor Lewis is still regarded by many as a pathway to success.  The labor-intensive family farm of the 19th century is no longer the backbone of American industry, but the value of a strong work ethic and a solid basic education is as important today as it was back then.  Without it, society marches backward.

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