The State Agricultural Fair

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William Henry Channing

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This great gathering has afforded some really instructive and other quite amusing illustrations of the change now passing over men's estimates of the dignity of labor. Hard working yeomen it may naturally be supposed, chuckled behind the scenes at the praises of agriculture interlarded with mutual puffs, which were spread so profusely before them by these politico-farmers, fresh from the White House, State Department and Governor's chair. Bribery of voters by soft words to be sure is not punishable by statute. But there is no escaping the penalty of ridicule ; and certainly a few droll thoughts are suggested by the glaring contrasts between notorious facts and the eloquent professions of these retired country gentlemen. How pleasing to fancy the pictures of pastoral life. The farmer of Marshfield renews the dreams of boyhood over the plough and the sickle; the farmer of Lindenwold has blandly inhaled the sweetness of his own clover fields. We seem to see the robes of office so heavy and galling, the coat of the lawyer so tight and stiff, fly off in disgraceful banishment; and these disenthralled slaves of the public in straw hats and shirtsleeves whistle as they whet the scythe and swing the flail with songs. Is the country sufficiently aware of the self-sacrifice of these descendants of Cincinnatus! Will it repay their long toil in the service of the nation by demanding of them once again to leave beloved shades! Oh! the ingratitude of republics. But it is tedious to be sure, to dwell many moments on this demagoguism to which even our first men allow themselves to stoop. The veil is too thin to make withdrawal necessary.

This fawning on the laboring classes does, however, significantly show the tremendous revolution already achieved in modern society. The feudal noble when he would muster his retainers, donned his armor, flung himself in the saddle, gave his standard to the breeze and ordered a trumpet call. The political aristocrat of our day, hat in hand, with slang words of familiarity, and the most hail fellow well met look imaginable, nodding to every one, smiling to the mothers, and patting the children on the head, draws his serfs around him by the invisible meshes of cunning. One more turn of the wheel of this noiseless revolution, and the producing classes will take these obsequious servants of theirs, who ride on their shoulders, at their word, and answer, " Why bless your hearts! if you love labor so much we are willing to try you as hands on our farms or in our shops." That is the consummation plainly before us. The time is nigh when all men must in some part of life at least, and in some way or other prove, that they are not afraid of soiling their hands by useful and hard work on this good teeming mother earth of ours. Already the democratic gentry of our land find health and pleasure among their fruits and flowers, and gain reputation for the quality and quantity of their crops. The muddy shoe, the blouse and jacket, the knife and saw of the gardener are not to them badges of disgrace. Presently we shall see the Broadway dandy not ashamed to show brown hands and say, " I can turn a straight furrow with any man." The wonderful processes of vegetation, the daily miracles wrought by the sun and soil, the exquisite adaptation of natures harmonies, the ministries of winds and rains, dignify the farmers life with the thoughts they inspire of Him who guides the seasons and fills the land and sea and air with countless germs of life. The labor of man directed to the multiplication of earths products seems glorified by being so manifestly a co-operation with the providence of God.

And this high estimate of labor will not confine itself to agricultural employments. It must make, is rapidly making the circuit of the mechanic trades ; and we begin to recognize the dignity of every useful art. Doubtless the smell of new tanned hides, of leather parings, waxends and blacking is not agreeable, and many an honest fellow now grows pale squatting from twelve to sixteen hours a day on his low bench, in close air, by feeble light finishing French boots for idlers. But even in palaces delicate fingered ladies can embroider the slipper. The moment all men see, that either they must perform themselves disagreeable occupations, or else so arrange them as to be no longer offensive to sense or hurtful to health, we shall find that it is a perfectly easy thing to have such covering for the feet as will call forth the taste and skill of the most refined. And so of all the trades. The day is fast coming when all our absurd feelings of contempt and repugnance for these most indispensable operations, without which we could be neither housed nor clothed nor fed nor warmed nor made sensibly happy in any way, will give place to grateful respect. We make a distinction between the useful arts and the beautiful arts. But what is useful is always beautiful. The painter or sculptor is chambered in the houses of nobles, fed at kings tables, greeted with acclamation in public meetings. Will there never be a time when he who can deck the living form in garbs which symbolise character and calling, will be also honored as an artist!

The stimulus we now apply to improvements in the common modes of beautifying life, is the rivalry of gain. A higher stimulus will be a love of the perfect in the minutest thing. And then we shall see removed the drudgery of these petty routines of the handicrafts. Dresses, habitations, vehicles, food, illuminations, all the common circumstances of existence indeed are meant to be a kind of hieroglyphic and pantomimic representation. A man's individuality should be expressed in all. We have lost in our dull repetitions of fashion the poetry which the savage still connects with his dress and tent, his furniture and carriage, and which the bards of elder ages always attributed even to their heroes. An Indian girl working with quills her bridal robe of doe skin, puts into the hues and figures the whole secret of her heart. When we give up our present lazy and effeminate ways, copied from foreign courts, and feel how honorable it is to adorn the lowliest details of life, we shall make our homes and public places brighter with varied splendor than was ever figured in the spectacles of the theatre. It is this badge of servitude branded by earlier tyrannies on toil, that keeps our present habits and manners so squalid, tame and unmeaning. The ancient Greek imaged his gods as laboring to rear the walls of cities, and guiding the wise to sow the useful grains. The Infinite Artizan, by whose pervading power of beauty the edges of the leaf are fringed, the plumage of the bird inlaid with various colors, the veins of marble run in pictured landscapes, the evanescent frost work reared in palaces and forests, does not despise, but honors and blesses man's imitative skill. It is no visionary dream to say that the day will come when every act will be acknowledged as a form of worship. Even now great processions have no such eloquent emblems as those which symbolize the various trades. There is a substantial meaning in them, even when used for mere display or to express political, bias. What magnificent and deeply significant popular assemblages will society witness when industry is reinstated in its high place, as the representation in human forms of God's creative power. Moses was led up into the mount to see the divine type of every curtain and vessel of the tabernacle. Society at large when the greatness of man's earthly destiny is felt, will see opened in a loftier sense the vision of that temple of beauty, which God ordains for future ages, in a perfected earth covered with man's designs of art.

  • William Henry Channing, “The State Agricultural Fair,” The Present 1, no. 2 (October 15, 1843): 68-70.