The Evolution of Political Parties: Studying the Founders, Part V

This is the fifth, penultimate entry in a series analyzing historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1969 book, The Idea of a Party System. During a period when progressives’ frustration with the Democratic Party seeks constructive resolution, it is worth looking at the historical evolution of parties under the leadership of the Founders, whose very fears about political parties quickly became reality.

Click here for Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.

Part V: The Young Republic Weathers War

Before his presidency and during his popular first term, Thomas Jefferson had written extensively on the eventual triumph of Republican values.  That’s why his second-term tack towards heavy handed government intervention through the embargo and subsequent military mobilization for war caught Federalists flat-footed politically.  By absorbing so many of their key policies both domestically (a strong national bank) and in foreign policy, Jefferson had, however wittingly, sucked the air out of the minority party.

The consequence, of course, was sacrificing his own core Republican ideals of small government and military non-intervention.  Politics versus policy, the age old story. The Federalists would never control 40% of either legislative body again, but their influence would live on within the ranks of the Republican Party.

Jefferson’s posturing recalls the now well-understood maxim that in American politics, change is most easily advanced by the unexpected party- that is how Bill Clinton pushed through “welfare reform” and Nixon was able to open relations with China.   The public is more trusting of a politician’s intentions when he bucks the orthodoxy of his party.

While Jefferson had the political muscle to govern without opposition, the lack of opposition led to poor results.   In preparing for an embargo against Britain, Jefferson completely miscalculated the economic impact it would have on the United States, and how little it would affect Britain.  Additionally, his plan for small gunboats to enforce the embargo proved militarily disastrous.   The Republicans’ military posturing only led them further to the brink of war, but their frugality prevented them from building a commensurate military until it was too late.  Most of the Founders had come to understand the need for a strong oppositional party to hold the government accountable, and without one, those fears were legitimated.

Even as the embargo left Jefferson as the second president to exit amidst tumbling approval ratings (a trait many of his successors would share), James Madison easily won the election of 1808.   His Republican Party had all but abandoned its original principles of small agrarian government, as unfettered trade, expansion and nationalism became the mantra of a party that increasingly needed taxes and guns to advance its interests.

The collapse of a substantial opposition party worried many who feared that the small ‘r’ republican experiment had been a failure.   Jefferson didn’t see it that way, writing in 1817, “The best effect of the war has been the complete suppression of party.”  Until the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson, who ironically became an American hero during the war with his dramatic victory at the Battle of New Orleans, the Republican Party governed alone.   One person most pleased with the destruction of the Federalist Party was a major beneficiary of its demise, President James Monroe.

A hard-line Republican partisan, Monroe had advocated Federalist “annihilation” for years, and had rebuffed efforts to split the party and run against James Madison.   Monroe’s passages on the importance of party discipline are too extensive to quote here, but suffice to say, he felt that dissent belonged behind closed doors, and that elections delivered explicit mandates that ought to be followed. His rhetoric was more Tom Delay than Founding Father.

Monroe believed that party and faction were not rooted in human nature, a notion most of the Founders had come to accept, but rather, “The cause of these divisions is to be found in certain defects of those governments… and that we have happily avoided those defects in our system.”  In his inauguration address he lambasted “discord’, calling America “one great family with a common interest.”  Such an opinion would seem laughable even in 1817, let alone today.  Yet an unrelenting theory of American exceptionalism and unity drove Monroe’s political calculations throughout his presidency.  In 1820, he ran for re-election unopposed.

In 1824, parties came back from the dead and took modern form.  The reasons for this include the vast expansion of direct voting for the presidency, the slavery issue, and new campaign methods that eerily mirror the tactics used to this day.  In the sixth and final installment of this series, we shall evaluate how Andrew Jackson’s political operation created a template for the modern campaign, and why strong , permanent political parties were necessary in this political landscape.
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Thanks for reading.  This series will conclude, hopefully tomorrow, with Part VI: The Jacksonian Political Machine.  Part VI will feature the rise of our favorites, the Democratic Party.

The Evolution of Political Parties: Studying the Founders, Part IV

This is the fourth in a series analyzing historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1969 book, The Idea of a Party System. During a period when progressives’ frustration with the Democratic Party seeks constructive resolution, it is worth looking at the historical evolution of parties under the leadership of the Founders, whose very fears about political parties quickly became reality.

Click here for Part I, Part II and Part III.

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Part IV: Jefferson Takes Power

The election of Thomas Jefferson introduced two questions for the new republic:  How would the Republicans handle their newfound majority?  How would the Federalists react as the new minority party?

For Federalists, the election of 1800 had deeply complicated their relationship to Jefferson.  Because Jefferson and Aaron Burr, both Republicans, had tied in the Electoral College, the fate of the presidency would be determined by the House of Representatives.  Hamilton made a famous push for his Federalist colleagues to vote for Jefferson, “an atheist French radical“, rather than Burr, “an embryo Caesar…the most unfit man in the United States for the office of president “.   This was a bitter pill for Federalists to swallow, after a brutal election season of demonizing Jefferson.  But in the end they heeded Hamilton, and Jefferson was sworn in as the third president.

Jefferson’s famous inauguration line, “We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans”, rings similarly to Washington’s “non-partisan” farewell address.   His goal was to create a super-party, a large tent that would bring all the people under his banner, save the most fringe Federalists, in order to exterminate the opposition party.   In furtherance of this plan, Jefferson adopted some of the Federalist domestic agenda, such as keeping the national bank to continue operating, and allowing most Federalist civil service appointees to keep their posts until they retired or resigned.  He spoke openly of courting the banking interests to the Republican Party to sap Federalists of their campaign funding.  Hamilton had correctly assessed Jefferson’s personality, noting that while he may have been an enemy to executive power while in the minority,  upon winning the presidency Jefferson would be “solicitous to the possession of a good estate” (p.137).

One topic that was never discussed among serious statesmen within the Federalist Party was secession or revolution- just as such fringe ideas had been squashed by Jefferson when the Republicans were in the minority.  There are a myriad of reasons for this, but one interesting reflection from James Madison in 1830 was that the United States had a weak, disorganized military, with no major figurehead after the death of Washington.  Thus, neither side could really discuss using the military to bring about a non-democratic change of power.

Hofstadter addresses the noticeable departure from Jefferson’s “radical” rhetoric upon taking office:

The modern liberal mind has been bemused by his remarks about the value of a little rebellion now and then, or watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, or having a complete constitutional revision every twenty or thirty years.   But Jefferson’s more provocative utterances, it has been too little noticed, were in his private correspondences.  His public statements and actions were colored by a relative caution and timidity that reveal a circumspect and calculating mind- or, as so many of his contemporaries believed, a guileful one.

Like Barack Obama, both Jefferson’s supporters and detractors were surprised at his political caution. We can only speculate about our current president, but Jefferson knew that the republic was young and fragile, and he needed to continue preaching the same patience as when the Republicans were steadily making Congressional gains in the 1790s.   Jefferson believed the Federalists were on a course for extinction, and there was no need to inflame their passions.

Where Jefferson and Obama miscalculated is that no amount of accommodation or caution can quiet the vitriol of a recently deposed opposition party.   In fairness to Jefferson, Obama had 200 years of precedent to see it coming.   Jefferson fumed over the rancorous opposition to his every move, writing,

“A respectable minority is useful as censors, but the present minority is not respectable, being the bitterest cup of the remains of Federalism, rendered desperate and furious with despair”(p.165).

I can scarcely imagine a better depiction of the Tea Party.  The Rick Perry wing of the Federalist Party finally got their botched secession attempt after the election of 1804.  The more rationale Federalists, seeing their power dwindling, retreated into the judiciary, launching the first major battle over that third branch of government.

Federalists on the bench has shown their partisan colors during trials over the Sedition Act, and the Republicans were eager to enact revenge, impeaching two Justices and reducing the size of the Circuit Courts, for “cost-saving” reasons (Hofstadter argues that this argument for frugality does have some legitimacy).   However, Jefferson once again neglected to go for the kill, even though he had the votes to either pack the court or amend the constitution to make the Supreme Court a fixed tenure position.  With the Federalists on the run, he saw no need to overplay his hand.

In 1804, Jefferson was re-elected in a landslide, building a 4-1 advantage in the Senate and 5-1 advantage in the House.  Even in New England, the Federalist Party could count few victories. At his inauguration speech, Jefferson congratulated the United States on “a union of sentiments now manifested so generally”(p.166).  As we’ve seen over the years, however, there’s never a good time to declare a mandate.   Hostilities on the high seas were approaching, and the subsequent showdown with England would test the unity of the Republican Party, briefly revive the Federalists, and cripple Jefferson’s impressive approval ratings.  After all, no one wins in war.

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Thanks for reading! Coming soon:  Part V: The Young Republic At War

The Evolutions of Political Parties: Studying the Founders, Part III

This is the third in a series analyzing historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1969 book, The Idea of a Party System. During a period when progressives’ frustration with the Democratic Party seeks constructive resolution, it is worth looking at the historical evolution of parties under the leadership of the Founders, whose very fears about political parties quickly became reality.

You can read Part I here, and Part II here.

Part III: The Adams Administration

In Parts I and II we looked at the Founders’ disdain for political parties and factions, why Madison and others believed their influence could be mitigated, and how the French Revolution created the first partisan crisis of the young republic.  Now we turn our attention to John Adams, who could not claim President Washington’s pretense of non-partisan governance, though that hue by the end of his second term.

The behavior of the Federalist Party in the late 1790s eerily foreshadowed the Bush-era Republicans.  As tensions mounted with France, and the Anglophiles that ran the Federalist Party ratcheted up hysteria over France’s many diplomatic blunders, hoping to turn the American public sharply against the French, and, in turn, against the Republican Party.   The notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, which passed Congress narrowly (44-41) in 1798:

“{W}as vague enough to make a man criminally liable for almost any criticism of the government or its leading officers or anyeffort to combine for such a purpose…It drew no definable distinction between criticism and defamation, opposition and subversion”(p.107).

Hofstadter has praised the innovation of the Founding Fathers for creating the first legitimate political opposition under a republican framework, but he acknowledges that the Sedition Act was a major threat to its development.   Federalists hoped to cow Republican dissent by criminalizing their pro-French rhetoric.  It is a testament to President Adams that he was able to buck the “High Federalists”, who agitated feverishly for war, and ultimately decide against it, believing that the United States was too fragile a country to launch a costly war with its populace so bitterly divided.

Meanwhile, morale was down in the Republican camp, even as they continued to make gains in Congressional elections throughout the 1790s.  Jefferson encouraged his party to look past the election of Adams to the presidency, and bear with this Constitutional experiment, even as some of his peers speculated on secession:

“{I}n every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter period of time.  Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch and relate to the people the proceedings of the other”(p.115).

For those of us reeling from the 2010 midterms, or indeed, for Republicans who were stunned by their repudiation in 2008, Jefferson’s passage should remind us all that in a democracy the side one supports will inherently lose the trust of the people in time, for any other result would be an indictment of the democracy’s vibrancy.   It is the responsibility of the party to bring the inadequacies of its opponents to light, and sell the people on why governing in an alternative manner would be preferable to their interests.

Jefferson continued:

“A little patience and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles…If the game runs against us sometimes at home, we must have patience until the luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the PRINCIPLES we have lost.  For this is a game where the principles are the stake”(p.117).

Folks, even in these times, the reign of witches will pass over, and their spells will dissolve.

For progressives who share my optimism about emerging demographic trends, including the socially liberal inclinations of the internet generation, the growing number of Hispanic voters and the passage of fundamentalism’s high-water mark, Jefferson had similar, and ultimately correct, assumptions about demographics in his own time.   He admonished Republicans to put away thoughts of secession or violence, and to stick with the democratic experiment.

Meanwhile, President Adams was finding out the lesson George W. Bush never had to- that a public’s appetite for war is easily lost by an accompanying tax increase.   The Republicans seized on this issue, and Adams, even as he had avoided war, was hammered over his party’s proposal for a burdensome war tax.  It soon became evident that the Republicans were cruising to electoral victory in 1800.

Now the Republicans, who had suffered such persecution as the minority party, would have the chance to govern.  But, as Hofstadter explains:
“{E}ven their  own experience as an opposition, however educative, had not fully reconciled them to the necessity of an opposition…”
Their own war to wipe out the Federalist Party for good was on the march.

The Evolution of Political Parties- Studying the Founders, Part II

This is the second in a series analyzing historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1969 book, The Idea of a Party System. During a period when progressives’ frustration with the Democratic Party seeks constructive resolution, it is worth looking at the historical evolution of parties under the leadership of the Founders, whose very fears about political parties quickly became reality.

You can read Part I here.

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Part II:  Fissures  Emerge During Washington’s Presidency

“We can be sure that those with power in their hands…will always, when they can…increase it.” – George Mason

In creating a government that would balance liberty and stability, the Founders were fairly unified in their belief that checks on government power should be built into the Constitution, rather than established through the volatile political process.  The Founders, explains Hofstadter, did not expect permanent political parties to play a significant role governance, but did want to establish checks to limit a faction’s potential power.  These checks include the three separate branches of government, the bicameral legislature, freedom of the press,  and so on.

In Federalist 51, Madison argued that the diffusion of sects and interests in the United States would prevent one sect from exerting majority rule, both in religious and civil life.  Read in concert with Federalist 10, in which he argued counter-intuitively that a large, extensive representative republic would be best equipped to prevent majoritarian tyranny, Madison banks on the notion that while factions would arise, under the Constitution they would not be able to garner sufficient support to establish lasting majority power. Having previously observed a host of small parties, working independently in their various states, Madison did not foresee the creation of two major parties, which was catalyzed by the national debate over the Constitution.

It is true to this day that there are many competing sects and ideologies in American politics.  Every election cycle witnesses primary battles along lines of social and economic liberalism (or conservatism), the role of libertarianism, religion, environmentalism, energy production, urban interests, the influence of corporate power and labor unions.   Instead of all exerting their influence as distinct and weak individual factions, however, they debate within the framework of the Democratic and Republican parties.   The utility of having these grand formations, these ‘big tents’, makes sense in retrospect.  But how did they come to be, and how did the first majority party, the Republicans, emerge under the leadership of James Madison himself?

In the early 1790s, as anti-Federalists increasingly coalesced into Jefferson and Madison’s Republican Party, Madison began to view the role of parties in the constitutional framework differently.   He now saw political parties as checks on each other, having conceded their existence in the political system.  He considered the governing Federalists “more partial to the opulent than to the other classes of society” and governing through “the influence of money and emoluments and the terror of military force”(p.82), while his oppositional party represented the common good.

Madison’s perspective, which progressives often tout today, is that the views of his party were in line with the majority of the people, but the Federalists, “being the weaker in numbers, would try to strengthen itself with the influential, particularly the moneyed men, the most active and insinuating influence”(p.83).  Madison warned that a minority party, bolstered by money, would work to unravel a majority coalition through exploiting prejudices and distracting the public from matters of primary concern.  In fact, Madison’s essays in the early 1790s abandoned his Federalist Paper-era concern with majority rule, and now turned to the pernicious ability of political parties to run the nation from the minority position. Anyone who has lived through the last two years can relate to that.

Other than the creation of a National Bank, Alexander Hamilton’s major initiative, domestic politics were rather non-controversial in the early years of the republic.  The first major Congressional fissure came over support for the French Revolution.  Republicans, who supported the revolutions, were labeled as anti-property radicals by Federalists, who were in turned called “Monocrats” for their alleged aspirations to restore the French monarchy.   The French Revolution polarized the two major political factions to such an extent that by 1797, Jefferson reported:

“Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the street to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest should they be obliged to touch their hats.”

One character we’ve yet to come across in this discussion in George Washington.  He suffered terribly though these years, after thinking his near-unanimous election in 1788 was a mandate for non-partisanship.  He had attempted to keep a balanced cabinet, but with the departures of Secretary of State Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph, by his second term the team was decidedly Hamiltonian, and Republican forces around the country no longer considered him off-limits politically.   In response, Washington blasted Republicans for fomenting the Whiskey Rebellion and trying to sink the Jay Treaty, and dangerously walked the line tying political opposition to sedition.  As Hofstadter explained, the American system could only work if both the ruling party and the opposition recognized each other’s legitimacy, and by the mid-1790s, this was breaking down.

In fact, Washington’s much-praised Farewell Address, written by Alexander Hamilton, was considered then a slap-down of the Republican Party.   Washington’s denouncement of factions implicates the Jeffersonian opposition, but he considered himself “a man above party”.  He cautioned people to “steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to the acknowledged authority of government”(p.98).   Failing to define “irregular opposition”, Washington was essentially telling the American people that his people running the government should not be undermined by a pernicious opposition, hardly the “let’s all get along” ethos the speech is remembered for.

Thank you for reading.  On Saturday I’ll post Part III: The Adams Administration.

 

The Evolution of Political Parties- Studying Hofstadter and the Founders

This is the first in a series analyzing Richard Hofstadter’s The Idea of a Party System. During a period when progressives’ frustration with the Democratic Party seeks constructive resolution, it is worth looking at the historical evolution of parties under the leadership of the Founders, whose very fears about political parties quickly became reality.

For more regular posts, please visit livingthedream.org.

Part I: Fears of Factions Before the Constitutional Convention

Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Party is the madness of many, for the gain of a few.”  There are certainly progressives who can relate to that, having exhausted themselves physically and financially to return Democrats the White House and Congress, only to feel deeply disappointed with the two years leading up to the catastrophic 2010 election.  While moments like this lead to grumblings about the Democratic Party, in the end, most progressives return to the fold in time for the next battle.

Distinguished historian Richard Hofstadter uncovers how this came to be in his fascinating 1969 book, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840.

I came across the book at Housing Works, a used book store in Manhattan.  As someone who continually questions the Democratic Party, even while voting for it religiously, I thought it worthwhile to study the role the Founders sought for political parties, as well as the role they ultimately accepted for them.   Hofstadter’s thesis is that the behavior of early republican leaders, particularly Jefferson’s peaceful ascension to power in 1800, demonstrated the radical notion that an opposition party could exist and eventually take power without challenging the legitimacy of the government itself.

Thus, they overcame the stigma attached to dissenting factions, which had previously been considered (or, in fact were explicitly) treasonous.  It is interesting to consider that Republican opposition to both Clinton and Obama eschewed this first principle of political parties, as neither ever accepted the Democratic president’s legitimacy (one could argue that some liberals felt the same way about Bush, but their sentiments were not articulated by the Democratic leadership).

The Founding Fathers, Hofstadter writes, “had a keen terror of party spirit and its evil consequences, and yet, almost as soon as their national government was in operation, found it necessary to establish parties” (p.viii).  Amusingly, Hofstadter concludes the preface by noting that America in 1969 was living through “a period, certainly not the first, when discontent with the workings of the American party system is at a high pitch”(p.xi).  Indeed, in all my years of reading American history and political science, it is rare to find a period that does not consider itself at a high pitch of discontent with either American politics as a whole, or its party politics in particular.

What were the Founders concerns about political parties?  Parties “were believed only to create social conflicts that would not otherwise occur, or to aggravate dangerously those that would occur”(p.12). Sound familiar?
Another concern that rings particularly true today:

“Factions and parties will not suffer improvements to be made. As soon as one man hints at an improvement, his rival opposes it. No sooner has one party discovered or invented any ameliorations of the condition of man, or the order of society than the opposite party belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules it, insults it, and persecutes it”(John Adams, p.28).

Hofstadter notes the irony that many of the strongest critics of the political parties- Hamilton, Adams, Monroe among others- were in fact its strongest partisans, each believing that the national interest could best be served by bringing everyone into the fold under his own ideas.   Perhaps, now 230 years on the way, we can concede that there is hardly such a thing as non-partisanship, and rarely will we have ‘consensus.’ Bright and powerful leaders will always have different ideologies, whether or not they have to manifest in Party form.

Hofstadter found no Americans during this period who were explicitly in favor of parties/factions, though some, like Madison, begrudgingly accepted their likelihood, and attempted to constrict them through the constitution.  In  England, however, Edmund Burke argued the virtues of factions in building consensus, mutual trust, and confidence in ideas, and laid much of the intellectual ground work for the basis of permanent political parties.  His basic definition of a party is “A body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavors the national interest upon some particular principle upon which they are all agreed”(p. 32).

Interestingly, in calling for individuals to sacrifice their own ideologies in favor of the party, he conceded that those who could not agree with the party nine out of ten times should probably find a different party.  In this “big tent” era, I doubt either Democrats or Republicans can claim many members who fit that description.

Ultimately, none of the major Founders shared Burke’s optimism.  Even as they sought the means of expression for a legitimate opposition, which could prove valuable in a nation of free peoples, permanent political parties did not seem like the answer. John Adams opined:

“There is nothing I dread so much as the division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.  This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution”(p.38).

Thank you for reading.  Part II will come on Friday.

Living the Dream

As anyone can tell, this site has been defunct for some time.   This site’s writers will continue to post a new location, LivingtheDream.org, which will be a multi-purpose site not just about politics.  As the depressing-looking 2010 elections are upon us, best of luck getting involved in your local elections and fighting for progressive, anti-corporate values.  There is a time and place for giving up: The time is never- I’ll let you figure out the place.

The Urban-Cottage Garden VS Big Agriculture

“Fighting hybrid and GMO seeds is critical to save our diversity and our agriculture. We have the potential to make our lands produce enough to feed the whole population and even to export certain products. The policy we need for this to happen is food sovereignty, where the county has a right to define its own agricultural policies, to grow first for the family and then for local market, to grow healthy food in a way which respects the environment and Mother Earth.”

- Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the spokesperson for the

National Peasant Movement of the Congress of Papay

I begin this edition of Cottage Corner with a question:

Why would the Haitian government refuse 475 tons of free hybrid corn and vegetable seeds donated from U.S. based corporation, Monsanto? Take my word for it: the same folks who brought you DDT, Agent Orange, Aspartame, bovine growth hormone, and the first nuclear weapons, don’t mean this donation as an act of generosity.

In an open letter sent on May 14, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the spokesperson for the National Peasant Movement of the Congress of Papay (MPNKP), called the entry of Monsanto seeds into Haiti “a very strong attack on small agriculture, on farmers, on biodiversity, on Creole seeds…, and on what is left our environment in Haiti.”

Thoreau once wrote, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk,” (from the Journal. November 11-14, 1850). I take that to mean the proof is in the pudding. So what’s in Monsanto’s hybrid-corn pudding?

Some troubling ingredients include the patented, hybrid corn seeds Monsanto offered to Haiti which were treated with the fungicide Maxim XO. The calypso tomato seeds were treated with thiram.[3]  Thiram belongs to a highly toxic class of chemicals called ethylene bisdithiocarbamates (EBDCs). The EPA determined that EBDC-treated plants are so dangerous to agricultural workers that special protective clothing is necessary when handling them. Read the rest of the article from the Centre for Research on Globalisation here.

In addition to worldwide chemical poisoning, Monsanto has a troubling history of suing small farmers when the farmer’s fields are contaminated by GE pollen or seeds, or when GE seeds from a previous year’s crop sprout in fields planted with non-GE varieties. In other words, once you go Monsanto, you never (can) go back. With control of 90% of the world’s GE seeds, Monsanto is well on their way to monopolizing the market.

While Monsanto grows ever more insidious, many organizations and people are working very hard to maintain biodiversity and authentic heirloom genes, while encouraging food sovereignty, sustainable practices, and public awareness. A bunch of those folks live at my house where we are experimenting with a genetically traditional, diverse, organic, primitive, low cost, urban garden.

Here’s how we’re doing it:

We start in the dark heart of a Midwestern winter where I sit, reading about gardening and dreaming up ways of sticking it to the man. Before, I have been a happenstance gardener: a patch of ground here and there, old seeds found in a drawer or a free pile. Maybe I buy a few healthy starts from farmer’s market. Sometimes, something magical occurs with sun and water, and poof! Flowers bloom, tomatoes bear fruit, we eat. But this year it’s different. This year, I’m invested. This year, I start everything from seed.

I start with Seed Saver’s Exchange, a non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. SSE’s 890-acre Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa is the largest non-governmental seed bank in the United States. They permanently maintain more than 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties. It was hard to choose just twenty or so to grow in my yard!

With help from my housemates and careful research at the public library, I chose heirloom varieties of some amazing vegetables and herbs. My favorites this year are Hidatsa Shield Beans, Blacktail Mountain Watermelon, and Asian Tempest Garlic.

In February, I made a chart of what to plant when and where. Some plants do better if started indoors and some are better off directly seeded in the ground. I am committed to letting the seeds, sun, soil, and water do what they were made to do with as little energy and interference from me as possible. I tell my friends: I don’t grow plants. Plants grow on their own. I cultivate plants, vegetables, fruit, and herbs. In the proper environment and circumstances, plants don’t need me at all. It’s us humans that need plants.

For encouragement and guidance I turned to Food Not Lawns, a global organization focused on turning yards into gardens and neighborhoods into communities. Food Not Lawns inspired me because they made gardening accessible: you don’t need a farm, all you need is your own lawn, or a balcony and some pots, or even just a window sill. They also helped me understand the essential elements of food security, why urbanites face the biggest risks, and how we can encourage food sovereignty and build community connections at the same time.

Starting a garden this way took patience. It was the end of May before we planted the chard, kale, spinach, and arugula. It was mid June when we planted the butternut squash, beans, zucchini, and lemon cucumbers, and carefully transplanted the hillbilly tomato, purple tomatillo, and poblano pepper starts.

To offset costs and put the industry back into the cottage, I am selling my excess starts on a table in the front lawn for donations of $1. I’ve already earned back a little cash. And, it feels great to know I’ve contributed to other folks’ access to local, organic, heirloom vegetables. Time has been the largest cost so far. I am happy to give mine because working the ground and cultivating living things gives me so much energy, inspiration, and hope for the future, that gardening itself is as valuable as the vegetables it produces.

Now, nearing the end of June, the seeding is done, almost everything I planted came up. I am filled with anticipation, imagining what the back yard will look like in September. I could spend pages griping about the evils Monsanto is wreaking upon the world, but my time would be better spent nurturing the diverse plants they aim to wipe out, and cultivating food to feed my global family of resistors, activists, subsistence gardeners, small farmers, and urban homesteaders.

Ready to get growing? Check out my blog and resource page for books, magazines, websites, and neighborly information.