Redefining Freedom on the Frontier

If Western civilization as we know it were to collapse, I think I will last a week, month, or maybe even a year longer, simply for having read the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pa and Ma are simply amazing. I’ve learned much “looking over their shoulders,” as it were, as they smoke fish, can produce, make straw hats, cut firewood and carry out the myriad of chores and tasks that constitute life on the frontier.

“Free and Independent on a Farm”

Ingalls Wilder’s world of the frontier may seem an unexpected, or even unlikely place to discover nuanced philosophical insight. But something along those lines is precisely what we find at the end of “Farmer Boy.” Almonzo, age ten or so, is given the choice of apprenticeship to a wagon-maker, or life as a farmer. His father, wanting his son to make an informed choice, helps him weigh the alternatives, but does so in a way that revolves around the nature of freedom:

“Well, son, you think about it.  I want you should make up your own mind.  With Paddock [the wagon-maker], you’d have an easy life, in some ways.  You wouldn’t be out in all kinds of weather.  Cold winter nights, you could lie snug, in bed and not worry about young stock freezing.  Rain or shine, wind or snow, you’d be under shelter.  You’ll be shut up, inside walls.  Likely you’ll always have plenty to eat and wear and money in the bank.”
“James!” Mother said.
“That’s the truth, and we must be fair about it,” Father answered.  “But there’s the other side, too, Almanzo.  You’d have to depend on other folks, son, in town.  Everything you got, you’ll get from other folks.”
“A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather.  If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber.  You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come.  You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm.”

As we struggle in America to understand what makes us American in the midst of questions about history and race and immigration, it seems clear that one of our central virtues, our most coveted values, is freedom. But what does this little word mean?

Reframing Our Philosophy of Freedom

Listening to the commercials and to social agendas, one gets the idea that freedom is the right or opportunity to choose, to select among different options, or even better, to craft one’s own options— whether in determining how to spend money, what career to pursue, or what will bring personal fulfillment.

Almanzo’s Father may not be right, but he at least does us the service of giving us a different take on the nature of freedom, and a surprising one at that. For freedom, he thinks, is found on the farm – a life of discipline, commitment, and relentless work (as we learn from the book).

Freedom, he suggests, is to be independent; it is not depending on others for one’s livelihood or well-being. Put more positively, freedom is depending on oneself. In this reframing, he suggests freedom isn’t so much a matter of choice – it is a matter of relation, namely, of dependence or independence when it comes to providing for ourselves.

And though we need not fully embrace such a definition, we do well not to forget it as our “freedom of choice” leads us further and further into national, state and personal debt, as we think of our leisure as spending money for the purpose of entertainment, and as we become increasingly dependent upon fewer and fewer independent farmers (and more and more corporations) to provide for our basic needs.

Freedom may indeed be a matter of choice – but it is also a matter of depending on ourselves. And to be able to depend on ourselves requires a host of skills and virtues that are not for sale, but only hard-won.