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Morning view of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
Morning view of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Though President’s Day was originally established to honor two of the country’s most influential Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the federal holiday we celebrate today honors the legacies of all past U.S. Presidents.

Many say our founders did not originally intend for its members of Congress and its Presidents to be lifelong politicians. Somewhere along the way, however, that somehow changed. Before becoming a military leader and our country’s first President, for example, George Washington spent much of his early life as a farmer. Washington grew up on a farm in Virginia and learned the skills of farming from his family. Later he inherited the family farm, Mount Vernon, in 1754, and spent the rest of his life managing and expanding it.

Thomas Jefferson had several professions. He was a gifted attorney, but he was also a farmer. He inherited a large farm from his father and spent much of his life farming. He introduced new crops and farming techniques to his land and was interested in agricultural experimentation and innovation his entire life.

Thought Abraham Lincoln was not primarily a farmer, he did spend part of his early life working on a farm. Lincoln grew up in rural Kentucky and Indiana, and his family owned and operated farms in both states. As a child, Lincoln helped his family with the farm work, including planting and harvesting crops, tending to livestock, and other chores.

Even Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest member of Mount Rushmore’s quadrumvirate, had a strong connection to agriculture. In the late 1800s, Roosevelt purchased a ranch in the Dakota Territory and spent several years as a cattle rancher. He learned about the challenges and rewards of ranching and developed a deep respect for the natural environment and the importance of conservation. Roosevelt was also an advocate for sustainable agriculture and land use, and believed farmers had a critical role to play in preserving the nation’s resources and protecting the environment.

James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor all spent a portion of their lives as farmers, which reflects the significance of agriculture in the shaping of our country.

Farming is no longer something our Presidents tend to be. Now they are lawyers, bureaucrats, and life-long politicians. Perhaps the lost connection between our leaders and the land, the animals, the crops, and the rural communities is one of the reasons our Presidents and politicians have such a low popular rating these days.

The last President of the United States to have a strong connection to farming was Jimmy Carter, who is now in the final days of his life in hospice at his rural home in Plains, Georgia; the only house the Carters have ever owned. It is on a peanut farm Carter and his wife Rosalynn took over in the 1950s. Long before becoming President of the United States Carter expanded the farm into a successful business. They grew a variety of crops, including peanuts, cotton, and corn, and they also raised livestock.

Though Carter is likely to go down in history as one of the least successful Presidents, he will also likely leave us as one of its most liked Presidents. In an era when everyone hates something for some reason, this is hard to square. But perhaps it has something to do with Carter’s background in agriculture and farming. I don’t think I have ever met a farmer or rancher I did not like. They are hard workers, have a deficit of words, and humble to a fault. They are almost always generous and kind. And though they never brag about their accomplishments, you can tell they are quietly proud of what they do. President Carter may have been a bad President, but like a farmer who has a bad year, they weather the storm and press on, often with a smile and strong sense of optimism, aiming for greener pastures beyond.

Maybe President Carter’s most valuable lesson will be the one we are all about to learn as legions of stuffy, career politicians eulogize him, each one striving to catch some of the likability Carter genuinely possessed. The lesson? Maybe our country needs a few more Presidents who were once farmers and a few less politicians who were always politicians.

Happy President’s Day. And Godspeed, President Carter.

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