The Forgotten Wallace: A Lover of Plants and People

For oldsters like me, the name “Wallace” might prompt memories of George Wallace standing in front of the entrance to Alabama U shouting, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” For twenty-somethings, perhaps Wallace conjures memories of chasing a “gym leader” character in the Pokémon game “Ruby and Sapphire”. (I have no idea what that means.) Film geeks might respond to the name by yelling, “they can take our lives, but they will never take … “, etc.

There’s another Wallace to whom I’d like to pay tribute today, especially in light of the current state of political absurdity in our country: Henry Agard Wallace. Henry Wallace was Vice President under Franklin Roosevelt during most of World War II. According to David Kennedy, in his Pulitzer-prize winning book Freedom from Fear, when Roosevelt first selected Wallace as his prospective running mate,

“…old guard Democratic Party regulars deeply distrusted Wallace as an apostate Republican and as a doe-eyed mystic who symbolized all they found objectionable about the hopelessly utopian, market-manipulating, bureaucracy-breeding New Deal”

When I read that, I couldn’t help thinking of how @realDonaldTrump might have tweeted that sentiment. Perhaps,

“FAKE Wallace, the so-called “advocate” for the “common man” – SAD! Make AMERICA great – not SICK immigrants! Let’s have an ARMS race! Nothing common about ME!”

Wallace liked plants. He also liked people – all people. He gave a speech in 1942 for which he since has been both revered and, sadly, vilified. The speech was called “The Price of Free World Victory”, but is more commonly known by one of its memorable phrases, “The Century of the Common Man”. He began bluntly:

“This is a fight between a slave world and a free world.”

He then staked his moral claim, which, given the intolerant political leanings of most religiously-minded, was ironically grounded in his conception of Christianity:

“Men and women cannot really be free until they have plenty to eat, and time and ability to read and think and talk things over.”

Simple, right? Then why, do you suppose, did such a kind and compassionate assertion piss off so many people? Political fear-mongering comes to mind, as does gullibility, greed, bigotry, and/or a lack of education. Am I being unfair? Biased? Whatever the reasons, I suspect they are similar to those underlying Donald J. Trump’s electoral victory.

But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about Wallace’s love of agriculture. By his own admission, Wallace loved plants.

“In my early life, I would say that I thought completely in terms of seeds, plants and farming.”

Wallace confessed his vegetal obsession merely to highlight his unlikely foray into politics. I submit, however, that his plant passion provided young Wallace with a metaphor around which he shaped his vision of humanity. Plants begin life as seedlings, dependent on Mother Earth to provide nourishment. Should happenstance favor the seedling, water, soil, and sunlight abound and it grows tall and strong toward a glorious bloom. Some plants possess a sturdy constitution that allows them to outlast others. Yet, no plant is more deserving of life than another. Green plants are no more worthy than red; tall plants no more intrinsically valuable than shrubs.

Obviously, relatively few farm boys become liberal politicos. Such an evolution requires a convergence of biological, environmental, and social conditions. In Wallace’s case, it didn’t hurt to have George Washington Carver, a friend of Wallace’s father, as a horticultural mentor. Carver, a former slave and the first black man ever to attend Iowa State University, also loved plants, especially peanuts. In fact, Carver was to peanut farming what Henry Ford was to car making. Perhaps Carver taught Wallace that plants are neither good nor bad, but just different. The peanut is cool, but so is cotton, asparagus, the soybean, and prickly pears. Even those pesky plants we deride as “weeds” are not evil so much as uninvited and prolific.

Perhaps that’s why both sides of the marijuana debate use the term “weed” – the stuffed shirts because they can’t figure out how to curtail the spread of the anti-corporate, anti-Christian reefer scourge, and hippies and their descendants to ironically applaud that failure. Bottom line: weeds, like people, are not evil by nature, but only in context. We attribute evil to weeds based on our wants. I don’t want weeds in my potato patch! I don’t want weed in my carry-on!

Spare the poor weeds your ire. While you’re at it, spare also the people of various hues, beliefs, sexual proclivities, or bathroom preferences. Save your fury for real life-threatening situations, rather than trumped-up charges and fake fears.

Here’s Wallace’s inspiring pitch for the post-war world, couched in his comfortable horticultural references, made just before the weed whackers relegated him to an ignoble retirement:

“When the farmers have an opportunity to buy land at reasonable prices and to sell the produce of their land through their own organizations, when workers have the opportunity to form unions and bargain through them collectively, and when the children of all the people have an opportunity to attend schools which teach them truths of the real world in which they live – when these opportunities are open to everyone, then the world moves straight ahead.”

Then, FDR died, Truman dropped a couple of bombs, and now … Trump.

Rest in peace, Henry Wallace. Ye are sorely missed.


Go to the source:

Kennedy, D. M. (1999). Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. Oxford University Press.

Culver, J.C. & Hyde, J. (2001). American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace. W. W. Norton & Company.