Give me liberty on Independence Day

By Wallace Kaufman

Almost everyone knows Laura Ingalls Wilder as the woman who wrote the Little House on the Prairie and the other Little House books. Many know that her daughter Rose urged her to write the stories that Rose heard so often, and some of which she lived. Rose, of course, was the only surviving child of Laura and Almanzo Wilder.

Rose Wilder Lane in Europe about 1920. (Rose Wilder Lane Collection, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.)

Rose Wilder Lane in Europe about 1920. (Rose Wilder Lane Collection, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.)

Few people know that Rose wrote better than her mother and became a well known biographer and journalist. And almost no one knows or remembers that she was once a communist. A few web sites have publisher her 1936 essay on communism, independence, and American character to celebrate our 4th of July Independence Day. That essay begins, “In 1919 I was a communist.”

Two paragraphs gave me an out-of-body experience, historically speaking. I wish I had read the essay before writing my memoir, Coming Out of the Woods. With apologies to those who know me too well, a little context. In the late 60s I became part of the new back-to-the-land movement. First I remodeled two homes in rural North Carolina, running an organic vegetable farm on the second one. Next, I failed to organize several colleagues in academia to buy a big piece of land on which we could select our own homesteads. So, with the help of a true believer from Detroit I started Saralyn, a community of homesteads on some 360 acres of forest land.

I went on to do similar communities for land owners and groups of investors who wanted what is now called “sustainable development.” Covenants that protect the natural environment and the privacy of residents still control over 2,000 acres of those communities in the center of North Carolina.

I didn’t know then what Rose Wilder Lane knew many years before. Her 1936 essay which I read for the first time on July 4th, 2016 describes the deep vein of American culture that I was living in and tapping into for these communities. I wasn’t alone, of course. I keep meeting people who “homesteaded” in the 70s here in Oregon, California, the Ozarks, and New England. Here are two quite relevant paragraphs from her essay “Give Me Liberty.”

The pioneers were by no means the best of Europe. In general they were trouble-makers of the lower classes, and Europe was glad to be rid of them. They brought no great amount of intelligence or culture. Their principal desire was to do as they pleased, and they were no idealists. When they could not pay their debts, they skipped out between two days. When their manners, their personal habits or their loudly expressed and usually ignorant opinions offended the gently bred, they remarked “It’s a free country, ain’t it?” A frequent phrase of theirs was “free and independent.” They also said, “I’ll try anything once,” and “Sure, I’ll take a chance!”

This is an important fact: Americans were the only settlers who built their houses far apart, each on his own land. America is the only country I have seen where farmers do not live today in close, safe village-groups.