All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1955

Liberty And Onions

Mrs. Wadhams holds a Masters Degree from Yale; but more important, she also holds some early American principles on government and self-reliance which too many of us seem to have forgotten

Extracted from an unpublished manuscript.

Events beyond our calculations sent Erland to the New Hampshire legislature.


The ordinary citizen does not usually think of going to the legislature. By the term “ordinary citizen,” I mean the man or woman who, like us, hasn’t the means to indulge in the least luxury, but expects to close the year’s ledger out of the red by a close squeak, God and the health of the family permitting. Whether we admit it or not, Americans are prone to judge the worth of a man by his income. Skill in getting and spending money is to us a sign of ability and respectability. The ordinary citizen, scraping pennies, is too often not considered wise enough to go to the state legislature to squander millions or to Congress to squander billions.

The ordinary citizen reasons that admission into this legislative Valhalla is not for him. He figures it is necessary for him to leave such matters to the professional and the subsidized. Take his car as an illustration. It is just a jitney, or if he is a farmer, a shabby station wagon or pickup. Does he figure he can uphold the dignity of the commonwealth parking this equipage at the curb at the State House?

Yet, why not? Certainly in a republic, legislators should be chosen for their familiarity with the hard facts of living, and for their understanding and judgment. It cannot be reasoned justly that such attributes belong exclusively to those on whom the economic pressure is least; to those who find the struggle for survival easiest. And certainly there are enough citizens of our kind to call, in all fairness, for representation.

In 1944 the day before filing for candidates to “the General Court” closed, a town official sent word to my husband. No one had filed for representative. Would he care to run for the office? We debated the matter, Erl and I. It meant a radical change in our plans. Erl and Sherman had intended to cut pulpwood all winter. But we were genuinely interested in the opportunity and were willing to sacrifice. Some very important issues were coming up—important to the town as well as the state. Could we do it? We began to add up the figures.

Members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives are limited to a monetary reimbursement of $200 for a four to seven month’s session, plus mileage; for special sessions, $3.00 a day for 15 days, and traveling expenses.

Erl’s transportation would add up to a three mile walk, six miles by taxi, twelve by bus, and thirty by train. The transportation money would be adequate; for while taxi travel would cost more than ten cents a mile, bus and train would cost less. Ten cents a mile for one round trip a week would cover it. One round trip a week meant a room in the capitol city. But not at three dollars a day! That would be out of the question. There was the Y.M.C.A. which charged three dollars and a half a week. We figured the probable length of the session. The $200 would last five months if food could be managed on six dollars and a half a week. Erl agreed that he might have to tighten his belt. Still, by being exceedingly penurious, we believed it could be done. That is, if nothing went wrong.

As for things at home, there was Sherman, seventeen, but better than any hired man. With a weekend checkup, he would be adequate to all emergencies we knew. Could we spare the income the pulpwood and the sugar bush would have brought us? We figured again. Yes, with luck, we could break even. But God help us if anybody got sick; that was a chance we would have to take.

After November 7 we conceded ourselves the election.

The matter of suitable clothing for Erl’s new venture devolved upon me. In war times, old clothing is not to be despised. This was a lucky break for us because my husband’s best suit was the one he was married in nearly twenty-five years before. It wasn’t as shabby as it sounds.

The day arrived when “our representative” waded out of the snow-blocked lane and walked to the village, a large suitcase in one hand, an overnight bag in the other. I sent him off to Concord much as some maternal ancestor might have sent her husband off to that other Concord to do battle in equally parlous times. I gave him one last bit of advice:

“Behold,” I said, “I send you forth as a lamb among wolves. Be, therefore, as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.”

The world, the flesh, and the devil are very much in evidence in any body made up largely of professional politicians. Erland had expected that. What pleased him was to discover what is too often forgotten, that there is also an intelligent and conscientious group whose sole desire is to serve.

Erl wasn’t the only member of the General Court who was looking for values in food. One day while waiting for a seat in a diner in the capitol city, Erl was approached by another legislator who queried:

“What on earth are you doing here?”

“Economy administration,” answered Erl.

“Me too,” laughed his colleague.

There came a day when Erl had occasion to speak on the subject of the encroachments of statism on liberty in our society. He said:

“It is just possible that there may be one or two here today who will remember that some twelve years ago I appeared before a certain committee in this State House. [Mr. Wadhams is here referring to a visit during the depth of the depression, when a band of citizens went to the State Capitol to protest the plans then being developed to “help” them.] I didn’t come as a member of the legislature then. I came with no authority, no backing beyond the somewhat skeptical good wishes of a handful of neighbors. That committee probably felt that I came as a habitant with spruce needles in his hair, and they might have been right; they may have been right literally. I felt that I came as a hunted animal fighting for existence. I had just passed through a period of what might fairly be called hard luck, which had destroyed much of the background of my previous life. Rebuilding under difficulties, I came face to face with a new philosophy—not mine, but the state’s. Society, backed by political power, had judged that, because my standard of living had fallen below a certain level, I had been cast up on the beach and was a fit subject for salvage. I had other ideas. So I found myself fighting the state for the privilege of keeping myself from being a burden on the taxpayers of the state. Being neither totally ignorant of history nor totally devoid of imagination, I got a small foretaste of what the submerged minority in Germany must have felt in recent years. And I’ll be perfectly frank with you; when I consider some of the measures passed by this General Court—and when I consider some of the measures that were rejected but which I know and you know will come back again and again—and again—until in an unguarded moment, they slip through—when I think of these things, I don’t feel much different now.”

When Erland told me what he had said before the legislature, my mind went back to the day in 1933 when an agent of the government, making a survey, came to our house.

Somehow, for all our hard luck, I had always felt rich. How could anybody be poor who owned land even a once abandoned farm that was supposed to be marginal? I suppose I had been all wrong. I suppose I should have been comparing myself all these years with my plutocratic sister who was able to sport diamonds and go night-club-bing. But I had always compared my lot with that of my Chinese sister halfway around the world; thinking of her as I read in Ernest’s geography how every little twig had to go to make her fire, how every atom of animal droppings along the wayside had to be raked up to help the night soil fertilize her garden; thinking of her as I read in the newspapers of famines and floods and warfare, of dropped bombs, of cholera and plague. After thinking of her, I had felt positively rich with our big woodpile in the back yard, enough to last till next winter when more could be cut in the wood lot; with soil fertile enough for our purposes so long as we kept cows and handled barnyard dressing; and didn’t get the “get-rich-bug” and skin the land. Up here on our placid hillside where floods never came, nor famine, nor bloodshed, I had always looked out on a peaceful and beautiful world, and felt serenely rich.

Now I had been made to see myself as I had been revealed by scientific research, without bathrooms, without running water, gas, electricity, paint; without grapefruit or salmon, and at the moment, without milk, eggs, butter, beef. With nothing but potatoes, onions, salt pork, and dry beans. Poor indeed!

But, however the researchers’ probing microscope could delineate my material condition, it could not pin down my mood; for it changed after a bit, to something akin to hilarity.

It was with grim good humor that I saw my compass needle swing back to its old true north and the reaffirmation that there was more to life than eating and drinking and having things. Life was a matter of spirit as well as body, however it may have been changed by steam heat, plumbing, new cars, and fruits out of season. What was it that had made life worth-while through all these years of struggling with Fate on an abandoned farm, trying to transform milk and potatoes and salt pork and onions into the glowing cheeks and fun of youth, the placid and serene satisfactions of conservative middle age? It was the zest of battle that had led us on—the struggle for supremacy over the forces of Nature. What would life be if we had nothing to work for, nothing to plan for, nothing to figure on, nothing to sweat over? If someone else took all the stress and strain away, would not the joy of achievement go with it? It wasn’t a matter of bathrooms and gas and paint after all.

I saw myself in clearer vision and my convictions in sharper perspective. A paternalistic government had reached out its hand and tried to take all responsibility away from me. It had tried to persuade me to surrender all the zest of battle, all the glory of conquest, for the sake of material ease. But I wasn’t going to be fooled. I wasn’t going to let my rugged, philosophical husband be changed into a robot.

I jumped to my feet, stirred up a fire in the kitchen stove, and started to work getting supper. Onion soup, upside-down apple pudding, maple syrup trimming, and the last bottle of tomato cocktail in the cellar. They came in for supper, faces glowing with health, cheeks whipped pink by the wind, and eyes brightened by the fresh air. With appetites born of outdoor work and play, they attacked the soup and called it good.

As they ate, I told them about my thoughts of the afternoon—about individual freedom and individual responsibility, about limited government versus paternalism, about the real meaning of freedom of choice. Finally, waxing more eloquent as my enthusiasm grew, I ended my monologue with what almost amounted to a toast: “If I had to choose between eating soup made of onions and potatoes and plain salt pork, nothing else, three times a day, 365 days in a year for the rest of my natural born life, or having government agents coming into my kitchen to sit around filling out forms in the name of deluded paternalism, I know which I’d choose. Liberty And Onions!” []

The makers of the Constitution . . . sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.


Justice Louis D. Brandeis, Olmstead v. U.S., 1928