Who would Johnny Appleseed Vote For?

Who would Johnny Appleseed vote for?

There is nothing more American than a Presidential political campaign.  Every four years Americans who love their country pontificate, cajole, and argue with their neighbors about which candidate will not destroy the republic, and watch televised political debates with the same level of intensity they bring to annual Super Bowl parties.  And when Election Day passes, their momentary feeling of glee or despondency quickly fades into battle fatigue.  So if I am going to go out on a limb and speculate on Johnny Appleseed’s political perspective, I’d better do it today, as in two weeks absolutely no one will want to read this post.

If cable television and the internet exist in heaven, perhaps Johnny Appleseed is watching right now and choosing sides.  Does he identify with Mitt Romney, who, like him, was a missionary for a Christian sect operating on the periphery of mainstream Christianity?  Or does he relate more to Barack Obama, who also spent much of his childhood with an absent father and in a financially unstable household?

When I teach the politics of early America to my U.S. History classes, I have to caution my students to not conflate the political parties of the past with our current ones.  The issues that divided the Republican and Democratic parties of the 1850s, for example, are quite different from the concerns of voters in 2012, and neither of the two parties today much resemble their 1850s counterparts.  Did John Chapman even vote? No voting lists with John Chapman’s name on them survive, but one early Knox County, Ohio historian claimed that he was one of the fifteen voters to take part in Owl Creek’s first local election.  But my question is posed playfully.  We do not know, for certain, whether John Chapman preferred the Federalist Party or the Democratic-Republican Party in 1810, or if he was inclined to support William Henry Harrison’s “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign over Democrat Martin Van Buren’s in 1840.

We can’t say anything with certainty about John Chapman’s political perspective, but we do know much more about the politics of those who have celebrated and retold his story over the years.  John Chapman may not have revealed to us whether he was a Harrison or Van Buren man, but in the one hundred and sixty-seven years since his death, his life and legend have been celebrated by both progressives and conservatives.

In the first one hundred years after his death, the Johnny Appleseed legend appeared to have its greatest appeal to political and social progressives and radicals.  W.D.

The November 1871 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine which introduced the Johnny Appleseed story to a national audience.

Haley, the Unitarian minister-turned-journalist who first brought John Chapman’s story to a national audience in an 1871 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine essay was a leader in the Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the Grange movement.  The Grange movement was the farmer’s response to the economic crisis they faced as a result of industrialization and the rise of monopoly power.  Grange members formed cooperatives to bolster the price of their produce, lobbied for regulation of the railroads, and the establishment of Rural Free Delivery of the mail.  “Faith, Hope, Charity, and Fidelity” was their motto, and they encouraged their members to “buy less and produce more.”  Haley saw Johnny Appleseed as a patron saint of the farmer frontier.

While the politics of the Grange were moderately progressive, the politics of Johnny Appleseed’s next great champion were quite radical for their day.  Lydia Maria Child was a feminist, anti-imperialist, and advocate of the rights of Native Americans.  She was also a prolific writer, and her book American Frugal Housewife was a best seller in the mid 19th century.  For poetry, she is most remembered for her Thanksgiving poem “Over the River and Through the Woods,” but she took on the subject of “Appleseed-John” in 1880.  She found in Johnny Appleseed a kindred soul, one who prized frugality, charity, and concern for the well-being of the most marginalized people in society as much as she did.

In the twentieth century, the people’s poet Vachel Lindsay celebrated John Chapman’s life in a series of poems. Lindsay at times appeared to aspire to be a twentieth-century version of Johnny Appleseed. He set off on several “tramping expeditions” across the nation with little money in his pocket, eager to meet ordinary Americans, and swap poems for food and shelter. Traveling across the nation, he gave recitals of his poetry in a frantic, populist style he called “High Vaudeville,” and many of his poems were choreographed and performed as dance. Lindsay combined a deep patriotism with a concern for the poor and dispossessed. He voted the socialist ticket, embraced pacifism, and had utopian dreams for his nation.  His best poem about the tree planter, “In Praise of Johnny Appleseed,” is the subject of another entry in this blog.

Perhaps the most radical champion of Johnny Appleseed was American Communist Party member Howard Fast, who made Chapman the hero of his first young adult novel, The Tall Hunter, in 1943.  After WWII, Fast became a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was imprisoned for three months for refusing to divulge the names of persons who had contributed money to a orphanage for the children of American anti-fascist veterans of the Spanish Civil War.  Blacklisted for years, many of Fast’s patriotic historical novels are now staples in American schools.

During the Cold War era, more conservative representations of John Chapman emerged.  When the Walt Disney Corporation made a cartoon of John Chapman’s life in the 1948 film Melody Time, they emphasized Chapman’s faith in God and the power of the individual to make a difference in the world.  In the Disney version, Chapman carried a Bible with him at all times, and no mention was made of the tracts of the New Church—a Christian sect deemed outside the mainstream of American Christianity—which he distributed freely as he traveled.

By the 1980s it became increasingly common to hear John Chapman described as an entrepreneur and successful businessman.  A writer for the American Fruit Grower rejected the idea that John Chapman ever gave away his products for free, but instead sold them at their market price.  “Johnny Appleseed was an entrepreneur, the kind of small businessman so much a part of the building of America,” the writer declared, “who conceived and executed a daring enterprise of growing and selling apple tree seedlings.”

With the end of the Cold War, Johnny Appleseed seems to have become a figure with champions on both the left and right.  Many Christians celebrate his deep faith and piety.  Children in Christian schools often recite the Johnny Appleseed Grace. Conservative champions continue to portray Chapman as a “successful businessman” who amassed a fair amount of wealth during his lifetime. (Chapman’s relative wealth or poverty at the time of his death will be the subject of a future blog post.)

But Johnny Appleseed has also been celebrated by the sustainable agriculture movement, by vegetarians and environmentalists, and others who are ambivalent about the march of global capitalism and the rise of big agriculture.

Finally, in his best-selling book Botany of Desire (2001) Michael Pollan presents John Chapman as a social subversive, bringing alcohol in the form of hard cider to otherwise “dry” frontier communities.  Pollan declared Johnny Appleseed to be “Dionysus’s American son,” and “a figure of the fluid margins, slipping back and forth between the realms of wildness and civilization, man and woman, man and god, man and beast.”

Americans of various political and social orientations have found in Johnny Appleseed’s story elements to celebrate and honor.  And I suspect future generations will take other lessons from his life.  Were John Chapman to descend from the sky tomorrow, would he be more comfortable in the crowd at an Occupy rally, or at Christian religious revival?  My hunch is that he’d be delighted to attend both.

One thought on “Who would Johnny Appleseed Vote For?

  1. I enjoyed this essay very much. I make my living performing one-man plays about famous people from history, including John Chapman. Your essay on how John is redefined for each generation is right on the money. My belief is that history is always told to fulfill a need of the moment. And you have pointed out how John’s image has changed to fit that need. Sustainability is the latest need, and so the writings on John will change and John will continue to inspire future generations.

    So many versions of John have been written down through the past 150 years, it is impossible to say which one is the most accurate. For me, that means it is difficult to satisfy everyone. What people learned as children occupies a special place in the heart. Adults want the image that comforted them as a child and maybe again as a a parent. John was also a storyteller which may explain how John evolved more into Johnny. I have noticed that teachers often prefer the myths about Johnny and are disappointed that I don’t sing the Disney song or talk about sleeping with bears. That does not mean the myth is completely false. There are too many nineteenth century reports that confirm he was a a bit odd.

    Lately, the opposite has been happening. Some adults who have tried to understand the man behind the myth have come to appreciate the complexity and worthiness of his religion and therefore would prefer to see me perform only as the more serious theologian. My belief is they are limiting John the same as the myth lovers are. John was both a crazy storyteller and a committed scholar. And that is what I try to portray.

    Thanks for putting John back in the spotlight. He deserves to be there even if he wouldn’t understand what I just said. .


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