Lessons from Gettysburg

Walkable Gettysburg
Photo by Jeremy Hess courtesy of the Gettysburg CVB

I’m in Gettysburg for a few days and the city, as you would expect, has much to offer.

Of course, Seminary Ridge comes to life when you see the Lutheran Seminary. The narrow streets and historic buildings leading to the edge of Cemetary Hill make it shocking to learn that only one civilian was killed in those three days of fighting despite the proximity of town to battle. Walking the mile of Pickett’s Charge, where 12,000 started out over that hopeless mile but only a few hundred managed to temporarily breach the Union line, brings life to the obvious courage and the athleticism of the men. There’s an easy 10 feet rise in the final 30 yards of the charge, where they would have been completely exposed and met by a five foot stone wall at the end of their run.

The local economy of the time was the traditional American family farm. That long-gone economic model held so many benefits for society in terms of encouraging a multi-generational approach to the land and to the importance of daily labor. The battlefields all hold stories of families that cleared, tended, maintained, and harvested with a view toward building a sustainable future in what was still a young country. By and large, they were successful and we would not have advanced from the Civil War to winning two World Wars without that agricultural vision.

However, while I’ve nothing against a healthy nostalgia for the family farm, I’ve always considered it unrealistic to bring it back in any large-scale sense.  You can family farm a niche crop or animal with great success.  However, family farming a mass production food product often involves too much competition from too vast of commercial enterprises.  Should this render the family business obsolete?

Certainly not, Gettysburg, here again, provides the example.  The old town offers grandfather-father-son law offices, multi-generation doctor’s offices, family-run restaurants, and, of course, family owned tourist traps of every size.  Seeing this diversity in the city put me in mind of this Allan Carlson suggestion:

…governments should favor family-owned micro-enterprises. The most socially disruptive effect of the industrial revolution was the way it severed the place where adults work from the place where adults live. Most of our current family questions—from loud disputes over gender roles to child care to low fertility—derive from this great disruption.

Remarkably, the 21st Century has been blessed by technologies that can help to restore the bond between workplace and home: notably the home computer and the internet. Accordingly, tax systems should favor new, home-based, family micro-enterprises. Financial bodies should mobilize capital, at favorable rates, for these family entities. State regulations should protect these family businesses from the depredations and intrigues of the big corporations.

From brothers and cousins shoulder to shoulder summoning the bravery necessary for Pickett’s Charge to small-town Maine boys fighting with their life-long friends from intimate one-room schoolhouses and holding Little Round Top with an audacious bayonet charge, Gettysburg demonstrates the power that comes from the small-scale connections.  It is all too easy to look at America today (or England, if you like their statistics better) and see we lack that fidelity to family and place.

Just as farmers around Gettysburg cleared out forest and rocks to make fields for their grandchildren, we would be wise to take some advice from Carlson and clear out places in our lives and our public policy for our future generations.  Maybe then, instead of harvesting a debt crisis, our progeny could be endowed with the inheritance necessary for the challenges of the second half of this Century.


P.S. The Allan Carlson quote comes courtesy of the self-described at-home mom and Catholic writer Erica Walter.



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  1. I have learned in Macroeconomics that politics plays the largest role in the economy’s growth or failure. A large number of government officials lose sight of the community that selected/elected them to the office they hold. They acquire tunel vision and focus on the larger financial gain/loss whether it be domestic or foreign. It is forgotten what, who and how a community establishes the economy and growth that best fits their way of living and production. A community is many families contributing to the growth of their spot on the “big map”.

  2. While it is true that big business has caused a decrease in the number of small mom and pop stores, the laws of supply and demand dictate that this must happen in a lot of cases. The world as a whole has become vastly more interconnected in the last century, and as transportation becomes cheaper and more efficient, the way we do business has to change as well. Farming inperticular cannot be maintained on a family farm and remain profitable as the only source of income a family has. Transportation costs and the market price for the good would make the opportunity cost of maintaining a farm to high, a larger farm would be much more efficient and have the resources to ship goods to a much larger market, therefore letting them set a better price. Family owned businesses do have there place and should be supported, but they would have much better luck in a market that favored a little more speciality such as a resturant, where the menu and service are not as easily reproduced and can be a bigger draw. Public policy for our future, as this article suggests is very important, especially in a small community, but it has to be tailored to the help the people, not just the businesses. The comunity and government has to be willing to work with businesses it has and hopes to attract to provide the best environment for its youth if it hopes to supports its people and economy.

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