January 23, 2009

Henry Wallace's Chickens


Apologies for not posting much this week- a combination of illness, tiredness and being back at work led me to neglect the blog a little and tonight's article will not be a model of intellectual rigour. As I surfed the internet this evening, I found a rather interesting article on American Vice-Presidents- the job, turned down by many of the most notable citizens of the Republic, has been occupied sometimes by men whose conduct has excited disgust rather than respect. Most famously of all Aaron Burr left the Vice Presidency, fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton and was eventually prosecuted for treason. But there are ways of doing better after the Vice Presidency, succeeding more than Burr: one such success post Vice Presidency was Henry Wallace. Wallace was Roosevelt's second Vice President (1940-4) and a socialist: having failed to gain the Presidency for himself in 1948 and served a term as Secretary of Commerce, Wallace retired from politics and became an agricultural expert. He eventually bred a new type of chicken- a type that eventually became dominant in the agricultural chicken market.

Wallace's success in this new career prompts two thoughts. One is that Wallace was a uniquely American type of politician- he was the son of a former Cabinet member but before his first appointment to Roosevelt's cabinet (as Secretary of Agriculture in 1932) he was an innovative and successful farmer. Like Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Steven Chu or Alexander Haig, Wallace was a success outside as well as inside politics. As for example one would expect Rice to return to Stanford and continue her academic career, as Haig returned to command NATO and Chu will return to science, Wallace returned to agriculture. Perhaps as well though what Wallace's career demonstrates is that though Enoch Powell was right- that every political career ends in failure (and one might add that every career ends in retirement!)- that is not the end of people's productive and important lives. Wallace's subsequent career suggests to me the fallacy of assuming that anyone has one vocation or one career: that image is a falsehood. Wallace went through several transitions- he may have ended a socialist but he began a liberal Republican. We often assume consistency about people's lives by looking backwards through their lives- if we look forwards I think we see in Wallace an able man from outside politics coming into it for fifteen years and then leaving it and continuing to use his other talents, furthermore we see a person whose career was not exactly predictable- liberal Republican turns to Democrat and becomes too leftwing for Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman.

Wallace's career reminds one of how unpredictable careers are and how unpredictable history is. Henry Wallace deserves remembering in history not merely for his fairly successful political career- but for his amazing career as a chicken breeder.

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