Curtis Dahlgren
Common Sense can be a Paine sometimes
By Curtis Dahlgren
February 2, 2023

[published January 22, 2019]

"Common sense is in spite of, not as the result of, education." – Victor Hugo

"Wisdom is the power to see behind a tree." – old Indian chief

"Common sense is the widest understanding possible of the relationship of common things and our relationship to them . . . Your ancestry should be an inspiration, not an alibi." – William Dempster Hoard (1836-1918)

SO SAID A FARMER. Hoard had no formal education beyond eighth grade, and was an unapologetic farmer by trade (as were several of our Presidents). "The Life of William Dempster Hoard" is the name of the book, and what a life! Promoted as a prospective gubernatorial candidate by the Milwaukee Sentinel. Elected governor of Wisconsin in 1888. Only served one term because of his promotion of English-as-first-language in all schools in Wisconsin. Founded a local weekly newspaper, now a daily. Founded the Hoard's Dairyman magazine, also still in circulation. Almost single-handedly sold modern husbandry methods, including the introduction of alfalfa to the northern states. Appointed to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents (1907). Turned down the job of Secretary of Agriculture. Was the most frequently-heard and well-received speaker on farming at forums and conventions across this country and Canada. Unanimously chosen as Wisconsin's Most Distinguished Citizen in 1915. Lived to see English-first be accepted as "common sense." First man to have a monument erected to his memory for service to agriculture, on the campus of the University of Wisconsin.

"Hoard's opponents [in the 1880s and 90s], seeking to kill his popularity with ridicule, coined the expression, 'The Cow Candidate,' giving it much publicity. But this term of supposed derision acted as a boomerang, for all over the state the young men of the party took it up and there was never a meeting at which Hoard was present but that there was a full chorus of cow bells." – George Rankin, biographer

In that by-gone era, offices sought the person, not the person the office. The Sentinel editor chose to "nominate" Hoard for governor without consulting him, or the Party. As Rankin put it: "Rublee had grown weary of the high-handed methods of the old Republican 'ring,' and he was scanning the political horizon to see if he could not discover a likely gubernatorial candidate, one, preferably, who had never been associated with the political life of the state.

" . . After Hoard made his decision to become a candidate for Governor, he and his friends got together and worked out a plan of campaign along lines that had never been employed before and which, in the final reckoning, completely out-generaled the 'old-line' Republicans who opposed him. . . Hoard had always been a thorn in the flesh of the 'Old Guard.' They accepted him because they had to accept him, but they were not in sympathy with him or his purposes. . . The only aristocracy he recognized was the aristocracy of intellect. He had no patience with those who constantly boast of their ancestry; he said they reminded him of the potato plant, the best part of which is under the ground."

Hoard was very jealous of the relation of farming to education and the rating the occupation was given compared to the "genteel" professions. And he provides the perfect example of the self-educated person versus the "graduate" of today's K-12 schools and beyond. Rankin:

"Men have often speculated as to what Hoard would have been had he had the advantages of a college education . . Dean H.L. Russell of the Wisconsin College of Agriculture once [said]: 'Might it not have spoiled him in many ways? Might it not have destroyed that imaginative quality and philosophic insight which is so often a native talent and which so frequently is dulled and rendered commonplace by the rut into which the mind may sink when it is made to follow an outlined curriculum?' . . .

"Hoard claimed that the present educational system is built from the top downward instead of from the bottom up. . The little 'red schoolhouse' or the 'people's college,' as he called it, must receive first and every consideration from those in charge of our educational work . . . He discounted the thin veneer of scholastic training that is sometimes mistaken for culture. He held that many college graduates are merely drugged with small doses of intellectual laudanum and that, until such time as its influence wears off, they are unable to adjust themselves to the ordinary duties and responsibilities of life . . [and] though self-instructed, he was in no wise superficial, merely bespattered with erudition, but one of the most scholarly men of his time."

The Madison Democrat said: "Yes! Let there be a monument to W.D. Hoard, and let it be erected in honor of the most distinctively American character since Abraham Lincoln . . . It took [World War I] to bring clearly before the people of Wisconsin and the nation that a common language is necessary and imperative to our country's welfare."

P.S. A few words more. I was born in Rockford, Illinois, but lived 38 years at Fort Atkinson, the home to more than a few outstanding people. One was David Keene, a leader in the NRA, CPAC, and other conservative circles. The winter 2021 Wisconsin magazine of history published a cover article about him, "Republican Game Changer." A few excerpts:

"When State Senator Frank Panzer, a Republican so old-school that he was born during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, died in 1969 . . . GOP primary voters upended expectations by nominating a 24 year old right-wing firebrand [David Keene]."

Keene didn't win the seat, but went on to work for Vice President Agnew, and the rest is history.

PPS: The rest of the story: My brother John was almost like Forest Gump, the way he ran into significant people. He was Jefferson County GOP chairman years ago, and started the young Republican club at Ft. Atkinson high school, and David Keene was a charter member of the group. My brother also ran into three Presidents. Well, the first one ran into him; Hoover made a campaign stop in Rockford and the train stopped right by my parents, so the sitting President came down to hold John, who was born in 1932. Then when Ford was a congressman, he spoke in Waukesha. He went outside and John and another chairman went out to chat with him. John saw Reagan speak in the 1960s, but didn't meet him.

My brother was at Fort Belvoir in the 1950s and his job was driving officers around Washington. One day one of his passengers was Truman, who said to John (paraphrased), "If anybody gives you any guff around here, tell 'em old Harry says to knock it off." It was a Forest Gump moment. BY THE WAY, IN 1980 my father and I gave $20 to Reagan's Wisconsin primary campaign, which was a critical one. We got invited to the Gipper's inauguration and Gala, but couldn't afford to go. If I could get a Mulligan on that one, I would have found a way to get one of us there.

© Curtis Dahlgren


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Curtis Dahlgren

Curtis Dahlgren is semi-retired in southern Wisconsin, and is the author of "Massey-Harris 101." His career has had some rough similarities to one of his favorite writers, Ferrar Fenton... (more)


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