Carole Owens: Berkshire cheese and comity, to go
President Obama recently resurrected "Big Block of Cheese Day." In 1837, to dispense with a big block of cheese received from an ardent admirer in New York’s Oswego County, President Andrew Jackson issued an invitation for anyone and everyone to come to the White House, eat cheese, talk to their president, and his cabinet. That gift of cheese, all 1,400 pounds of it, was an imitation of the original made for President Thomas Jefferson.
In 1802, under the direction of the Reverend John Leland, an entire community donated every ounce of milk produced on a given day. With it they made the first big block of cheese. All 1,235 pounds of it came to the White House from Cheshire Mass.
There is more than cheese in the Berkshires that could help today in Washington D.C. It is something that has made sense to Berkshire residents for over 200 years. Whether outlanders know it or not, it is what makes The Berkshires seem "so nice." It is a lesson handed down to us from 18th century ministers.
True, there was opposition to the Congregational ministers in 18th century Berkshire. In almost every Berkshire town, ministers were refused payment in cash and in kind, "treated with" (negotiated with) to change the gloom, doom, and severe judgments of their sermons, and finally dismissed.
While the reports of the squabbles are accurate, it is not quite fair to leave it at that. Amidst the strenuous disagreements, the same Congregational ministers gave their members an ideal that Berkshire residents have embraced from that day to this; a principle underlying the true spirit of Berkshire County.
The town (or village) was the center of New England life in the 18th century. To this political construct the ministers brought the ideals of order and unity. There were rivalries, conflicts, and almost insurmountable practical problems as they tried to hack civilization out of the wilderness.
In counterbalance, the ministers offered this: never abandon civility; never permanently divide community.
For example, members were brought to task, could even be excommunicated, for uncivil language, fomenting fights, and just plain surly behavior. In the run-up to the Revolutionary War, fights among Congregational Church members were so emotional that insults rose to the level of slander, and often turned physical.
In response, Reverend Thomas Allen held "reconciliations." Members rose and pledged to live in harmony with each other even when there was not perfect agreement between them.
It was recognition of the truth that when the current "hot button" issue was resolved, the citizens of Pittsfield still had to live and work together. That was the ideal, the underlying principle: fight the issue not the person.
Historian Richard Hofstadter called it "comity." The similarity to the word community is more than coincidence; it is derivative. "Comity exists in a society to the degree that members have a basic minimal regard for each other." That regard dictates behavior. When opposing groups stand-off, one side seeks to defeat the other, but neither side seeks to crush the opposition.
As Hofstadter wrote, "Neither side seeks to deny the legitimacy of the other’s values, or inflict extreme or gratuitous humiliation." They do not because they know that community life must go on after the current political battle is fought. In the heat generated by any one issue, they do not forget that the opposition is comprised of neighbors, relatives, fellow workers, and friends.
Regardless of the seeming importance of the issue, the basic humanity of the opposition is never forgotten. It is the opposite of the position taken when declaring war. In that instance, the first step is to destroy the humanity of the enemy, to demonize the other side in order to justify killing. War is the abandonment of civility, the destruction of the enemy’s community, the opposite of comity.
The Congregational ministers meant to promote courtesy and considerate behavior within a New England town because it was formed for the mutual benefit of all its citizens. The goal was to stay together in harmony, despite differences, because staying together was more important than how any single issue was resolved.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Washington D.C. could import from Berkshire more than cheese; could import the lessons of our 18th century ministers? Our representatives seem to have forgotten the importance of civility, the strength of community, in short, comity. If now, we also, in our Berkshire town meetings and select board meetings, are starting to forget the defining lesson of our past; let us be reminded. My sister stated the concept of comity in the simplest terms: every human being deserves dignified response.
Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.
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