Thomas Jefferson and the Child Labor Controversy

Letter To the Editor of Ithaca Times

Dear Sir or Madam:
My name is Michael Porterfield and I am a member of the Twelve Tribes community in Ithaca. During the past seven years I have lived in a number of our communities in the Northeast and the South. I am well acquainted with our culture and beliefs, so I felt that it would be good for me to write a letter, responding to the two articles that focused on us in the recent issues of the Ithaca Times (September 26, October 2, and October 16, 2001).
First, I would like to say that our homes are open in any town or city in which we live. We do not live isolated lives but in most cases we are on “Main Street, USA.” This is what we desire to do because we want our neighbors to observe the way we interact with each other and raise our children. In fact, this is what we are commanded to do in the New Testament.

Keep your behavior excellent among the nations, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:12)

So if anyone chooses to come to our house, they will not see a minister swathed in rich Geneva robes, preaching to some formal flock, but rather a humble, little people going about their daily lives trying to please their Creator and raise their children the way the Patriarch Abraham was instructed to.1 Which leads us to the issue of concern — Child Labor.
What the Ithaca Times (as well as several other newspapers) reported — that two of our communities were fined $1,000 for violation of a child labor law — is true. We did receive a fine and will be appealing the citation. However, I would like to raise a few issues to give the public better understanding as to what we were actually fined for and why we do not believe it is unjust.
First of all, what happened at the Common Sense Candle shop was this: Some community members were making natural beeswax candles at our cottage industry in Palenville, NY (Located in the foothills of the breathtaking Catskill Mountains, with the beautiful Catskill Creek running behind the property, Common Sense Candles is hardly a “sweat shop” for which child labor laws were originally enacted.). A resident’s teenage son was seen wheeling cardboard boxes across the property with a dolly. For this we were fined $1,000.
Likewise, when inspectors from the NYSDL showed up at our farm in Oak Hill, NY they found a teenage boy working with his mentor who was showing him how to install light fixtures. Again, we received a $1,000 fine for this. Both of these happened during the summer, when all other children who are not home-schooled are out for summer break.
To some these fines may seem absurd; others may feel that it is good to fine parents that have their children “work.” However, we feel that it is not just to fine a father (or his community) thousands of dollars for teaching youth respect, care, responsibility, and the benefits of good hard work. These things will only benefit them in later years.
Surely in a day when teen violence, adolescent pregnancy, and psychological disorders among youth have become part of a major societal dilemma, there should be more caution in discriminating against those who choose to train their children to do good deeds. And with today’s generation which has been labeled simply “X” due to their lack of identity, we must not scrutinize those who are teaching their children the age-old virtues of industry and frugality. What would the Founders of the Republic in which we live say about this? Would they approve? Let’s hear what the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, had to say about “child labor” to his fourteen-year-old daughter:

It is your future happiness which interests me, and nothing can contribute more to it (moral rectitude always excepted) than the contracting a habit of industry and activity. Of all the cankers of human happiness, none corrodes it with so silent, yet so baneful a tooth, as indolence [inclination to laziness]. Body and mind both unemployed, our being becomes a burthen, and every object about us loathsome, even the dearest. Idleness begets ennui [dissatisfaction], ennui the hypochondria [depression of mind and spirits], and that a diseased body. No laborious person was ever yet hysterical. Exercise and application produce order in our affairs, health of body, cheerfulness of mind, and these make us precious to our friends. It is while we are young that the habit of industry is formed. If not then, it never is afterwards. The fortune of our lives therefore depends on employing well the short period of youth. [Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson, March 28, 1787 in William J. Bennett, Our Sacred Honor (Simon & Schuster, 1997) p. 285]

What would Mr. Jefferson and the other Founders say of the American moral landscape today, only 225 years after they declared their independence from Great Britain? Could these men who mutually pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” have imagined fining a father $1,000 for teaching his child “the habit of industry”?
In one of the same issues of the Ithaca Times that had a story about us, I noticed an article entitled “Disorderly Conduct” subtitled “At Two Colleges, Drinking Grows Out of Control.” I wondered if others thought it strange that a small religious group was being accused for “child labor” while in the same town, a three-page article was written on the very real problem of alcoholism among young people, in which Sheriff Meskill said:

We’re at a constant stress level. It’s not correct, it’s not fair, it’s not safe, and it doesn’t provide the level of safety county residents should have. (Disorderly Conduct: At the two colleges, drinking grows out of control, Ithaca Times, September 26-October 2, 2001, p. 8-11)

The same article stated that seventy-six percent of Ithaca students reported that the social atmosphere of college promotes alcohol use, and ninety percent said they saw drinking as part of the school’s social life.
We could understand if the authorities of the state of New York fined us for allowing our children to get drunk while underage, vandalize property, use and sell illegal drugs, or shoot up their classmates and teachers, but we can not agree with fining parents for teaching their child the opposite of such negative behavior. For such has been the legacy of decent people for thousands of years.
We welcome questions and visitors at our home in Ithaca. We do not live isolated lives in some “compound” but right downtown with everyone else. Our doors are always open. We look forward to being an asset to the broader Ithaca community and we hope that we will be judged by our conduct and not hearsay and rumors. We would love to meet you.
Michael Porterfield

  • 1. Genesis 18:19

The Twelve Tribes is a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, composed of self-governing communities. We are disciples of the Son of God whose name in Hebrew is Yahshua. We follow the pattern of the early church in Acts 2:44 and 4:32, truly believing everything that is written in the Old and New Covenants of the Bible, and sharing all things in common.