Founding Gardeners. Andrea Wulf. 2011. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 349 pages. $30.00. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-307-26990-4.
This book has a lengthy prologue and nine chapters. The prologue emphasizes the work of Benjamin Franklin and how his interest in crops entered into his work as a diplomat. Benjamin Franklin placed plants and farming at the heart of the struggle of the country to become independent and self-sufficient, knowing that the vast resource of land and reliance on agriculture could be turned to advantage in creation of the nation. The chapters examine the founding of the nation and the lives of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison through their gardens and agricultural involvement.
The first chapter is “The Cincinnatus of the West” and addresses George Washington’s American garden at Mount Vernon. In New York during the Revolutionary War, as he prepared for the British onslaught in a bay south of the city, Washington wrote to his estate manager, a cousin, at Mount Vernon and outlined the trees that were to be planted. Mount Vernon was to be an American garden in which no English trees were allowed. Letters from the estate manager gave detailed reports on the progress of the grounds while Washington was at war. Washington recommended that encamped troops grow regimental gardens to produce rations and for therapy. Trees became a striking symbol of the Revolution. Many old trees in Boston and in other towns across the Colonies were designated as Liberty Trees. Ships carried flags depicting a pine tree. Soldiers marched in Philadelphia with their heads adorned with tree branches as a sign of hope. Like Benjamin Franklin, Washington saw the wealth and independence of the country in its cultivated land. Other than in a short stopover on the way to Yorktown, Washington was not able to visit Mount Vernon for the eight years of the War and for two years afterward. After the war, he stated that he would rather be at Mount Vernon than in the seat of government. Mount Vernon was a source of livelihood but also was an expression of his social standing. The estate grew to 8,000 acres. He cleared land toward the west from the farmhouse to give a view of fertile lands. An inheritance by his wife allowed for expansion of the farmhouse. He tore up the plantings and driveway designed by his estate manager and designed an estate fit for a Virginia planter and revolutionary. Plantings included species from the North, South, coastal plains of the East, and mountains of the West as well as trees from forests on his estate, thereby creating a truly American garden. However, he used a British guide, Philip Miller’s Gardening Dictionary, as a reference in selecting and growing American species. The rest of the chapter continues with the development of the garden at Mount Vernon.
The second chapter is “Gardens, Peculiarly Worth the Attention of an American” and covers the tours by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams of gardens near London in 1786, while they were in England negotiating a trade treaty. During their time in London, Jefferson and Adams toured countryside gardens, such as Wooburn Farms and Stowe. Jefferson saw that the English gardens surpassed all on the earth and that he could embrace them without feeling unpatriotic since the gardens were populated with American plants and shaped by ideas of liberty. Adams and Jefferson would lay out gardens in the United States inspired by what they saw in England.
The third chapter is titled “A Nursery of American Statesmen,” which deals with the constitutional convention in 1787 and garden visits. Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and other delegates visited and relaxed in gardens. These visits may have influenced how some delegates voted to form the Union.
The fourth chapter is “Parties and Politicks” and covers Madison’s and Jefferson’s tour of New England, a tour that mixed botany and politics and led to a new political party to oppose the Federalists.
The fifth chapter is “Political Plants Grow in the Shade” and is about the summer of 1796. It covers the agricultural and political activities of Adams, Madison, Washington, and Jefferson. Adams’ farm was about 500 acres and was small compared to the thousands of acres possessed then or later by Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.
The sixth chapter is “City of Magnificent Intentions” and deals with the creation of Washington, DC, and the White House during the presidencies of Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. The chapter deals with the politics of this period and with the different views of the presidents in the creation of the Capitol and its grounds.
Chapter seven is “Empire of Liberty” and covers the western expansion during Jefferson’s presidency. Lewis and Clark individually and during their joint travels collected live specimens and preserved plant and animal specimens and sent them to Jefferson, who in turn sent specimens to museums, kept some, and grew crops, such as corn from an Indian tribe, on his farm.
The eighth chapter is “Tho’ an Old Man, I am but a Young Gardener” and addresses Jefferson’s time at Monticello after his return from Washington. The text deals with Jefferson’s manicuring of forests, planting of thickets of broad-leafed evergreens, and planting of orchards, vegetable terraces, and pasture grasses. Washington’s and Jefferson’s huge estates were contrasted with Adams’ so-called Lilliputian Plantation, where Adams relaxed, studied seaweed, and got involved in the establishment of a botanic garden at Harvard.
The ninth chapter is “Balance of Nature,” which is about James Madison at Montpelier after his presidency. In contrast to the other chapters, which are dominated by political and diplomatic activities of the early presidents, this one is devoted almost entirely to Madison’s gardens. Madison’s gardens included terraces of flowers, described as a paradise of roses, and staged forest as the main feature. In several addresses to the public and to agricultural societies, Madison had helped move attitudes of the country from cutting trees with the intent of improving the health of people. It was believed that deforestation improved the climate, making summers cooler and winters less harsh and relieved the air of a gross putrescent fluid emitted from the forests. As attitudes changed to the concept that trees absorbed unhealthy air and discharged highly purified air, Madison called for plantations of trees, stating that forests were a national treasure. However, he continued to fell trees to bring land into cultivation to make a living, but he believed that people must find the symmetry of nature. He also had hotbeds for cucumbers and presumably a hothouse for rare fruits and vegetables that had been sent to him. The author states that Madison had an immaculate slave village that was part of the landscape design. The chapter also includes brief references to the agricultural and botanical activities of the other Founding Fathers after their presidencies, noting that visitors by the hundreds of thousands see their gardens today.
The book has 16 pages of color illustrations of paintings of gardens, and in addition the chapters have line drawings and maps that show scenes and plans of Washington, DC, Jefferson’s Monticello, Madison’s Montpelier, Adams’ house in Quincy, MA, Washington in his fields, plates of native trees and shrubs from the presidents’ grounds, and various scenes from the countryside near Jefferson’s home in Virginia. A detailed listing of notes that document statements in the text, a selected bibliography of references consulted by the author, credits for the illustrations, acknowledgements, and index occupy the last 135 pages of the book.
This book is an interesting history of the politics of the Founding Fathers before, during, and after the founding of the country and of the importance of gardening in their professional and private lives.