The Politics of Plants
The Founding Gardeners
By Cheril Lee
“I would love to say it was a purposeful endeavor,” admits historian Andrea Wulf, “but I stumbled over it when I did my previous book, The Brother Gardeners, about the British obsession with gardens, but also a lot about the garden revolution in the 18th century.” According to Andrea it was through American farmer and plant collector John Bartram, one of the book’s main protagonists, that she came across the founding gardeners.
While studying up on Bartram, Andrea discovered he had started transporting American seeds from Philadelphia to London in the 1730s, completely changing the English landscape. Bartram was also a close friend of Benjamin Franklin, with whom he exchanged plants and founded the American Philosophical Society.
Andrea hadn’t thought of Franklin as someone who was interested in plants until her research led her to find out he was in London sending seeds to America. “It’s almost like a barometer of his political beliefs. So the more Franklin starts believing independence is inevitable, the more plants Franklin is sending to America. Not flowers but plants—crops that might make America agriculturally and economically independent,” says Andrea.
Thomas Jefferson entered the picture after Andrea made a visit to Monticello, the third U.S. president’s plantation just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. She was following Bartram’s footsteps through the Appalachian Mountains, where he collected plants to send to collectors in Europe, and one of his stops had been at Monticello. Andrea had never seen the historic home and plantation and describes it as one of the most extraordinary moments she had while doing her research.
“I was standing on that 1,000-foot vegetable terrace and I just thought, ‘Hold on a second.’ Here is someone who is crafting his grounds as carefully as he’s crafting his words. You stand there and see the straight lines of vegetables combined with the majestic views over the Virginia landscape,” says Andrea. “It’s this combination of the useful and the beautiful that is uniquely American, in particular, if you compare it to the English garden.” She admits she hadn’t thought about Jefferson as a gardener at all because, in school, all she learned about were his political achievements.
Discovering Jefferson’s interest in gardening started Andrea thinking about who the Founding Fathers actually were. She discovered they weren’t just politicians but were, first and foremost, farmers and gardeners. Looking through Bartram’s papers, she found an invoice to George Washington who had ordered lots of plants from him. Later she found an account that James Madison had visited Bartram’s gardens. And then Jefferson, while he was writing the Declaration of Independence, had also gone to Bartram’s gardens.
“So they just kind of popped up and I started reading up on them and suddenly realized they define themselves foremost as farmers and gardeners,” says Andrea. “In a way, I think you can’t look at the making of America without looking at the Founding Fathers as farmers and gardeners.”
Each of the founding gardeners had his own area of expertise. Andrea explains that Washington was the best farmer in terms of making money. He was also a good land manager. She describes Jefferson as more “experimental.” Andrea says you sometimes have the feeling he didn’t care if something worked or not. He simply cared about trying stuff out. Madison, on the other hand, was the forefather of American environmentalism.
In a speech he gave in 1818, Madison talked about the balance of nature:But although no determinate limit presents itself to the increase of food, and to a population commensurate with it, other than the limited productiveness of the earth itself, we can scarcely be warranted in supposing that all the productive powers of its surface can be made subservient to the use of man, in exclusion of all the plants and animals not entering into his stock of subsistence.
According to Andrea, this was an incredible thing to say in 1818, at a time when most still believed that God had created plants and animals entirely for the use of humankind. Madison also put aside a bit of forest on his estate where no trees were to be cut down. Andrea explained this was the first protected piece of forest in America.
All of the founding gardeners regarded themselves as model farmers, and they knew they had more money than most Americans. In their letters, Andrea said they would talk about how they had to try crop rotation—the practice of planting different crops each season into the same area of land—because if it didn’t work out it would be okay for them financially. By choosing the right combination of crops, farmers could plant one crop that depleted the soil of nutrients and follow it up the next season by planting a crop that enriched the soil. A recent New York Times article explains, “In early American agriculture, only sophisticated farmers like Washington and Jefferson were using crop rotations in their fields. There was simply too much good land available. It was too easy to farm a piece and then move on when the soil was depleted.”
Andrea says her biggest surprise while conducting this research was finding out how obsessed these men were with manure. “John Adams, who is the American ambassador in London in the 1780s, describes in his diary how he’s driving out on the edge of a road and sees a pile of manure and he jumps into the pile of manure—teasing apart straw from the dung and is declaring, ‘My stinking pile is better than this.’” Andrea elaborates, “They are constantly trying to replenish the depleted soil in America because they’re realizing America can only be successful as a nation if it is producing the food they need.”
She was also impressed with the way these men used nature in one way or another in their fight for America. Andrea said they used nature and the wilderness in particular as something that knitted the nation together; that provided that transcendent feeling of nationhood. “Until then, the wilderness of America was seen as a kind of hostile environment—something you had to fight against and push away from you. With them it becomes an object of national pride, so they are asking artists to paint what Washington calls the ‘natural wonders of America.’ The wilderness becomes so celebrated that it’s worth having paintings of it,” Andrea explains.
To Andrea, gardening is still political today because it gives us control over our food production. It gives power to local communities. If you have a compost pile, you’re making a political statement because you’re not using industrial fertilizer. Or if you are a community-supported agriculture member, then you’re reducing carbon emissions and supporting your local economy by not buying from big, multinational supermarkets.
Walking through the forefathers’ gardens revealed a lot to Andrea about who these men were. The most important thing she learned was how Madison looked at the environment, “I find that absolutely extraordinary that in 1818 he can see nature as a fragile ecosystem,” she marvels. “This is still an America (at that time) with vast land and he’s saying ‘hold on we can’t go on like this,’ when there is so much still out there.” Adding, “That, for me, is one of the greatest lessons in my research.”
Andrea Wulf’s book Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation can be ordered at The Bookworm in Omaha or from your favorite, locally owned bookstore.
Cheril Lee is an Omaha-based freelance writer with a background in news reporting. She writes on a wide variety of subjects including arts, culture, nonprofits, health and education. Her articles are both informative and entertaining, bringing you an inside look into the subject matter. Her work has appeared in The Reader, Omaha Magazine and Metro Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @cherillee or read her blog at cherillee.wordpress.com.