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More than a Pastime

By: Guy Burnett
April 18, 2012

A book review of Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, by Andrea Wulf.

John Adams never liked being ambassador or even president as much as he liked his garden in New England. In July 1775, he penned a letter to his beloved Abigail on the importance of spending time in the garden, surrounded by the natural world: "Such excursions are very necessary to preserve our Health, amidst the suffocating Heats of the City, and the wasting, exhausting Debates of the Congress." Many of the Founding Fathers loved nature and used gardening as a respite from politics. InFounding Gardeners, historian Andrea Wulf focuses on four who were far more than casual observers of the natural world: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams. Using anecdotes, letters, and personal diaries, Wulf paints an intimate portrait of these men and their gardens.

As Washington lingers in the grounds at Mount Vernon "paint[ing] with trees," Adams retreats to his peach orchards, and Jefferson tinkers with the landscape of Monticello, it seems that gardening was for them more serious than a gentleman's pastime. Washington spent all the time he could in his garden at Mt. Vernon, landscaping, observing, and thinking about the new nation, all while doing the muddy work of digging and planting alongside his slaves. After the Revolution, numerous guests and admirers often visited the old general, where he would greet them in a "plain coat and mud-splattered boots." Washington made sure his plants were native species whenever possible, believing the promise of America lay partly in its natural resources. In fact, his garden was the first in the new nation to incorporate trees from all thirteen colonies—a symbol of the unity between them.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams built a strong friendship in their days as ambassadors in Europe, and spent a good deal of time visiting gardens, making notes and buying seeds. Both loved the celebrated garden of Stowe in the English countryside, where small temples were created to depict the ruin of modern society and celebrate the triumph of ancient virtue. This became an important theme for them, and they each wrote home extolling the virtues of the fledgling America over the hedonism of Europe. Jefferson opined that, "there is a great deal of ill to be learnt" on the continent, and that youth seeking education in the Old World should instead stay in America where ancient virtue had taken root.

A prolific gardener, Jefferson experimented with nearly every type of crop, flower, and tree. Jefferson studied horticulture for the sake of the practical and the beautiful, and his gardens at Monticello reflected this. While serving as president in Washington, D.C. (hardly more than a cleared swamp at the time), he kept a set of garden tools in his office in the White House, and would wander the grounds, making use of them to improve his surroundings. When he prepared Meriwether Lewis for his trip across the newly-purchased Louisiana territory, Jefferson made it clear to the explorer that he was to make a careful record of the "face of the country" including shrubs, trees, flowers, and all manner of vegetation. In what Wulf calls a "distinctly American glorification of the wilderness," the expedition found that the natural beauty of the land "would see the awakening of an obsession with rugged nature, a passion that instilled the American landscape with patriotism and is still part of the national identity today."

When not discussing how to run the nation, the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 engaged in lengthy conversations about crops, seeds, growing cycles, prices, and harvests. Wulf describes how at a particularly heated moment in the debates over the Connecticut Compromise, the convention reached an impasse over state representation. A group of delegates, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, set out to clear their heads with a visit to the garden of the renowned American naturalist William Bartram in Philadelphia. In Bartram's garden, flora and fauna from each of the states grew together in harmony, including Franklinia alatamaha, a species of tree named after Benjamin Franklin. Soon it became clear to the delegates that the new nation should grow and work together from the same foundation as the shrubs and flowers did in the garden. It was no coincidence that when the convention reconvened two days later, the Connecticut Compromise was reached, and the delegates found a new harmony for a time.

Founding Gardeners is a charming account of the founders and their devotion to the natural world. Washington found nature a source of comfort and beauty, while Jefferson thought that working the land would dispose Americans to civic virtue. Adams found his garden the most joyful part of his life both before and after his term as president, and James Madison extolled the benefits of farming for happiness. Even the urbanite Alexander Hamilton created a garden upon his retirement from politics and joked, "A garden, you know, is a very usual refuge of a disappointed politician." Each showed a distinct reverence for nature and the belief that studying it is essential to virtue.