Who knew that gardening could be such a political thing? That a gardening philosophy could have such an impact on the beginnings of a country and how its people conceived of themselves? Until I read The Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden by Andrea Wulf, I had never really thought much about American politics and gardening. That there is a connection is still amazing to me.

A number of the early founders of America were great gardeners, Thomas Jefferson, for instance. This is generally well known. What is not so well known is how revolutionary his gardening was and how that also played itself out in his politics and his vision of America. Wulf takes a look at not only Jefferson, but also George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, all great gardeners, all signers of the Declaration of Independence, all Presidents of the United States.

Early in this country’s beginning, a lack of labor combined with heavy duties and taxes by the British prevented the not yet United States from developing much in the way of manufacturing. Thus, forcing the colonists to rely on British goods and keeping them under the thumb of the king. So instead of developing as a manufacturing country, the roots of America grew in the soil. A vast country with rich and fertile land, the colonists took to the fields raising grain, corn and tobacco. Almost all the colonists lived off the land, and became self-sufficient which eventually allowed them to break away from British rule and become the United States of America.

So it was that George Washington, general and first president, was himself a farmer. And it was planning and tending his farm that kept him warm all those cold winter nights during the revolutionary war. When the latest march was finished and the newest plan against the British worked out, Washington would sit down and write long letters to his farm manger about what to plant, where to plant it and when it should be planted. Not only was he a revolutionary war hero but his garden too was revolutionary. Independence from Britain also meant independence from the nation of British gardeners. It meant using American plants instead of plants from Britain and Europe. It meant finding the beautiful that existed in this country and elevating it to an even higher status as being worthy of being not just part of a wild landscape, but part of an ornamental garden.

This choosing to create gardens using the plants of America was something Adams, Jefferson and Madison did as well. Sure, they would travel to Europe and get ideas about gardening and agriculture, but then they would go home and adapt those ideas to their native American soil. These men, especially Jefferson, believed the future of America was in agriculture. They wrote letters to each other and their farm managers and wives and children about compost and crop rotations, about vegetables and trees.

Jefferson installed an extraordinary vegetable terrace at Monticello. Instead of hiding away the vegetables like most estates did, Jefferson turned his into a gorgeous experimental garden in its own right. He obtained seeds of every kind and variety he possibly could from anyone and everyone and planted them and observed and tasted. His goal was to find the best beans, the best, corn, the best squash and then spread the word and seeds to other farmers. America was to be an agrarian Eden, a republic of hardy, moral men working together to create something great.

In the beginning of the country there were no political parties. This lasted until Hamilton ran for president. His vision of America greatly contrasted with Jefferson’s and friends’ agrarian one. Hamilton wanted roads and cities, trade and manufacturing, and during his presidency established a national bank, a move which Jefferson thought would be the end of everything that made America great. And so two parties formed. Which is really interesting because those seeds remain in the parties that exist today and is especially noticeable in Minnesota. The democratic party in Minnesota goes by the name “DFL” or Democratic Farm-Labor Party. It is the party that Jefferson and the others would likely find themselves agreeing with, though they would perhaps not be so keen on the social liberal part of the agenda. The republican party in the state is always on about business, trade, money, an agenda Hamilton would likely find familiar.

When it came to the building of Washington D.C., agrarian versus manufacturing politics played out there as well. Jefferson wanted a small town surrounded by farms. If he had his way the White House would be nothing more than a fancy farm house and the streets would be lined with trees and gardens and the city surrounded by fields. The other vision was one of broad avenues and grand architecture. In spite of Jefferson’s best efforts he mostly lost that argument. Though the presence of an organic vegetable garden at the White House these days harkens back to the past when we were all farmers.

By the time James Madison came along the fertile soil that had sustained the early colonists had begun to be depleted. The country was so large though that instead of taking care of the fields that had already been created, people started moving west, ploughing new fields. Forests were already disappearing and to Madison this was a travesty. Yes, this new country was large and full of resources, but that was no excuse to ruin one part of it and move on to ruin another part. Eventually we would run of out of room and then what? Long before Thoreau and John Muir, Madison began speaking out about the importance of conservation, of taking care of the fields, of saving forest land. Madison’s Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle was groundbreaking and at its publication amounted to a bestseller. It did not turn Americans into environmentalists overnight, but it began a movement that led to people recognizing that American forests were a national treasure.

As wonderful and revolutionary as the gardening practices of the Founders were, they still could not manage to bring themselves to rise above and see slavery as an evil. All of them had slaves. All of them worked their slaves on their farms and in their gardens. In creating a park lined with trees in front of his house, Washington made his slaves dig up full-grown trees in winter from the forest on the estate and move them to their new location. Madison was considered forward thinking when it came to slaves. He created a model village in the middle of his garden for a few of his slave families. They each had a small cottage and a small garden. The “village” was in full view of the house and was much admired by the constant stream of guests visiting Madison. The slaves, of course, had to pretend to be happy, always on display, always putting on a performance. Meanwhile, the rest of the slaves who worked in the farm fields lived in dingy cabins down by the fields, out of sight of the house and all the visitors. It will always be a disappointment to me that these great thinkers could never think their way clear of slavery.

Nonetheless, the early vision of America as an agricultural paradise lingers. These days even though the majority of Americans live in cities, we still have a view of ourselves as a nation of farmers. It is in the songs we sing about our country — amber waves of grain and fruited plains — and in the pride we take in our national parks and “purple mountain majesty.” It is in the upsurge in popularity of farmers markets, community supported agriculture and urban farming. It is in the pendulum swing from consumer capitalism to a movement towards self-sufficiency, homesteading, resource sharing, do-it-yourself alternatives. The vision of our founders still speaks to us, still captures our imagination, and still holds promise.

I had been wanting to read this book for ages so I owe Danielle for finally getting me to read it with her suggestion we read it together. Be sure to hop over and see what she has to say about it.

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