Wednesday, June 08, 2011

What We're Reading: The Founding Gardeners

Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners, a fine book on the history of horticulture, was reviewed in this blog last year as one of my favorite books of the year. In her new book, The Founding Gardeners , Wulf looks at the passion for gardening in the lives of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Like The Brother Gardeners, this is a book of original and meticulous historical research. Beautifully written and designed, it is another delight for those who enjoy reading about the social and historical nexus between politics and horticulture. Wulf writes, “The founding fathers have often been cast as the haloed demigods of the American Revolution---some cerebral and literary, others brave and heroic----but what has long been missing from this picture is their lives as farmers and gardeners, which both reflected and influenced their political thinking and patriotism.” These connections are the substance of what Wulf explores in this book. The case she makes for the importance of gardening in the lives and thoughts of these men is compelling, and will perhaps come as a revelation. I’m not sure how many of us would go so far as to agree with her that it is “impossible to understand the making of America without looking at the founding fathers as farmers and gardeners,” but she has left this reader with no doubt that looking at these men in their character as gardeners enlarges our understanding of their thoughts and actions while giving us a charming view of late American colonial life and life in the early republic.


Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Adams’ Peacefield are homes and gardens that have been preserved to our day. In addition to the physical sites, the archives at these homes--as well as the diaries, journals, and correspondence of their owners--allow the author to explore the ambitions of the founding fathers in some detail. One gets from this book a different sense of the relationships among these figures. They didn’t just share political affiliations; they were friends who shared a much broader spectrum of interests, both practical and aesthetic. Gardening and farming were certainly an important part of that. For the plantation owners, horticulture was the source of livelihood, wealth, and happiness. These bonds were demonstrated in the plants they exchanged, the gardening books and knowledge they traded, and the experiences they shared.


For this reader, however, coming from a recent immersion in some of the immediate history leading up to the American Civil War, there are things troubling in this pastoral of the founding fathers. They banished formality, artifice, and hierarchy in the garden and wanted their gardens to embody “ideas” about their country and democracy. But realizing these visions, building gardens that featured American flora from all the states and symbolized the new country’s union, creating gardens that celebrated the wildness of the American landscape, was possible because Washington, Jefferson, and Madison owned slaves. Slaves dug and hauled earth and built the landscapes, they constructed the tiers and paths, planted the trees and shrubs and flower beds, and tended the gardens and fields. From Wulf’s exposition, it is apparent even at this early date that there are two incompatible cultures coexisting in the new nation, and that one of them is not a democratically viable way of living. The price that had to be paid for accommodating slavery in the U.S. Constitution was, in the end, enormous. It is difficult to be sympathetic to the oft quoted and temporizing “conflicted feelings” of founding fathers who said they didn’t much like slavery but were willing to lead lives of wealth and privilege at the expense of those they owned. Wulf’s story makes you much more sympathetic to the one gardener who was a New Englander, the one so often accused of not being a true republican, John Adams. He was not as wealthy as his Virginia compatriots, but his passion for gardening and the happiness he found in it was never realized by slave labor.


It may be born of personal sensitivity to irony, but I found the story of the early history of Washington, D.C. and the White House garden to be amusing. It tells us much about the attitudes of antebellum America regarding the idea of centralized federal power. George Washington and his planner, Pierre L’Enfant, had a vision of Washington, D.C. as a grand capitol city, but Washington was unfortunate. His immediate successors, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were not the right people to entrust with the realization of this vision. The plans for a garden surrounding the White House languished under Adams, its first tenant, who was indifferent to this southern swamp, and suffered further from Jefferson’s philosophical antipathy to Washington, D.C. ever becoming anything more than a modest and rather austere republican village. Contrary visions of the national government and regional rivalries kept Washington a slow-growing city, a place of widely spaced government buildings and poor public accommodations and transportation. Rather than finding beautiful gardens or horticultural adornments, the visitor to Washington encountered a landscape where building debris from desultory construction littered the public spaces. Pennsylvania Avenue remained for years a wide sluice of mud in the rainy season, where the carriages of government officials, senators, and congressmen got stuck and help was distant. Foreign ambassadors were horrified by their posting. Unlike the gardens of the founding fathers, Washington, D.C. told a different story, one that spoke of the ambivalent relationship between citizens and their government in this new nation. In some ways it is an ambivalence that remains after all these years, even though Washington eventually acquired the beautiful gardens appropriate to an imperial city.


Perhaps there is less a miscellany of plant origins and cultivation in this book than Wulf’s previous work, but that is more than compensated for by the remarkable research that unearths original and engaging details of the gardening lives of our founding fathers.

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