Remembering Our Founding Gardeners

In her 2011 book, Founding Gardeners, British author and design historian Andrea Wulf indulges her personal curiosity about the connection between America’s political origins and its early leaders’ extensive and magnificent gardens. Her colorful exploration suggests that the evolution of agriculture and botany in the U.S. go hand in hand with the patriotic visions of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams.

Wulf’s depiction of these founding farmers is at once nostalgic and heartening, particularly given more citizen involvement in farming and a greater focus on the value of the natural world. The founding gardeners’ emphasis on simple living and self-sufficiency is a priority in the food movement today as well–a relevant reaction to the fear of an industrialized economy that drives Americans to extravagant lifestyles born of capitalistic inflation.

But fear is relative to the altruistic and visionary perspective that Wulf offers on these politicians. The gardens of Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are depicted as havens and respites from the stress of war, the strife of partisan disputes, and the drudgery of political life. Garden beds and political agendas merge into one identity and native plants become the centerpiece for the founding gardeners’ display of American patriotism.

Drawing design and layout inspiration from England’s famous gardens like Kew and Stowe–which were, ironically enough filled with American varietals after the American Revolution–Adams and Jefferson vowed to create distinctly different gardens from those of the country that once ruled them. Less orderly and defined by their variety, the gardens of the American leaders defied British control and influence through a display of native plants and shrubbery.

As Wulf defines the early American landscape through its plant life, she acknowledges that the terminology around “gardening” and “farmer” is nebulous and self-selective as the founding fathers were by no means farmers by profession. Nor did their lands all yield food. Among the four men, Adams appears to be most deserving of the title “farmer” as we would define it today, as he cultivated produce on his land well into his retirement from political life.

It is difficult to determine to what extent this history can be more romantically understood because of many present-day efforts to improve the quality, context, and understanding of the country’s food systems. The story’s wholesome, conscientious aura likely has as much to do current trends toward more localized agriculture and intentionality about food choices, as it has to do with the political trailblazers’ foresight for the farming future of this country.

One critical note that is necessary to the discussion of farming and productivity is the consideration of slave labor. While Washington did plant many trees with his own hands and Jefferson arrived in his garden earlier than his hired staff each morning, a great number of slaves were employed to accomplish the tasks that these gentleman farmers often dictated from their posts in Washington, D.C., New York, or Philadelphia. And while James Madison’s slaves were better treated than many others, the fact remains that many individuals were forced to cultivate the crops, landscapes, and visions of men whose aim it was to create a more equitable society. On this point, Wulf fails to unpack the inequalities within labor and human rights, both past and present. It must be acknowledged that farming, in a newly founded country based upon the principles of freedom and equality, was and still is wrought with injustice. Though this book was not designed to deal with this topic, slave labor can never be far from our thoughts when considering how we have and do farm in this country.

Founding Gardeners is a collection of Wulf’s exploration into the journals and letters of these four great American figures. It is a study spoken to her audience as if they, too, are historians. Her declaration, and at times metaphorical insight into the connection between landscape and patriotism, is the most intriguing element of this work. Ultimately her book brings new life into the story of our country’s origin and provides a unique way to relate our current efforts for food and freedom back to America’s founding.

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