In this lively and deeply researched history, Andrea Wulf (best known for her prize-winning chronicle of 18th-century English gardening, “The Brother Gardeners”) examines the botanical pursuits of America’s first four presidents. Those men were, it turns out, obsessive gardeners, but gardening was much more than a preoccupying hobby. It was central to their vision of the American republic. Jefferson and Co. believed that the agrarian life would safeguard the new republic’s virtue and that the future of America lay with the independent farmer. As Washington summed up, “Our welfare and prosperity depend upon the cultivation of our lands.”
Wulf ingeniously connects that highbrow political philosophy to the founders’ personal passion for horticulture. When the founders traveled abroad, they eagerly toured gardens and took detailed notes. They read treatises such as Philip Miller’s “Gardeners Dictionary” and John Bordley’s “Sketches on Rotations of Crops.” They swapped seeds with the zeal of sixth-graders trading Silly Bandz. The founders’ vision of an agrarian republic, Wulf shows, was nurtured in their own gardens.
Not only did the presidents’ love of gardening shape their politics; the founders’ politics shaped their gardens. Washington, for example, planted only native species at Mount Vernon. Abigail Adams liked red columbine, which she termed a “humble citizen”; she would not allow crown imperials in her garden because “it bears to[o] monarchical a Name.”
There is a snake in this garden, of course: slavery. It was enslaved men and women who did most of the actual gardening at Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier. Wulf’s most sustained discussion of slavery concerns James Madison. Near the end of his presidency, Madison redesigned Montpelier’s gardens. He leveled the shabby slave quarters that his father had hidden behind a giant brick wall and built spiffy new slave houses at the center of his garden. Wulf astutely argues that Madison made this “radical gesture” because he wanted to present himself to guests and visitors as “a slave owner whose slaves were happy and well cared for.”
Wulf does not bring the same attentiveness to the role of slavery in the gardening lives of Washington and Jefferson. For example, she understates slavery’s centrality to the gardens of Monticello in her discussion of Jefferson’s storied vegetable garden. Jefferson grew dozens of beans, lettuces and peas: He was searching for the varieties that would thrive in American soil. This experimental gardening was, Wulf argues, no disinterested Enlightenment dabbling. It was horticultural politics, “practical and patriotic”: Jefferson was trying to find the kidney bean that would do best by his countrymen, and he believed that such agricultural advancement was more important than any bill he’d signed into law as president or any military exploits of the Revolutionary army.
Wulf passes over in one paragraph the slaves who allowed Jefferson to conduct these experiments. Because he dedicated his vegetable garden to patriotic experimentation, Jefferson provisioned his own dining room table in large part with produce purchased from slaves (who tended garden plots for their own use when they weren’t toiling for Jefferson). It is disappointing that these slave gardens do not figure more centrally in Wulf’s analysis of Monticello’s horticultural landscape. Jefferson’s vision of farming was, indeed, crucial to his vision of the republic. So, too, was his tortured relationship with slavery: Indeed, Monticello’s slave gardens encapsulate precisely how slavery liberated a class of liberally educated men to devote themselves to self-governance. A more searching discussion of the enslaved gardeners who freed up Jefferson to hold political office, experiment with kidney beans, and theorize about republics would have greatly enriched Wulf’s otherwise thoughtful account.
The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation
By Andrea Wulf
Knopf. 349 pp. $30