George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison aren’t American heroes because they were farmers. But in her new book, Founding Gardeners (Alfred A. Knopf), the London-based historian Andrea Wulf, 43, argues that the founders’ love of gardening and farming shaped their vision of America. She spoke with assistant editor Erin Wayman.
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Why was gardening so important to the founding fathers?
The most obvious answer is that good crops were incredibly important to the economy and to America’s self-sufficiency. On an ideological level, the founders believed America should be an agrarian republic of virtuous citizens who were connected to the country because they worked the soil. America’s landscape also became invested with patriotism and provided a distinct national identity. Whereas Europe had antiquity and ancient ruins, America had to find something that was better in the New World than in the Old. Rugged mountains and untamed forest came to represent a country that wanted to see itself as strong and fertile.
How did agriculture influence the nation’s structure?
Jefferson believed independent farmers should be the foot soldiers of the nation. When he purchased the Louisiana Territory, several Federalists opposed this, questioning why they should spend money “for land of which we already have too much.” But Jefferson believed vast lands were necessary for his agrarian republic.
The English imported a lot of plants from the colonies during the 1700s.
When Jefferson and Adams went on a garden tour in England in 1786, they realized the English garden wasn’t English at all. It was populated with American shrubs and trees. Jefferson hated the English, but he had to admit they created the best gardens. It was only after he saw that the English garden was full of American species that he realized how easy it would be to create such a garden in America, and without feeling unpatriotic. It’s ironic that at the very moment the colonies declared their independence, the English garden was filled with plants from the former colonies.
You write that Madison was at the forefront of conservation. How so?
This was the greatest surprise in writing the book. Madison is not just the father of the Constitution; he’s also the forgotten father of American environmentalism. He tried to rally Americans to stop destroying the forest and the soil. He said for America to survive, Americans had to protect their environment. He did not romanticize nature as later generations did. He looked at this in a practical way, saying nature was a fragile ecological system, and if man wanted to live off nature, in the long term something had to change.
What would the founding fathers think of how Americans care for natural resources today?
I suspect they would find the recent turn toward vegetable gardening and local produce good. Jefferson believed in the independent farmer, with small-scale, self-sufficient farms. I don’t know if he would have said in the 20th century, Let’s go for full industrial agriculture. Jefferson and Madison hated cities, so they probably would have liked the idea of rooftop farming and urban gardening as ways for people to connect with the soil.
How is the early emphasis on gardening felt today?
I think Americans still have a strong connection to the land. It resonates with the idea of freedom. Compare this to England: English gardens are cute, with roses and little herbaceous borders. Here it’s more about size and ownership: This is my plot of land. It means I belong to this country.