Book Review: Founding Gardeners

Summary From Goodreads: For the founding fathers, gardening, agriculture, and botany were elemental passions, as deeply ingrained in their characters as their belief in liberty for the nation they were creating. Andrea Wulf reveals for the first time this aspect of the revolutionary generation. She describes how, even as British ships gathered off Staten Island, George Washington wrote his estate manager about the garden at Mount Vernon; how a tour of English gardens renewed Thomas Jefferson’s and John Adams’s faith in their fledgling nation; how a trip to the great botanist John Bartram’s garden helped the delegates of the Constitutional Congress break their deadlock; and why James Madison is the forgotten father of American environmentalism. These and other stories reveal a guiding but previously overlooked ideology of the American Revolution.

Founding Gardeners adds depth and nuance to our understanding of the American experiment and provides us with a portrait of the founding fathers as they’ve never before been seen.

I was a few days late finishing this one up for Nonfiction November but well worth it. This book examines the role that gardening (and we can expand that to include “agriculture” in general) played in the thought process of four of the Founding Fathers of America: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. There are other names from the period included in lesser detail here such as Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, in the years encompassing the 1770s through the 1820s primarily.

It may seem an odd choice, but I think this will be one of my top 10 books of the year; I enjoyed it that much. The author is able to marry glorious descriptions of plants found here in America with the overall theme that agriculture influenced much of the thinking of this group of revolutionaries who built the structure – political, governmental and to some extent economic and social – that runs the US today. It’s easy to forget, I think, that even though there was a vast ocean between America and Britain, these countries were intertwined for centuries before the US Revolution occurred. The British fascination with plants and garden design, as well as larger political and socioeconomic concepts about landowners and workers, urban and rural environments all influenced thinking as America ventured forward into independence. This is also an era in which, particularly in America, land and agriculture were the keys to success. While Britain was inching towards the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, colonial America really had no industry to speak of. It was with the idea that America could and should become an agricultural powerhouse that the founding fathers based much of their thinking.

All four of the men Wulf focuses on in this book were landowners. Jefferson and Washington are probably the best known, with their holdings at Monticello and Mount Vernon, but Madison’s Virginia plantation at Montpelier, as well as Adams’s smaller (although still 100+ acres) estate were all sizeable holdings. All four men were interested in seed varieties, soil improvements, crop rotation, and garden design and estate planning. (And as a personal note, I now really feel the need to visit all of these estates on an east coast tour. I grew up in Virginia so have been to the 3 estates in that state several times, and have visited the Adams’s family home as well. Note to self for post-pandemic travel planning.) The book follows a loose timeline that begins with Washington at the start of the War of Independence, and moves through Adams and Jefferson and finally Madison, who takes us into agricultural improvements of the early 19th century.

I particularly was enamored of the sections discussing the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase under Jefferson’s administration, with all the different varieties of plants (and animals) the exploration of those millions of new acres brought, and how Jefferson catalogued things while still in the White House, sending seeds to friends, and taking many new types of plants home with him to try in the gardens at Monticello. The sheer number of items that Lewis catalogued during the expedition, and the species that they were able to gain information on from the indigenous tribes is staggering.

My only issue with this book is that the author does not focus much on the slave population who were really responsible for all of the work on these landed estates. She does discuss the changing ideas towards slavery in the last 2 chapters of the book, but while all three of the Virginians used slave labor on their estates extensively, the contributions of Blacks to the growth of American agriculture are really downplayed. None of the estates, except for Adams’s, could have functioned without the use of this labor source, and while we can imagine how driven Washington was to complete landscaping for his front driveway in the middle of a snowstorm in March (which ultimately led to his death), let’s not forget that he also had a crew of slaves out in the same weather, likely with less clothing and less warmth and food waiting for them at home at the end of a day trying to dig holes in the frozen ground while it snowed. Their stories, however, are not recorded or focused on within the scope of this book, and I wished they had been.

If you are an early American history fan, or indeed one of gardens and garden design, I highly recommend this read. It is a wonderful blend of the marriage between the natural world of plants and the thought processes of the men who created the building blocks of what has become the United States, with approachable, beautifully written passages that will make you long for the scent of roses in June, a ripe gooseberry at harvestime, and the green canopy of shade trees in the summer.

Overall rating of 4-1/2 out of 5 stars.

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