Published in the Toronto Star, March 26, 2016
Our relationship with Americans is complex, but we are influenced by them and close to them in more ways than one. That is why I was fascinated to learn that among the original pack of Revolutionaries, the first four Presidents of the United States enjoyed a relationship that was woven together by a common interest in gardening. Yes, without horticulture the United States may never have come into being.
The book Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf is a fascinating look into the lives of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Together they helped to shape a country that would grow into the worlds’ most powerful nation, the principles of which are rooted in horticulture.
Here are the top 5 lessons that I learned about the founding of America:
1. Propagation of a Nation. During the Revolutionary War George Washington gave his Generals orders, “to make regimental gardens in order to produce vegetables for army rations.” He believed it would be healthy and comforting for his men – what we would call ‘therapeutic’.
One theme that resonates throughout the book is the ongoing struggle by Americans to remove themselves from the clutches of Britain, both politically and economically. Long after the war was over the new Americans worked hard to become economically independent. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1780 that, ‘Agriculture is the surest road to affluence and best preservation of morals.’
In other words, farming and gardening provided a path to independence.
2. Sugar Maples = Independence. Imagine the newly hatched nation of the American States (not ‘United’ until after 1783). The Revolutionaries were successful in pushing out the British in 1776 but minimizing their economic reliance on the Brits was another matter. They controlled virtually all of the sugar supply from the West Indies and the Americans paid dearly for every teaspoon, especially after the war. What to do? The ever innovative Thomas Jefferson developed the idea that Americans could ‘farm’ maple sugar by growing plantations of sugar maples across the nation. The sweet sap would be boiled down into maple sugar: problem solved. There were many plantations started and thousands of trees planted across the 13 original states, but only the ones in the northern states grew and produced maple sugar.
The process of extracting maple sap is time consuming and labour intensive. After several years of trying, the effort was deemed a failure. Even still, Jefferson wrote in 1787, ‘Botany I rank as the most useful of sciences’ as it bettered life – culinary, medical, economic and aesthetic.
3. Did a box of seeds clinch the deal on the Louisiana Purchase? On Independence Day, July 4, 1804 Jefferson celebrated the anniversary of the birth of the nation for another reason: he had just acquired 800,000 sq. miles of land from France through the Louisiana Purchase. It is a long story, but the fact is that Jefferson had dispatched James Monroe to France as a special envoy to engage the new emperor Napoleon in talks to acquire New Orleans. He sent Monroe with a box of American seeds, as a gift and gesture of friendship to the French. It was a warm-up for discussions to come and in the end the Americans got much more than they originally bargained for.
4. Lewis and Clark were on a horticultural mission to feed the new nation. It is a little known fact that the highly controversial expedition of Lewis and Clark in May 1804 was a horticultural expedition. As they trudged across the new continent to the pacific coast their primary responsibility was to gather seeds and horticultural information about plant husbandry from the native people. The result was America’s first botanical textbook, the Elements of Botany, a compendium of the horticultural lessons of the trip. New plants adorned the flower beds and vegetable gardens of America as a result of the two and a half year journey.
5. Garden Politics. Then, as today, the design of gardens reflected the spirit of the new nation. As one British gardener wrote in 1787, ‘there has been a close resemblance between the prevailing system in politics and that in gardening.’ If Britain manifested their politics by controlling plant growth with clipped hedges around vast views of countryside framed by formal gardens, the Americans took the more practical approach of planting equally vast apple orchards and native plant gardens enveloped by the untamed woods. ‘If America’s wilderness shaped its people’, so the argument went, ‘they too would be powerful, spirited and unique.’
All of this is to say that gardening and farming shaped a new country in interesting and powerful ways. In time the agrarians would form the Republican Party and the industrialists would form the opposing ‘Democrats’.
In 1819 one magazine reported that, ‘In no other country would heads of state return to their private lives to promote agriculture, botany and other useful sciences.’ Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison were founding fathers, to be sure, but founding gardeners also.