Design historian Wulf (The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession, 2009, etc.) explains how the Founders brought a new nation and their own gardens simultaneously to fruition.
Surely, the author goes too far to say that “it’s impossible to understand the making of America without looking at the founding fathers as farmers and gardeners.” Yet, by the time she concludes her brilliant discussion of plants and politics, how the Founders’ enthusiasm for nature and agriculture, for gardening expansively defined, influenced and reflected their notions about government, readers will happily succumb to her boldness. Although she occasionally discusses Franklin, Hamilton and Benjamin Rush, Wulf focuses on the first four presidents, offering artfully composed, set-piece chapters on Washington’s intentional “horticultural union at Mount Vernon…the first truly American garden”; Adams and Jefferson’s educational, inspiring 1786 English garden tour; the model of harmonious, thriving plants from each state at Bartram’s Garden, nearby Philadelphia, which may have assuaged Constitutional Convention delegates, over half of whom were farmers or planters; Madison and Jefferson’s sly mix of botany and politics during their 1791 New England journey; and the portentous summer of ’96, which found each man tending his garden, pretending not to care about politics. As they carved gardens out of the American forest, the Founders understood their agricultural and aesthetic decisions also as political acts, fundamental to their larger task of nation building. Whether she’s addressing Washington’s plans for the new federal city, Jefferson’s unceasing renovations of his Monticello grounds, Adams’ obsession with manure, Jefferson’s ongoing argument with European naturalists over the merits of American flora and fauna or Madison’s pioneering concern for conservation and natural balance, Wulf’s scholarship, passion and pleasing prose make for a happy combination: a history book for gardeners, a gardening book for historians.
A fresh look at the Founders that charms even as it irresistibly convinces.