The Founding Gardeners: How the Revolutionary Generation Created an American Eden, by Andrea Wulf, William Heinemann, RRP£20, 384 pages
At one of those book awards dinners, the geranium-complexioned lady on my left asked me what, actually, I did? I owned up to writing a bit. “Oh!” she declared with a smile that would prune a rose bush down to a stump. “I try never to read books, but if I must, it’s horticulture, horticulture, horticulture.” She would love Andrea Wulf’s The Founding Gardeners, which reads like a stroll through an American shrubbery, along avenues of glossy-leaved mountain laurel (Kalmia) and magnolia grandiflora – both of which are densely over-planted in Wulf’s pages. When they aren’t those of slaves, the hands on the hoes are those of the patrician cultivators Washington, Jefferson and Madison and most of the gardening action is Virginian. The little plot of land in Quincy, Massachusetts, that was the Georgic retreat of John Adams gets rather scant treatment by comparison but that might be because Adams, like all of us who have ever attempted to make things bloom in New England against the onslaughts of a savage climate and the devastations of varmints, might well have discovered it’s no bed of roses.
Wulf’s history, though, has ambitions to be much more than weeding-time with the presidents. Its premise is the smart and true idea that horticulture and agriculture were, to the Founding Fathers, far more than just the hobby of bucolic gentleman farmers. Tending the soil was the mark of virtuous citizenship; husbandry the proper practice of free men. The link between botany and liberty was already commonplace by the time of the American Revolution. It had germinated (sorry about these metaphors) in 18th-century readings of Pliny and Cicero, with their evocations, at once poetic and stoic, of the Tusculan Villa – the place to which patricians would repair to shake off the contaminations of the vicious city and muse on the industriousness of bees. Rousseau had sentimentalised the idea of the restoration of human nature through communion with flora; and Hector St John de Crevecoeur, the Norman gentleman-soldier-turned-Hudson-Valley-farmer (who gets only the briefest mention in Wulf’s pages, albeit as the writer of the “bestseller” Letters from an American Farmer), had equated the formation of a new American personality with the translation of wilderness into bountiful acres. Add to this Benjamin Franklin’s boosterism (targeted at property speculators) for American acreage, George Washington’s career as a land surveyor and Jefferson’s compulsive scientific experimentation with fruit ’n’ veg, and you do indeed get the impression that gardening and agriculture were considered by the Founding Fathers as the nursery of republican virtue.
Wulf’s most engaging pages content themselves with picturing this loamy enthusiasm: Jefferson campaigning for the cultivation of sugar maples as a means of liberating America’s sweet tooth from British colonial imports; Washington creating an ornamental arrangement of entirely American trees and shrubs; the amazement of Jefferson and Adams at discovering how well stocked the Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith was with American cultivars.
But there is, in the end, only so much to be said on this subject, unless that is, the historian wants to consider the distance – both cultural and geographical – between the republican idylls of the gentleman agriculturalists and the hardscrabble tenantry busting their balls in some unforgiving upstate rockbed. This, however, is not Andrea Wulf’s scene. Instead she unpersuasively pushes the indispensable centrality of botanising to the shaping of American politics. In practice this means the presentation of potted episodes of political history alongside genteel botanising as if the former was conditional on the latter. The conflation of simultaneity with causality goes all the way ad absurdum when she suggests that it was a walk by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in the famous garden of the Bartrams on the outskirts of Philadelphia that got wavering delegates from North Carolina and Massachusetts to change their vote and end a dangerous deadlock. At least Wulf has the honesty to be embarrassed by the suppositiousness of this line of argument, commenting “we can only imagine that the delegates hoped that a day surrounded by America’s magnificent trees and shrubs would calm matters”. But her pages are full of “we can only speculate”: “Washington would have been able to smell the sweet fragrance” and so on.
At times, Wulf’s writing gets so floridly fragrant you long for the literary equivalent of skunk cabbage. “As winter passed the baton to spring and lilacs readied themselves for their scented bloom Thomas Jefferson ached for nature.” Whooah, steady on with those lilacs! More seriously, The Founding Gardeners could have used more reflection on ways in which horticultural fantasy skewed the American mind towards the entitlement of bounty – usually on the backs of the exploited. Wulf gets closest to this when she writes of James Madison’s slave cottages, designed to advertise his benevolence, set down in the middle of his lawns at Montpelier. (Jefferson actually did much the same thing for his house and kitchen slaves near his vegetable terrace at Monticello.) But Wulf fails to note the appalling disingenuousness of this racial Potemkin village; or to see it as symptomatic of the willed blindness of these founding gardeners towards the reality of both the labour and soil by which their plantings and their America were produced.
The unreality persists. The cosy myth of the family farm endures – and in some places, not least my own neighbourhood in the Hudson Valley, manifests itself in the family farms that bring their fresh produce to market each week in the growing seasons. But the larger reality is big agri-business; lorry-loads of industrial spinach, the grim production line of corn, headed for the high fructose syrup that shapes a republic of fatties; or for cattle feed with which the shackled cattle-burgers of America are crammed before slaughter. So when the Founding Fathers imagined their neat little furrows would burgeon forth a commonwealth of virtue, in this, as in so many other respects, they weren’t half kidding themselves.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor