Founding Gardeners

A review of a book that examines the impact of nature and gardens on America’s founding fathers.
Founding Gardeners - News


Bartram's Garden, Wikimedia CC0 1.0

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation delivers an absorbing story for anyone who enjoys learning about American history and gardens. Author Andrea Wulf examines the actions and writings of founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison and finds a deep influence on the issue of man versus nature. She also explores the impact of their writings on the present day environmental movement. Ms. Wulf writes about the founders’ personal estates and how their designs reflect their largely agrarian visions of the future United States. Along the way she tells the fascinating story of the torturous writing of our second (and present) Constitution in Philadelphia. The delegates had been deadlocked on some key issues until after some of them visited the famous botanist John Bartram’s garden. Ms. Wulf also describes a tour by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to some renowned gardens in England, where they are startled to realize that a great many of the plants in England’s gardens are native to North America. (Many of those were obtained from the aforementioned John Bartram.)

We witness the establishment of Washington, DC out of swampland and the development over many years of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier, and John Adams’ Peacefield. (Ms. Wulf gives due credit to the slaves whose labor made most of it possible.) We learn about James Madison’s groundbreaking—at the time—ideas about the balance of nature and how humans can cause it to collapse unless they take action to prevent its degradation. Ms. Wulf engagingly brings all of this history and more to life and eloquently expresses the influence these men had on their country.

Founding Gardeners may inspire you to visit Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, where the National Historic Landmark is open to visitors year-round, except on city holidays.

~Barbara Rowley, Penn State Master Gardener, Berks County