Andrea Wulf, author of Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, (as reported in the Washington Post and other venues) believes the first presidents of the United States, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were revolutionary farmers as much as they were politicians. They loved farming and gardening so much that they gave it preeminence even when engaged in war and politics. Gardening or farming was central to their lives, and they were truly the first environmentalists. They believed independent small scale farms were the “building blocks” of the nation.
Wulf, in an interview for Nation Public Radio, described the founding fathers as obsessed with manure. In what Wulf believes was the first attempt by an American to make compost, Washington had a building constructed at Mount Vernon for the purpose of storing dung for use on his garden. Wulf noted the “pioneering” nature of this venture.
As a diplomat to London, as described by Wulf, John Adams, chaffing under the rounds of social demands, found a manure pile on the edge of the British capital and happily plunged his hands into the verdure, noting with satisfaction that it was not as good as that to be found on his own farm.
Wulf suggests that the environmental movement in the USA, usually credited to have begun in the mid nineteenth century with Henry Thoreau or John Muir, actually began much earlier in 1818 when James Madison argued that nature was fragile, and people needed to live in harmony with nature. He upbraided Virginians for their exploitation of the soil and forests.
In an interview with Adrian Higgins of the Washington Post, Wulf describes Madison as a proto-environmentalist, urging the protection of old-growth forests. In this, Madison differed from early American colonists who sought to recreate their home countries. At Montpelier, his home, Madison “celebrated the American landscape as it was rather than creating something…European,” Wulf notes.
In 1786, when Jefferson and Adams were in England to negotiate a trade agreement and when the question of the introduction of industry in the new nation arose, Jefferson insisted this would be ‘a waste.’ Along with the other founding fathers, Jefferson believed that agriculture ‘should be the foundation of the American republic.’
This aspect of the founding fathers has largely escaped notice because historians focused on the state building activities of these men. Referring to revolutionary heroes as gardeners would have seemed disrespectful. But today, in light of increasing concern about the environment, a new look at the founding fathers can bring light to a future path.
The founding fathers’ vision of America, and of farming, was inseparable. They loved farming and gardening, and planned for an America of farmers.
Higgins, A. (2011). United Seeds of America. The Washington Post, 05/05/2011, pp. C1-2.