As British troops closed in on New York City in the fall of 1776, Gen. George Washington had something crucially important on his mind. Congress had ordered him to hold the city, but on the eve of the battle, he set aside his maps and documents and began a letter to the steward of his estate, Mount Vernon, detailing the construction of a new garden.
"What is more remarkable than the timing, really, is that he's asking for only native species," author Andrea Wulf tells All Things Considered guest weekend host Linda Wertheimer. "As if he wants to create an all-American garden where no English tree is allowed to claw its roots in the soil."
Wulf is the author of a new book, Founding Gardeners: the Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. She describes a side of the Founding Fathers not often seen: Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison were all avid — even obsessive — gardeners.
Washington dreamed up a new way to collect and use manure in his gardens. Jefferson treasured the seeds brought back by the Lewis and Clark expedition and tried them all out at Monticello.
But of all the founding fathers, it was John Adams who was really what we would recognize today as a gardener, "because he loves his dirt. He just loves getting his hands dirty and having his hands in the manure, in the soil," Wulf says. "He, whenever he is involved in political battles, he is yearning, yearning to be in his garden."
Wulf adds that Abigail Adams probably welcomed her husband's obsession with his garden, because it helped him work off his famous temper. "He has this sort of totally visceral connection with the soil, I think."
That connection with the soil was a central part of the founders' vision, Wulf says. "They all agree that agriculture should be the foundation of the American republic ... they believe that the independent, small-scale farmer ... is really the foot soldier of the infant nation."