In the summer of 1776 the thirteen colonies declared independence.
30,000 British troops were approaching on warships, about to invade New York Harbor in the “Battle of New York” - George Washington sits down, takes his time and writes a letter to his estate gardener requesting him to plant a garden of native species only. Shunning the past and as Andrea Wulfh calls it “horticultural independence.” Washington decided that Mount Vernon was to be an American garden where no English trees would burgeon in american soil. By creating a landscape exclusively designed with plants and trees native to America, Washington was making a bold statement—a botanical declaration of independence from England.
In Andrea Wulf’s, “Founding Gardeners” she argues that the economic importance of agricultural crops, self-sufficiency and self-dependence and a passion for nature, plants and agriculture was interwoven in the growth of the United States in its formative years – an ideological level of America as an agrarian republic. A national identity of nature was being invested with patriotic meaning. The “Founding Fathers” of the United States (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison) made everlasting political statements within the garden.
In 1786 Jefferson was American minister in France stationed in Paris, John Adams was minister to Britain stationed in London. The time is just after the Revolutionary War, when the United States was severely in debt after the war and looking to create trade alliances. The British were not receptive to trade agreements with the burgeoning country that had just gained its independence, and could only hope for an economic collapse and Britain could perhaps reclaim them.
Adams asks Jefferson for assistance in negotiating with the Brits, cause the Brits truly despise the Americans at this point. This proves unsuccessful. Looking for a respite, they adventure on a garden tour… traveling many miles a day visiting multiple gardens a day, taking notes, speaking with owners, their estate managers, gardeners. Among the many highlights of the trip was Stowe, originally created by Lord Cobham. Jefferson and Adams appreciated the unstylized look of these new landscapes with unclipped trees, sinuous paths, irregular groupings of plant material, “naturally shaped” ponds and lakes. What struck them (and resonated with them) was the “liberation” of rigid landscape design, geometrical patterns formerly associated in with Louis XIV’s absolute and despotic rule, symbolic within the French landscape. Hereupon “the irregularity of nature had become a symbol of liberty.”
Most significant was the consideration of an ornamental farm, a “femme ornee” -- witnessed at Woburn and elsewhere. A style of garden that combined the beauty of a pleasure ground with the agricultural elements of a working farm. This played right into Jefferson’s belief of a self-sustaining nation through agriculture. A way to unite the fertile fields with the grandeur of the American continent. Eventually he created the embodiment of this abstraction at Monticello.
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