On August 19, 1776, two months after being commissioned Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington sent instructions to his Mount Vernon estate manager Lund Washington to install two groves of flowering trees and shrubs utilizing only species indigenous to North America. Once relieved of the burden of leading the troops, Washington remained faithful to his belief in native plants.
In Founding Gardeners Andrea Wulf describes the General’s arrival home seven years later: “Washington left in 1775 as a wealthy Virginia colonist, but he had returned as a war hero who had transformed his country and freed his people from tyranny. Standing in Mount Vernon, he realized that what had been perfect for a successful plantation owner was now woefully inadequate. Fresh from revolutionary triumph, he resolved to tear up the driveway, pull down the walls and dig up the hedges to liberate his garden from its claustrophobic corset of geometry, just as he freed his country from Britain’s imperial yoke.”
Freeing landscapes from the rigid grids of traditional English gardens was a concept Washington studied in a book he bought in 1759: New Principles of Gardening by Batty Langley (1728). In the introduction, Langley wrote: “Nor is there any Thing more shocking than a stiff regular Garden.” Washington embraced Langley’s advice on using more relaxed curving paths inviting exploration and planting trees in natural groves.
Washington also relied on information presented in Philip Miller’s Gardeners Dictionary (1731). Many North American species were already cultivated in England thanks in large part to shipments from Pennsylvanian John Bartram. Reading of their virtues and cultural requirements, Washington ordered plants from both northern and southern acquaintances. He requested balsam firs, white pines and eastern hemlocks from George Clinton, Governor of New York, in letters dated November 25 and December 8, 1784. He asked his nephew George Augustine Washington to send the southern magnolia and the umbrella magnolia from South Carolina on January 6, 1785.
Washington selected numerous specimens from his own woodland. On January 12, 1785, undaunted by icy winds and snow-covered ground, he began marking trees for transplantation to Mount Vernon’s formal beds. Completed in March, the initial planting was half-dead by the time the first magnolias were delivered on May 21, 1785.
Discouraged, but not defeated, Washington went back to work designing and directing the installation of beds containing ornamental and utilitarian plants. Wulf notes: “Painting with trees, Washington contrasted the smooth white bark of the aspen against the furrowed trunk of black gum, and set the fluttering large leaves of maples against the tiny droplet-like leaves of honey locust.”
Called back to Philadelphia in May 1787 to preside over the Constitutional Convention, Washington spent the preceding month testing Kentucky clover and Guinea grass in the area of his garden reserved for experimentation. Bored by unproductive dialogue at the Convention, he detailed instead his excursion on Sunday, June 10. “Breakfasted by agreement at Mr. Powell’s, and in Company with him rid to see the Botanical garden of Mr. Bartram; which tho’ Stored with many curious plts, Shrubs & trees, many of which are exotics was not laid off with much taste, nor was it large.” Nevertheless, he was sufficiently interested in Bartram’s offerings to return on September 2nd, request a plant list in 1789 and place a large order in 1792.
Despite debating six days a week, Convention delegates were making little progress. At supper Friday, July 13th Manasseh Cutler, newly arrived from Massachusetts, proposed to those staying at the Indian Queen a journey the next morning to Bartram’s Garden. Cutler was on a mission promoting settlement of the Northwest Territories. His suggestion offered a welcome chance to escape the tiresome routine. Cutler’s party that Saturday included James Madison, Caleb Strong, Alexander Hamilton, Alexander Martin, Hugh Williamson, John Rutledge, George Mason, Mason’s son, Samuel Vaughn, designer of the Philadelphia State House garden, and two other Philadelphians.
A working nursery, Bartram’s was designed so that hardier specimens sheltered less cold tolerant plants. Wulf notes: “In Bartram’s Garden, the delegates could see how the manifold flora of each state flourished together, their branches intertwined in a flourishing horticultural union.” She remarks that while John Bartram Sr. was the first to bring trees and shrubs from all thirteen states together, his motivation was commercial. “By contrast, Washington had been the first to unite the trees and shrubs from across the thirteen states as a visual expression of the young nation.” Perhaps, as she posits, seeing those specimens growing together caused some of the delegates to rethink their political positions.
James Madison’s notes of the proceedings of the afternoon of July 14 indicate the Connecticut Compromise (giving large and small states equal representation in the Senate while basing representation in the House on population) was discussed at length. Madison records Caleb Strong as declaring, “If no Accommodation takes place, the Union itself must soon be dissolved.”
On Monday, July 16th the Compromise passed by a single vote. Among the delegates who visited Bartram’s Garden were three large- state representatives who changed their previous alignment to vote with the small-state contingent: Caleb Strong (Massachusetts), Alexander Martin and Hugh Williamson (both North Carolina). Virginians James Madison and George Mason who remained rooted in their stance against equal representation in the Senate were overruled.