Natural Independence: American Naturalism, Botanical Gardens, and Nationalism in the Eighteenth Century

Natural Independence: How American Naturalism and the Botanical Gardens of John Bartram and Thomas Jefferson Defined American Nationalism in the Eighteenth Century

Sawyer Judge

Sawyer Judge is a freshman in the SFS at Georgetown University, majoring in International History with a concentration in Sustainable Agricultural Development and Resource Conservation.  She envisions a world that draws on the roots of its agricultural past to provide a new look at modern environmental issues.  While continuing work towards her undergraduate degree, she enjoys her new position as a program operations intern with Osa Conservation, which looks at providing sustainable agricultural practices to farmers in Costa Rica to prevent dangerous exploitation of the diversity and natural treasures of the Osa Peninsula.


It is 1787, and the delegates to the Constitutional Convention are gathered in a large drawing room, debating the state of the colonies and the break from England with urgency and concern. Their voices rise heatedly as they discuss the country’s future. Their constant quarreling only calms when they take a recess. What better place for this debate to unfold than Philadelphia, now radiant with the pulsing of a post-revolutionary heartbeat? Here, in the “Hotbed of the Sciences, the Nursery of the Arts, and the Home of Philosophy,” this young republic is desperate to distinguish itself from the Old World.[i] Standing in the sun, stretching their legs as they chat away, the delegates shift their conversation to a common topic: gardens and agriculture. Indeed, over half of the delegates come from planting backgrounds and “[f]or many of them, agriculture, plants and politics [are] parts of one single endeavor – the creation of a country that [is] independent, industrious, and virtuous.”[ii] Half way through the convention, the delegates decide to venture just outside Philadelphia to spend a day at the renowned Botanical Garden of John Bartram.[iii] It was here, among the plants and gorgeous grounds, that a new image of America inspired the delegates. Meanwhile, in Europe, Thomas Jefferson also envisioned a proud and independent America enlightened by the power of its own landscape, agriculture, and unique botany. Together, Thomas Jefferson and John Bartram would cultivate an American identity nurtured by botanic explorations, writings, and gardens. The scientific work of these naturalists imbued nationalist sentiments that proved necessary in inspiring the young republic and distinguishing it from Old World Europe.

Prior to the Revolution, a strong following for Enlightenment era horticulture had already been established among the elite of Philadelphia. The sprawling yet neoclassical, “natural” designs of garden-estates were living depictions of knowledge, “represent[ing] not only the peak of botanic collecting, achieved in the years around the Revolution, but also the fruitful patronage of scientists by wealthy landowners who themselves contributed to the advances of botany and scientific agriculture.”[iv] Such estates were a comfortable blend of cultures for colonists. They applied the fashion of English gardens and Enlightenment philosophy to the “vast forests, mountains, rivers, prairies, and plains of North America [which inspired in them] tangible images of boundlessness,” resulting in a unique American nature.[v] The societal perceptions of the American wilderness awakened dreams of freedom and expansion, prompting American colonists to revolution. The word “continent,” meant to reflect the full expanse of the North American landmass, was not used by America’s founders in political context[1] until the revolution. The thirteen colonies looked to their new nation as “a source of courage and hope.”[vi] The sense of nationalism deepened further following independence from Britain. Where the cultivation of land into gardens and estates had once been an art to glorify the Old World, the founders of our country and their fellow countrymen began to see “the abundant natural resources of the New World [as inspiration] to adopt a more self-conscious approach toward their scientific inquires […] ultimately allow[ing] them to differentiate themselves from their European counterparts.”[vii] The proud naturalists and politicians of the young republic set about discovering the American wild. Out into the world of plants and botany they valiantly ventured, “collecting and identifying flora, particularly in […] unexplored territor[ies] [enabling the] nation to signify its territory’s natural resources and to claim ownership.”[viii] The remnants of Old World style in Philadelphia would soon evolve into a unique American identity – one created by scientific exploration.

Enlightenment era science was a methodical study of the natural world. Old World Linnaean nomenclature (a scientific naming system for plants) provided concrete, systematic descriptions of the country’s horticulture. This scientific system allowed naturalists to approach “[t]he New World of exotic mystery [with] a sharp-edged, delineated” system of identification that directly “related to the Old World.”[ix] In fact, the existence of such lists contested the superiority of the Old World, almost as if presenting the land’s bounty as a challenge – a defiance and a declaration of greatness that even paralleled the Declaration of Independence. For as the “political Declaration began the process by which the country would be written into being[,] [t]he natural historical declarations defined the place where that country would exist, and named and illustrated the objects of the creation that would finish the new land.”[x] The young republic’s identity integrated land and policy, nature and methodical science. For John Bartram, it was indeed the amassing of plant specimens and scientific analysis of nature that would define America.

The Bartram Botanical Garden was one of the finest, and arguably most influential gardens of its kind in mid-eighteenth-century America. Its founder, John Bartram, was a man of humble origin – a Quaker without formal training in the sciences but with an immense passion for horticulture. It was this passion which led him to purchase a farm just off the banks of the Schuykill River near Philadelphia in 1782, and to begin his self-led, self-taught, and largely experimental exploration into the natural world.[xi] However, John Bartram’s efforts would not have been possible without English influence and the patronage of wealthy Londoner and botany enthusiast, Peter Collinson. Their transatlantic partnership was a “scientific relationship […] described as a ‘colonial exchange’” that involved the trade of well over two hundred species of flora and foliage from North America alone.[xii] The packaging and shipping of various American seeds was a highly profitable endeavor for Bartram, as the British garden enthusiasts developed an insatiable taste for North American botanical curiosities. But while the relationship was primarily a business venture and allowed Bartram the resources to expand his research and experimentation, it was also a way to define the American landscape as distinct from that of the Old World. The New World was desirable, free, progressive, and in this regard the attractiveness of its botanical species was reflective of its post-revolutionary fervor. The seed exchange further underscored America’s reputation for its exoticness and novelty, adding to the fascination of the scientific community with the New World. In botany, Bartram highlighted a distinctive source of commerce and pride for the young republic. While the seed trade did not result in the perfect self-sustaining independence of the young republic in agricultural matters, it signaled the growth of a progressive interdependence between Old and New Worlds.

Interdependence was a good step, but politically the republic was still yearning for total independence. The Bartram garden itself embodied the type of unified national identity that the Constitutional Convention delegation desired. Their first impression upon entering Bartram’s garden in 1787 would no doubt have been the “very practical design, with vegetables and flower garden separated from one another and the nursery.”[xiii] The vast assortment of plants on the estate reflected the “early inquiring interest in natural science and the close international network of botanists” involved in their exchange, while the overall design highlighted “an emphasis on the practical” created by a “mix of ‘pleasure garden’ and ‘edibles’ [in keeping with] the eighteenth-century tradition.”[xiv] The way Bartram brought together the plants mirrored a unified republic under the soon-to-be-established government. Inspired by the garden, one contemporary compared the young republic to a tree, stating, “Union is the vital sap that nourishes the tree. If we reject the Constitution… we girdle the tree, its leaves will wither, its branches drop off, and the mouldering trunk will be torn down by the tempest.”[xv] Such natural sentiments encouraged the delegates to consider the overall longevity of the republic when addressing divisions of government, representation, and the ultimate ratifying of the constitution.

While Bartram’s various travels and studies formed the foundation of much of the botanical knowledge of the day, and defined even the unknown corners of America’s landscape. In addition to gardening in his greenhouse and laboratories, Bartram was also a forager for plant species. With commissions from Collinson, he became a traveling naturalist. The main record of his travels is contained in his map of “the order of the rivers along the east coast of North America from the Mohawk River in New York southward to the Santee River in South Carolina and westward beyond the Alleghenies.”[xvi] The practical manner in which the map is created and the methodical representation and placement of “geological sites, the mountain ranges, and the courses of the rivers” make the map one of the first geological maps of America.[xvii] It is also a “‘natural map’ reflect[ing] the empirical approach to investigating nature that characterized the thought of Bartram and his contemporaries.”[xviii] His observations and cartography provided scientific backing for the glorification of the American landscape. The young republic would look upon them and see an America that was rich, expansive, and ready for independence. John Bartram continued to add the findings of his excursions to the empirical painting of America until his health became too much of an obstacle.

One of the most frequent visitors to Bartram’s garden was Thomas Jefferson; in fact, Bartram and Jefferson developed such a close correspondence that they exchanged some seeds and specimens, and Jefferson grew to be greatly influenced by the botanical works of Bartram.[2] In spite of all his political accomplishments, Jefferson considered himself primarily a “farmer, gardener, and philosopher.”[xix] At the time of the Revolution, Jefferson saw the sprawling plains and fantastic mountains as symbols of a free American spirit that was as untamable and pure as the nature that sprung from its soil. Jefferson saw America “as the image of a terrain midway between a decadent Europe and a savage frontier” – a Garden of Eden where both pastoral and neoclassical elements were at play, and the good life defined in the Enlightenment era might actually be realized.[xx] Jefferson translated this ideal into the Declaration of Independence, suggesting how happiness might be derived from nature by “substitute[ing] “pursuit of happiness” for property in the Lockean trilogy of unalienable rights.”[xxi] In a very telling move, Jefferson attributed America’s new governmental authority to having origin in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”[xxii] This idea of authority stemming from some greater natural force is characteristically Deist, but also aligns with the philosophy of John Locke. These elements, considered modern thought at the time, also mixed with that re-emerging emphasis on antiquity[3]; for “[i]n America, as in republican Rome, access to a “natural” rural setting was thought to be conducive to sound anti-monarchical views[, so the pastoral life] the American landscape [offered] inevitably was perceived as a seedbed of republican virtue.”[xxiii] Jefferson had a dominant hand in unifying a distinctive natural strength with a new American political system.

The political implications of Jefferson’s passion for nature, are exemplified by his time in England. Jefferson was in England in 1786 for trade negotiations when he began his tour of the English ‘natural’ gardens. By this point in the eighteenth century, English gardens were overrun with the most exotic species of plants Englishmen could acquire – largely American plants from the legendary seed boxes of Philadelphia’s very own Bartram Family. Jefferson viewed not only the design of the gardens, but the American presence there with much excitement, and felt he could comfortably “admit that the English garden ‘surpasses all the earth’ […] without feeling unpatriotic because they were populated with American plants and shaped by ideas of liberty.”[xxiv] These same plants became sound evidence of America’s distinctiveness from the Old World – the new, the exotic, the independent.

At the same time the Constitutional Convention delegates were tackling the issue of a constitution, Jefferson was in Paris presenting his argument against the “degeneracy of America.” Many Old World naturalists in France, “[n]oting how European grains, vegetables and fruits often grew quickly but then failed to mature in America, […] insisted that flora and fauna degenerated when ‘transplanted’ from the Old to the New World.”[xxv] With growing support for this frame of thought, Europeans began to negatively equate their disparaging view of the American landscape with American politics and culture. In defense of America’s national identity, Jefferson determined to prove “by the same logic […] that everything was in fact larger and grander in the New World [thereby] elevat[ing] his country above those of Europe.”[xxvi] To do this, Jefferson began to consult written accounts, data measurements, and especially the Linnaean nomenclature of John Bartram’s journal to amass knowledge of the natural. His scientific approach included a study of his own specimens and those of other figures in the natural history field, including “native trees, the weights of American mammals, a pelt of a panther and the bones and skin of a moose.”[xxvii] Ultimately, Jefferson’s findings would be published in a great patriotic declaration of science and botany: Notes on the State of Virginia.[4] The Linnaean rhetoric used in Notes provided the language necessary for the Old World to recognize it as a work of science, while the sheer quantitative data gave number, count, and boundary to the otherwise wildly expansive country. Notes was both a thorough scientific exploration of America’s vastness, and also a declaration of the fundamental pride and vigor of the American landscape – natural and political. Jefferson called the work an “‘opportunity for the intellectual discovery of his own country,’ [which was] a country bounded and [defined], awaiting history.”[xxviii] Jefferson presented a national image of the young republic that publicized the richness of American soil and citizenry. This in turn gave the young republic more credibility on the international stage as well as provided the new republicans a sense of autonomy and patriotism for their distinctive land.

Much of the young republic’s countryside consisted of self-sustaining, cultivated farms seated sporadically amongst the beauties of nature. Jefferson saw in this not only the serene ideal of an agrarian democracy, but also a platform for a sustainable and independent America. At a time when the break from England was still fresh in Americans’ minds, creating a self-sufficient, national economy was crucial. Jefferson felt it were the farmers who would secure the future of the republic, for it were they, the “[c]ultivators of the earth,” who were, “the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous.”[xxix], [5] To be sure, Jefferson was adamant about being a farmer in his own right, especially since he believed it to be the path to moral living. Jefferson made a habit of conducting surveys among farmers to study changing agricultural patterns, often collecting data fit for an almanac. In addition, he looked to specific crops as “promis[ing] [possibilities] of changing the political and economic landscape” to generate a national business.[xxx] Jefferson had a great desire to turn the American sugar maple into a key political tool by processing its sugar as a competitive alternative to the British-controlled sugar industry. While this particular venture was not successful, the very idea of fully developed, self-sustaining agricultural methods of an independent republic would establish a strong foundation for decades to come.

At Monticello, Jefferson paid tribute to the New World to show the distinctive contrast with England. Positioned in the main hall of his personal garden-estate, the prominent placement of “the enormous jawbone of a mastodon [and next to that] the much smaller jawbone of an elephant” recalled his victory in refuting the “degeneracy of America” argument.[xxxi] These were parts of the evidence he used in defense of America’s credibility in the natural science field. Jefferson also kept his botanical collection close to the house for easy access. The greenhouse, containing some of his most exotic plants, was “a loggia enclosed with large sash windows that opened to the garden so Jefferson could be close to his plants.”[xxxii] It was this greenhouse, in addition to his scientific garden, that became his “laboratory for horticultural experiments.”[xxxiii] Among the hundreds of plants Jefferson grew were several collected from the exploration of Lewis and Clark – a special monument to the glory of the West and westward expansion to come.[6] Jefferson also grew the most impressive assortment of vegetables in the eighteenth century world, amounting to well over a hundred varieties. This kitchen garden was meant to be a testing ground for the utility of edibles and medicinal plants, but it also served to bring together the “horticultural and culinary, European and colonial, Native American and slave traditions,” much like the nation as a whole.[xxxiv] For Jefferson, Monticello was not just a glorified hobby or a display of intellectual prowess; it was a way of fulfilling his patriotic duty. As political tensions with Europe elevated and America needed more than ever to assert its independence, Jefferson’s experiments with utility and sustainability demonstrated (in his own words) a noble service to the nation “worth more[…] than all the victories of the most splendid pages of […] history.”[xxxv] A larger political theme of agrarian America was present in every aspect of Monticello, from the scientific gardens that demonstrated his efforts towards sustainable agriculture, to the sprawling fields and nearby forests of his estate that reflected his appreciation for the wildness of nature.

So it was land – the hearty soil and rugged earth that grew botanical wonders of the eighteenth-century world – that nurtured the young American republic. Through the cultivated gardens of John Bartram and Jefferson’s Monticello, America realized its intellectual and economic potential and distinguished itself from the Old World. The sheer expanse of the American landscape became a symbol of national pride, which fortified a natural independence. The American vision not only grew where it was planted, but sunk strong roots into the soil of the New World and flourished – truly a specimen of independence worth illustrating.



[1] i.e. “Continental Congress,” “continental currency,” “continental army” (Marx 9).

[2] “Jefferson requested seeds from the Bartrams on many occasions while US minister in Paris and again on his return to America [yet even this] probably underrepresents his friendship and interest in the garden” (Meyers 76).

[3] Jefferson was consistently identifying symbols of antiquity in the natural environment to rival the European suggestion that America lacked in classical elements. He especially saw this in trees, and equated the “venerable natural monument” of trees growing atop the Natural Bridge in western Virginia to “Giambattisita Piranesi’s eighteenth-century engravings of Roman ruins covered in vegetation” (Meyers 29). See figure 4.

[4] Notes first published in French in 1785 for the benefit of the critical French scientists whom Jefferson was refuting.

[5] In fact, Jefferson thought farmers so central to the American republic that, in the original draft of the Virginia Constitution, he entitled every free person fifty acres of land (Wulf 116). This version was not passed. Recognize also the specification of “free person.” It cannot be omitted that Jefferson was also a slave owner and achieved his agricultural endeavors with the means of slavery. Therefore, while in theory he advocated for a moral farming lifestyle, application of these ideals fell short.

[6] The Lewis and Clark expedition, organized by Jefferson coinciding the Louisiana Purchase, was regarded as “one of the last intellectual enterprises of the Age of Enlightenment, and one of the last mapping efforts guided as much by imagination as by investigation” (Meyers 32). The decision catalyzed a national obsession with the American wild – inspiring a patriotic energy to discover the wild, the rugged, and the raw of America.

[i] Amy R. W. Meyers and Lisa L. Ford, eds. Knowing Nature: Art and Science in Philadelphia, 1740-1840 New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2011), 36.

[ii] Andrea Wulf. Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 61.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Meyers, Knowing Nature, 38.

[v] Leo Marx. “The American Revolution and the American Landscape.” The 200 Years Bicentennial of the United States of America. Cabell Hall, The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. 27 Mar. 1974. The American Revolution and the American Landscape (Washington: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1974), 10.

[vi] Marx, “The American Revolution and the American Landscape,” 9.

[vii] Meyers, Knowing Nature, 9.

[viii] Ibid, 43.

[ix] Pamela Regis. Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crevecoeur, and the Rhetoric of Natural History (DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1992), 14.

[x] Ibid, 11.

[xi] Jean O’Neill, and Elizabeth P. McLean. Peter Collinson and the Eighteenth-Century Natural History Exchange. Vol. 264. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2008. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge), 104.

[xii] Ibid, 79, 103.

[xiii] Robert P. Maccubbin, and Peter Martin, eds. British and American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century: Eighteen Illustrated Essays on Garden History (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986), 138.

[xiv] Ibid, 144.

[xv] W. B. Allen, ed. Works of Fisher Ames, 5 February 1788, Allen 1983, vol. I, 556.

[xvi] Meyers, Knowing Nature, 20.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Wulf, Founding Gardeners, 40.

[xx] Marx, “The American Revolution and the American Landscape,” 14.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Ibid, 15.

[xxiii] Ibid, 16.

[xxiv] Wulf, Founding Gardeners, 57.

[xxv] Ibid, 62.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Regis, Describing Early America, 104.

[xxix] Wulf, Founding Gardeners, 116.

[xxx] Ibid, 98.

[xxxi] Ibid, 178.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Ibid, 183.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv]Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexandre Giroud. 22 May 1797. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 29. (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP), 387.



Allen, W. B. (ed.). Works of Fisher Ames. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983.

Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. London: Stockdale, 1787. University of Virginia in Charlottesville. (accessed November 4, 2015).

Jefferson, Thomas. Letter to Alexandre Giroud. 22 May 1797. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 29. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, n.d. N. pag. Print.

Maccubbin, Robert P., and Peter Martin, eds. British and American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century: Eighteen Illustrated Essays on Garden History. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986.

Marx, Leo. “The American Revolution and the American Landscape.” The 200 Years Bicentennial of the United States of America. Cabell Hall, The University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. 27 Mar. 1974. The American Revolution and the American Landscape. Washington: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1974. 1-23.

Meyers, Amy R. W., and Lisa L. Ford, eds. Knowing Nature: Art and Science in Philadelphia, 1740-1840. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2011.

O’Neill, Jean, and Elizabeth P. McLean. Peter Collinson and the Eighteenth-Century Natural History Exchange. Vol. 264. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2008. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge.

Regis, Pamela. Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crevecoeur, and the Rhetoric of Natural History. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1992.

Wulf, Andrea. Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.