Gardening in Early America for Refuge & Redemption
In a garden one could order a small corner of the world & each spring begin life all over again.
Nancy Shippen, daughter of Alice Lee Shippen of Stratford Hall in Virginia, had married Col. Henry Beekman Livingston, from a rich, New York family, in March 1781. Nancy, just 18, moved to his house in Rhinebeck on the Hudson, with Livingston family. There she soon learned that he was insanely jealous & had several illegitimate children, some with slaves. Nancy, pregnant soon after marriage, moved back to her parent's house in Philadelphia to give birth to a girl they named Peggy. She tried to mend her marriage by returning to the Livingston home in Rhinebeck, but left for good in the spring of 1783. By 1784, Nancy Shippen, whose philandering husband had assumed custody of their only child, retreated with her mother to a country house that was “pleasantly situated on a hill with a green Meadow before it.” Behind the house were “a garden & a nursery of trees,” to which she directed daily attention. She wrote in her journal of the consolation she expected to find there. Although she could not help feeling like an outcast, “with all these conveniences,” she declared, “I ought to be contented.”
For centuries gardening had appealed to some fundamental spiritual need of humans, whose religions traditionally depicted a garden as the ideal abode for mankind on this earth & beyond. The ordered garden was, after all, Everyman’s refuge from the terrifying unknown, & certain evils, known & unknown.
The garden offered sanctuary from the threat of wild nature & escape from barbarian outsiders. The great garden of the vast American frontier held some frightening connotations for many early colonists. New Englander Michael Wigglesworth wrote of it in 1662, A waste & howling wilderness,
where none inhabited
But hellish fiends, & brutish men
That devils worshipped.
The evils of avarice & the injustices of power politics drove even wealthy colonists to seek spiritual refuge in a nature, that they ordered around themselves.
In 1771, as frustrations with England mounted, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, wrote to a friend, “The wisest Philosophers, the greatest poets, & the best men have constantly placed the most perfect sublime happiness in rural retirement. Under the shades of Forrests statesmen have sought happiness having in vain sought after it in the perplexed mazes of ambition & interest.”
Charles Willson Peale (741-1827) Portrait of John Beale Bordley America was viewed by some as a seedbed in which to establish natural spirituality; & gardening was one method to nurture higher values. John Beale Bordley (1727-1804) gave up the public life in Annapolis to pursue experimental agriculture & moved to a 1600-acre Wye Island estate he acquired in 1770. He was instrumental in founding, the 1785 Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, an association whose membership included 23 Marylanders by 1798. In his 1797 Essays & Notes on Husbandry & Rural Affairs, Bordley offered his ideas on keeping the common man happy on the farm. He suggested that each worker be given a garden 80, 90, or 100 feet square, because “it was observed by a clergyman…cottagers who had a garden were generally sober, industrious & healthy; & those who had no garden, were often drunken, lazy, vicious & ailing.”
Thomas Jefferson agreed with Bordley. Jefferson wrote to James Madsion in 1785 that, "It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state."
Interestingly, there is a high correlation between those with whom Annapolis craftsman William Faris shared church membership & those with whom he exchanged plants & gardening advice. Even though it was 20 years after the colonial period of mandatory church attendance, the people Faris came to know through nearby St. Anne’s Church formed the nucleus of his pleasure gardening colleagues.
The garden was a symbolic religious battleground, where good battled evil, where temptation & sin were overcome by forgiveness & reconciliation. Philadelphia seed dealer, & writer Bernard M'Mahon (1775-1816) wrote that gardening could even end dangerous “intemperance.”