New-York Historical Society

The brier and bramble: Thomas Jefferson and the English Garden Style

The variability and just plain depressing weather of late here in New York is probably trying everyone’s patience. But, after all it is Earth Day, so we should give Mother Nature a break, especially since we can always rely on her to give us our May flowers. That was somewhat true in Williamsburg, VA as well from February to April of 1779 too, as shown by this single leaf of Thomas Jefferson’s weather journal in the Society’s manuscript collections.

Leaf of Thomas Jefferson’s weather journal, showing February 15 to April 15, 1779. (Jefferson Fragment, MS 1627)

It’s fairly common knowledge that Jefferson was a man of far-reaching interests, so the fact that he painstakingly recorded the weather even at a time of such upheaval and unpredictability is not altogether surprising. He also notes on February 15th and 22nd (the first two entries) the blossoming of fruit trees which reminds us of one of his many great fascinations – gardens.

While we all are likely to know of his architectural achievements at Monticello, Jefferson was also passionately interested in its landscape design. His very earliest conceptions in 1771 were heavily influenced by the emerging “English Garden” movement in Europe that first modeled itself upon the idyllic, classical Italian landscape, often as depicted by artists such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain.

 Engraving showing pastoral Italian landscape entitled “Evening” by William Byrne after Claude Lorrain, 1769. (Luman Reed Print Collection, PR 141)

We rarely consider the layout of a landscape as a reflection political attitudes but the movement was stoked by egalitarians in England who sought to replace the rigid, linear layouts of the formal Europeans gardens with more “natural” designs characterized by irregular, curving and serpentine lines. Needless to say, this political underpinning fit well with Jefferson’s own ideals.

Ultimately then, we shouldn’t be surprised that while responding to a pamphlet about commonwealths in his retirement years, Jefferson chose a nature metaphor to explain the creation of a virtuous citizen:

I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man. That every man shall be made virtuous by any process whatever is, indeed, no more to be expected than that every tree shall be made to bear fruit, and every plant nourishment. The brier and bramble can never become the vine and olive; but their asperities may be softened by culture, and their properties improved to usefulness in the order and economy of the world.

Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Camden Blatchly, with quote highlighted, October 21, 1822. (Thomas Jefferson Collection, MS 331)

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