James Madison, father of environmentalism?

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This morning I had a fun conversation with Andrea Wulf, an author based in Germany who’ll be speaking at Monticello during Historic Garden Week. She’s about to have a book published called Founding Gardeners, which looks at the founding fathers (Jefferson, Washington, Adams, and Madison) as the accomplished gardeners and farmers they were, and shows how those interests influenced their roles as statesmen.

I’ll be writing much more about Wulf and her book in an April issue of C-VILLE, but for now here’s a little sample. It turns out that James Madison was possibly the first environmentalist in the U.S. He gave a speech to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle in 1818 (later printed and widely read) that warned we couldn’t keep cutting forests down forever–at the time, a radical proposition. I asked Wulf where he’d come up with such a surprising idea.

"if you look at the beginning of the colonies in America," she answered, "people would just come clear a bit of land and grow tobacco. Tobacco is a really obnoxious plant which depletes the soil within, I think, four years. And then because land was so plentiful, they would go and clear a bit more forest. The forest became a hindrance, [an] obstacle to agriculture for a very long time in America.

"By the end of the 18th century–in particular in Virginia, which was the first colony but also for a long time the most important and economically viable–[people] suddenly saw that the soil was completely and utterly depleted. Large parts of the forest had gone. More and more people were leaving Virginia and going south and west after the Louisiana purchase. Basically the foot soldiers, the independent farmers of the U.S., were fleeing Virginia because the soil was not good enough anymore. The yields, the harvests were going down and down and down.

"[Madison]’s not doing this like the Romantics a little later, [basing environmentalism on] the romance of nature or living in harmony with nature. He’s seeing the need to protect the environment for economical reasons…You can only live off nature if you live with nature, is basically what he believes.

"For me that was the greatest surprise in writing this book: he’s this forgotten father of environmentalism."

Ponder that the next time you visit Montpelier: ol’ James was on to something!

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