Among the Founding Fathers, fourteen were farmers. It is not surprising that during the days of congress and war, separated from their homes and lands, these men filled their correspondence with questions about their farm and expressed longing to return to their native soil.
Modern farmers struggle to leave their land when work needs to be done, and the Founding Farmers were no different. Washington famously micromanaged his steward during his absence, giving detailed instructions for the farm and receiving regular updates on what was going on.
Once, during his presidency, in a fit of frustration, Washington thundered to his staff that he, “[W]ould rather be on my farm than Emperor of the world.”
Upon Mount Vernon, Washington would cultivate over 60 different crops with an intense rotation. He was among the first American’s to abandon the old 3 field system, and switch to a 7 field system, allowing him to raise 7 different crops at a time and give the land a 7 year rotation.
A man who’s agricultural interests are often surpassed by his contribution to the Constitution, James Madison was actually so invested in agriculture that even Jefferson, the original intellectual agrarian, was impressed by his knowledge and ideas.
In 1818, when the Agricultural Society of Albemarle was formed, the chose Madison as their president. Rising, he gave a riveting speech on the subject of agriculture that reveals, not only his known intellectualism, but his understanding of tending to the soil.
“The neglect of manures is another error which claims particular notice. It may be traced to the same cause with our excessive cropping. In the early stages of our agriculture, it was more convenient and more profitable to bring new land into cultivation, than to improve exhausted land. The failure of new land, has long called for the improvement of old land; but habit has kept us deaf to the call.” – James Madison
The majority of the speech was devoted to points such as these, encouraging his fellow farmers to adopt more sustainable farming practices.
Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1811 that, “No occupation is so delightful as is the culture of the earth.”
After the revolution, and Jefferson’s tenure as French ambassador had ended, he returned to his farm to change crops. From tobacco farming, an exhausting crop for the soil, to raising grains like wheat. But these were the cash crops. On Monticello Jefferson engaged in experimenting with many different varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers to determine what grew best in his soils.
Not a founder we often think of as a farmer, and yet it was his farm Peacefield, named so after the peace he and the founders fought for, that he found his tranquility. His biographer, David McCullough wrote, “He never tired of the farm. He loved every wall and field, loved it’s order and productiveness, the very look of it.”
While not considered in the same agrarian standing as Jefferson, Washington, and Madison: Adams had a great deal of knowledge on the topic, and used his time abroad as an ambassador to learn what he could from the farming practices of other nations. He lived as an evangelist for the benefits of both compost and manure, preaching their virtues to any farmers who would listen.
I don’t think it is by mere happenstance that these men enjoyed farming. True, most were born to it, but these men could have easily delegated the work to farm managers. As a lawyer, John Adam’s didn’t even need to go into farming. But each chose to remain active in their fields.
It is likely that, especially after dealing with complexities of government, or the stress of war, that they found refuge in the natural process of agriculture. Putting to it the same energy and intellectualism as they did in founding a new nation.