JQA: The City Fellow
John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was born in rural Massachusetts, but lived within ten miles of Boston, then considered a major city (pop. 10,000) in the Colonies. As a very young boy, his family periodically lived in Boston when the senior Adams had business there. When his father was in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress, little JQ helped on the Adams farm – but at 7 or 8, he could only do so much.
But when Adams Senior was sent to Europe as a diplomat, he took his 10-year-old son along. JQ spent the better part of the next decade in the grand capitals of Europe, soaking up the finest culture and knowledge those cities had to offer. In addition, he was privileged to become acquainted with some of their finest and most illustrious citizens.
At eighteen, he returned to Boston, which now looked very provincial in his eyes, attended Harvard, and went on to read law. Considered one of the most cosmopolitan young Americans of his generation, he became active in political and government affairs, and impressed everyone with his innate abilities – including President George Washington.
The President sent him to the Netherlands as a diplomatic Minister. He was 25. Once again, JQA was readily at home in the great capitals, and remained for another half-decade.
When he was in his mid-thirties, living back in Boston with his wife and young children, he purchased the old Adams family farm and buildings from his elderly parents, who needed the extra cash. (His parents had a lovely estate a few miles away). JQA now had a small place of his own – with some land, some crops, some trees, and a grand awakening to a love of nature.
JQ, with a powerful methodical and disciplined mind for study, found himself immersed in the science of nature, and particularly botany. He learned the basics and became familiar with every type of tree and shrub on the property, and meticulously cataloged them. Then, he was once again recruited into diplomatic service, followed by eight years as James Monroe’s Secretary of State.
Ergo, he had little time to devote to his newfound botanical interests.
The President and The Trees
In late 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected President in a rancorous and difficult election. His was to be a chilly administration. He was unpopular, both with the politicians and the populace. Little of what he espoused came to pass.
Nevertheless, his garden goal was a national one. With the expert help of White House gardener John Ousley (who served in that capacity for the next quarter century), JQA hoped to replenish the forests primeval along the east coast which were being decimated by 200 years of encroaching cities. He set aside a acre or more on the grounds for a “nursery.”
He especially wished to replenish live oak and white oak forests, deemed vital to the shipbuilding industry. (The USS Constitution, aka Old Ironsides, had its hull made from live oak.) Utilizing the perks of his office, he instructed all the commercial ship captains and foreign diplomats to bring back seeds, seedlings and cuttings of the various European trees and plants that could survive in North America. Every US consul was advised that the president sought “forest trees useful as timber; grain of any description; fruit trees; vegetables for the table… and plants of whatever nature…” And, of course, books on horticulture.
Within a few months, packets of said seedlings, seeds and volumes of instructions for their planting reached the White House. And books, which he read voraciously.
While he originally planned to concentrate on oaks and hickories, his new knowledge expanded his sights: he wanted fruit trees and herbaceous plants, walnuts, hazelnuts and chestnut trees.
His new hobby was a great respite for his unhappy presidency, and he wrote in his diary, “In this small garden of less than two acres, there are forest- and fruit-trees, shrubs, hedges, esculent vegetables, kitchen and medicinal herbs, hot-house plants, flowers, and weeds… of at least one thousand…”
He began forgoing his usual walk to devote time to his garden. When he returned to his family home in Quincy, he brought several tubs for seedlings and grafting purposes. He also carefully documented the outcome of dozens of seedling-trees that he had planted back in 1804, noting whether they had matured and to what extent, and if they were bearing nuts or acorns. Some did, and he was pleased when he wrote “This is encouragement for me to persevere in my experiments, which I would leave as…a charge and an inheritance to my children.”
The trees that he had planted at the White House also began taking root, although, he noted in his diary, “I shall see little of these myself, but in leaving an infant forest under the eyes of my Successors, I intend it as a memento for them which I hope they will have the means of cherishing.”
He hoped to leave a legacy to the country he so keenly wanted to serve.
When Andrew Jackson became President, his rowdy adherents fairly well trampled the nurseries and grounds – and even most of the trees JQ had so carefully planted.
But his gardens in Quincy, although small in size, were the joy of his elder years. The trees he had planted in his birth-home had matured. Fifty years is usually considered a young tree! And up until his death at eighty-one, he still noted in his diary how he was “plucking up weeds – a never ceasing occupation.”
McDowell, Marta – All the Presidents’ Gardens – Timber Press, 2016
McEwan, Barbara – White House Landscapes: Horticultural Achievements of American Presidents – Walker and Company, 1992
Unger, Harlow Giles – John Quincy Adams – DeCapo Press, 2012