Spot of Parchment May 2019

Last month I wrote a social media post for work about John Quincy Adams’ White House trees. But I wanted to share it with you and explain a little more about why I think this story is so remarkable. As many of you probably know, JQA was a life-long learner and habitual student. One of his many passions was horticulture and trees. He often jotted down notes about the trees he observed on his daily walks and because he was the greatest nerd, would quiz himself about what species he saw. For the first five decades of his life, his studies were purely academic. He read thousands of pages of horticulture books and planned for the day when he could implement what he had learned.

On July 5, 1826, he planted his first tree on the White House grounds. We know this exact date because JQA was a historian’s darling and obsessively documented his activities. Over the next few years, he worked with his gardener, John Ousely, to plant over 700 saplings of 25 tree species at the White House. He created a little tree nursery, surrounded by a picket fence, for the baby saplings. Once they were big enough to survive on their own, he moved them to a permanent location on the grounds. While Ousley did much of the planting, JQA frequently joined him when his schedule permitted and puttered around in the dirt. While tending to his saplings, he had Ousley repeat the Latin names for the tree species until JQA had committed them to memory (which is just the most JQA thing ever).

Credit: Anthony St. John Baker, Memoires d’un voyageur qui se repose: With illustrations…. (London: Priv. print., 1850), RB 286000, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California “President’s House, Washington”;White House and Capitol, c. 1826 [watercolor]

JQA had a few goals for his trees. First, he wanted to inspire the American people to support the domestic lumber industry and he hoped that generations of citizens would enjoy the forest he planted. Second, he created the first “national forest.” He requested seeds, nuts, and saplings from species that represented all the states and regions in the nation, including Spanish cherry, cherry, English oak, white oak, peach, double peach, walnut, persimmon, willow, chestnut, horse, chesnut, catalpa, and honey locust. Third, as a student of history, JQA wanted to represent historical moments through his trees. He planted acorns from a Spanish Cherry that George Washington had planted. He planted acorns from a white oak tree in Baltimore than had endured over 20 rounds of firing from British soldiers during the War of 1812. He also planted seeds from the English oak in Salem Massachusetts that had reportedly been used to hang the accused during the Salem Witch Trials.

Sadly, after Andrew Jackson’s victory in the 1828 election, many of his supporters intentionally trampled the sapling garden during their inauguration celebrations to destroy markers of JQA’s presidency. The story doesn’t have a completely sad ending though. Many of the more mature trees survived. As late as 1898, once of the special double peach blossom trees created by Ousely still stood outside the East entrance. In 1991, this tree, likely planted by Adams or Ousely in 1826, finally died. First Lady Barbara Bush planted a tree cultivated from its acorns the same year.

This photograph is of the John Quincy Adams elm tree growing near the peak of the eastern Jefferson Mound. President John Quincy Adams was knowledgeable and passionate about gardening, with a specific interest in trees. He envisioned the White House Grounds as a vast arboretum. He grew more than 700 saplings of varying species. This specific elm died and was cut down in 1991. It was approximately 165 years old.
White House Historical Association/White House Collection

Today, we think of the White House gardens as a space for leisure, celebrations, and commemorative events. Most presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes have planted trees to honor specific citizens, events, places, and more. The National Park Service marks the heritage of many trees on the grounds. Through his tree project, Adams pursued many of the same goals as modern caretakers of the grounds and demonstrated creativity and insight in his thinking about the role of the White House and its grounds. Finally, when we think about politicians and former presidents, we often talk about their political accomplishments and failures. We talk about warfare, diplomacy, and legislation. Sometimes we think about their families and their personalities. But not enough. They were people—complicated, flawed, funny, devious, and weird people. JQA was not just the serious face pictured in the famous photograph taken at the end of his life. Among his many flaws and strengths, he was intensely curious and intellectually rigorous. And he loved trees.

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