In 1818, President James Madison warned his fellow horticulturists of American carelessness concerning land use and food production. Addressing an agricultural society meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia, that year, the former president lamented contemporary American agriculture’s poor standing with respect to the
symmetry of nature” –the relationship between humans and the land. He decried the destruction of the once-fertile soil, stripped of its nutrients and subjected to erosion. Land, cheap and plentiful in the young nation, was used up heedlessly, as farmers left depleted terrain for new, unspent places.
Sharing in those concerns was frontiersman and horticulturist John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, he rafted down the rivers of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, planting apple orchards along the fertile shores. The trees he grew from seed would produce apples that were appropriate for making into cider, not for eating. Every new homestead needed an orchard, and the cleaver Chapman sold the young saplings to settlers heading into the wilderness to start farms.
Republican virtue and material success, often at odds, struck a harmonious chord in such still lifes by Peale and King. Virtue, a common term in the political parlance of the era, was connected not just with thrift and frugality but also with wholesomeness, productivity public-spiritedness, and personal and national independence.