Monticello guide Kyle Chattleton explores how plants and gardens animated a friendship between Thomas Jefferson and Madame de Tessé, who were oftentimes separated by an ocean, revolution, and politics.

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Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. 

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton. 

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new. 

For this episode, I will begin with an apology for my French.

“Altho the times are big with political events, yet I shall say nothing on that or any subject but the innocent ones of botany & friendship.” -Thomas Jefferson to Madame de Tessé.

Her fuller name was Adrienne Catherine de Noailles, but she was better known as Madame de Tessé. She was the daughter of the 4th Duke of Noailles, and, more distantly, the aunt-in-law of the Marquis de Lafayette. She was described as, “In every respect a remarkable person: small, piercing eyes, a pretty face marred at the age of twenty by small pox, which, it is said, was no worry to her thanks to her precocious mind; […] an imposing air, grace and dignity in all her movements, and above all, infinitely witty. She was one of those ladies of the Old Regime, captivated by the philosophical ideas of the century, and intoxicated by the seductive innovations which were to bring about, in their eyes, the regeneration and happiness of our country.”

Madame de Tessé was born on Christmas Eve, 1741 in France, and in 1755, she married the Comte de Tessé. As members of the French nobility, the couple enjoyed a life of luxury, prestige, and constant company. They owned two properties: a home in Paris as well as the Chateau de Chaville outside the city, built for their use at the orders of King Louis XV. A young Mozart dedicated one of his first compositions to Madame, a pair of sonatas for violin and piano. And in the years leading up to the French Revolution, she held a salon in her Parisian home, where philosophers shared their thoughts on politics, society, history, and other subjects.

It was perhaps in this salon that she first met the new American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson. It was an immediate friendship, as the two shared many interests, including botany and horticulture. She invited Jefferson to her chateau, surrounded by gardens constructed in the English style. Meandering paths accompanied streams, kiosks, and numerous tree, shrub, and flower species.

Jefferson was eager to contribute to her garden while both in Paris and when back in the United States. According to Peggy Cornett, the Curator of Plants at present-day Monticello, “While still living in Paris, Jefferson implored American naturalists and nurserymen to send plants for her gardens at Chaville. […] After his return to Virginia, Jefferson continued this quest firsthand, and wrote to the Comtesse on March 11, 1790 that he had seen to the collection of young plants ‘in most perfect condition,’ and had attended to the packing himself. Each plant was carefully labeled and layered into boxes of fresh moss. […] His parcels included umbrella magnolias, tulip poplars, mountain laurels, red cedars, sassafras, persimmons, dogwoods, oaks, and sweet shrubs.”

While Madame de Tessé was sympathetic to the thoughts and ideas surrounding the French Revolution, her status as a member of the nobility put her and her husband in a precarious state. The two fled to Switzerland, and many of the plants in the chateau gardens, including those sent by Jefferson, were “nationalized” and brought to the Jardin du Roi in Paris.

What followed next was a significant break in correspondence between Jefferson and Madame de Tessé. The international politics between France, England, and the United States brought about this cool in conversation. There were a few rare letters, however, that were exchanged. Jefferson wrote to Madame in 1795, “I wish my next news may be that your country is placed in peace and freedom, and yourself returned to it and treated with that justice which I know to be due to your free and patriotic principles.” He continues by hoping she will set aside her fear of the sea and set sail for America, where “a genial climate, a grateful soil, [and] gardens planted by nature” can be found.

In time, the two renewed their correspondence and also continued sharing plants with one another. Madame de Tessé wrote to Jefferson in 1804, “several of your seedlings will die, but several will survive. I have high hopes for the seeds you sent me, except those of the […] tulip tree. They were almost entirely empty. I was a little sad. […] If you would be kind enough to send me three or four bushels every year, specifying that they be collected carefully […] I would be very touched by this sign of your ongoing kindness to me.”

For Jefferson, one of his most favored testaments to their friendship came in a delivery of seeds from Madame in 1809. He specifically was sent seeds of a Goldenrain tree, a tree originally native to China. Jefferson had them planted in Virginia soil, marking the introduction of the Goldenrain tree to the United States. Jefferson remarked to Tessé in 1811 that a seedling “has germinated, and is now growing.” He continues, “I cherish it with particular attentions, as it daily reminds me of the friendship with which you have honored me.”

Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

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