Under his Vine and Fig Tree


June 3, 2014
by Gary Shattuck Also by this Author


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They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree;
and none shall make them afraid.

Micah 4:4

Out at Flushing Landing on Long Island in late 1769, until at least 1779 (apparently little affected by the intervening British invasion of 1776), William Prince advertised for sale “many Thousands of a nice Size” trees, including myriad types of cherry, plum, pear, apple, nectarine, and peach, all selling for one shilling, six pence apiece.  Anyone interested in the cheapest, a cherry, paid a shilling, but he could expect to hand over two for the most expensive, a fig tree.[1]  Had his business been farther south, Prince might have caught the interest of a farmer interested in such agricultural pursuits. While cultivating his Cincinnatus persona at Mount Vernon following his 1783 retirement from the army, George Washington petitioned a friend for assistance, asking the favor of “sending me a few slips of the Vines of your best eating Grape; and a young fig tree or two.”[2]

Sanssouci, the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who plants vast amounts of vines and fig trees. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Sanssouci, the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, who plants vast amounts of vines and fig trees. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Particular care was required of anyone hoping to successfully grow a fig tree in America at the time for, at least in the middle and northern climes, it required either a conservatory or placement against a protecting south-facing wall to take maximum advantage of available heat.[3]  Practically, the vision of arborists and farmers selling, buying, planting, and tending their vines and fig trees during the country’s formative years afforded each a degree of ease in their lives.  But it also served an important dual purpose for, even if the exercise was not wholly possible in a time of revolution, it allowed them to cling to a calming mental image invoking ancient ideals while enduring years of hardship.

In the eighth-century B.C., the prophet Micah envisioned a Utopian time when peace and accord prevailed in Zion, when Babylonian rule over the Israelites had been removed and warfare ceased between nations.  In giving definition to the anticipated arrival of more serene times, Micah first invoked his more familiar language describing swords turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  From there, he transitioned immediately to the resulting state of bliss, a moment allowing a man to retreat to the shade of his vine and fig tree, where he could remain and “none shall make him afraid.”[4]  It was a condition that many on the North American continent had sought since their first arrival, to be left alone to develop and nurture their families and estates while simultaneously invoking the biblical image of “the industrious husbandman.”[5]  The undeniable attractiveness of Micah’s call continued undiminished, unaffected  by the changing political winds from London, and accorded favorably with rising revolutionaries as many found occasion to express a desire to avoid, or cease in, any contest with Britain disrupting their cherished, imaginary idyll.

In one of the earliest secular declarations of the time, one newspaper writer condemned the vigorous actions of British ships patrolling outside of Newport, Rhode Island, enforcing onerous revenue laws in 1769.  With fond memories of the good-old-days living under the rule of a prior monarch, VERACITAS (Truthfulness) bemoaned the recent seizure of a merchant ship and addressed a public letter to “the ever to be respected SONS OF LIBERTY” calling their attention to conditions existing during “the reign of that great and good King George II.”  That was a time, he said, when “industry was encouraged” and “liberties and immunities then enjoyed by us were very justly valued and esteemed … [when] every man sat under his own vine, and under his own fig-tree, and enjoyed with security what he earned with the sweat of his face.”[6]

A 1771 drawing of the common fig foliage and fruit. Source: plantillustrations.org
A 1771 drawing of the common fig foliage and fruit. Source: plantillustrations.org

With despised Crown assessments continuing, a year later PHILAGRIUS penned a scree “To the ladies” asking them to abide a recent decision of their male counterparts foregoing the consumption of East India tea to protest paying a tax.  He similarly noted the changing times and pointed out that this was “no more the land where each may sit down under his own vine and fig tree and none make him afraid.” [7]  Even the metaphor itself found particular applicability when one writer protested in 1772 the overreaching of royal authorities in their pursuit of those illegally removing valuable pine trees specially protected for the masts of the King’s navy.  Coming to the defense of a poor defendant charged with the crime, he asked “Are not the men that exercise the pretended powers of courts of admiralty, now distressing the industrious husbandman; tacitly declaring that they shall no longer sit under his own vine, and under his own fig tree, and have none to make him afraid?”[8]

Expressing increased displeasure with methods used by authorities to collect tea-related taxes, the following year, on the very eve of the Boston Tea Party, and with noted increasing vitriol calling forth Micah’s siren call, another writer unequivocally rejected efforts by local merchants seeking to escape community scrutiny.  “Americans!,” he demanded, “Defeat this last Effort of a most pernicious, expiring Faction, and you may sit down under your own Vines and Fig Trees,” concluding with threatening emphasis that “none shall hereafter DARE TO MAKE YOU AFRAID.”[9]

The passage of the next couple of years did nothing to diminish the importance of the biblical vision and was once again emphasized in March 1775 on the fifth anniversary of the Boston Massacre by Dr. Joseph Warren in his Oration Delivered at the Request of the Inhabitants.  Then, he called upon Boston residents teetering at the very outbreak of “civil war” to recall their past.  Tenderly reflecting on that now-gone happy condition when England and her loyal subjects shared a robust and vibrant economic climate, when there were no rising divisions, Warren bespoke “the Colonist [who] found himself free, and thought himself secure, he dwelt under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and had none to make him afraid….”[10]  Further south in Virginia another writer protested the times with, “… did not the men of America thy servants dwell without fear, every man under his vine, and under his fig tree, from Terra Labradore unto the coast of the Georgeites, all the days of Solomon thy grandfather?”[11]

With the outbreak of war, Micah’s call remained relevant and was never far from anyone’s mind, including those inclined towards British interests.  When Loyalist William Gardner, of Gardnerston out in the Maine wilderness, learned that the Massachusetts charter and courts had been suspended, he was moved to exclaim, “Now we shall see glorious times; now we shall be happy; now we may sit down, every man under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and have none to make us afraid….”[12]  Even miscreants from within patriot ranks found occasion to summon up Micah.  When Lt. Col. Thomas Farrington was arrested and put into Boston’s gaol for passing counterfeit continental bills (“a crime of the most atrocious nature”), he sought forgiveness, invoking the ancient’s words to excuse his conduct.  Soliciting understanding from the Council, he tried to explain his behavior by telling them he provided important service to his country and had himself left his family in the remote Maine wilds in order to take up the rebellion “in hopes, after this glorious struggle, to enter into the new Canaan, and repose his wearied limbs under the shadow of his own vine and fig tree, and none to make him afraid.”  The effort was successful and Farrington gained his freedom.[13]

On the frontlines, commanders found numerous opportunities to recall Micah’s vision, although not always adopting the same language.  For Massachusetts Colonel John Glover, it was “his dream to go home ‘with Life and Laurels,’ … to live far ‘from the Noise & Bustle of the World,’” while, for General Nathanael Greene, it was a matter of lamenting a heartfelt desire to depart the war, return home, and be “with my little family about me.”[14]  In his General Orders for August 12, 1776 (Parole, Adams; Countersign, Willson) Horatio Gates exhorted the troops at Ft. Ticonderoga to turn out to finish construction on important defensive works, explaining to them that in doing so it would allow the Army’s success and thereby permit their fellow-Americans to return to “his own vine and fig tree.”[15]

George Washington himself was no stranger to Micah, making no less than thirty-seven documented references to a desire to retire to a state of bliss free of the ardor of war.[16]  As he retreated across the New Jersey countryside in 1776, virtually anything was preferable to what he was experiencing at the moment.  Writing from Hackensack to his brother John in Virginia on November 19, he described his many frustrations with the way the war was unfolding.  Confessing he was personally “wearied almost to death,” it is understandable that he envied John’s more removed situation when he told him that “Nothing in this world would contribute so much to mine as to be once more fixed among you in the peaceable enjoyment of my own vine and fig-tree.”[17]

But, of course, Washington was able to extract himself, albeit temporarily, from public service at the close of the war, to return home and then order up and tend his vines and fig trees.  The relief he experienced is palpable; he wrote in 1784,

I am at length become a private citizen of America, on the banks of the Patowmac [sic]; where under my own Vine and my own Fig-tree, free from the bustle of a camp and the intrigues of a court, I shall view the busy world, “in the calm light of mild philosophy,” and with that serenity of mind, which the Soldier in his pursuit of glory, and the Statesman of fame, have not time to enjoy.  I am not only retired from all public employments; but I am retiring within myself and shall tread the private walks of life with heartfelt satisfaction.[18]

Writing shortly afterwards to Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette’s wife, he continued to luxuriate in his new-found condition, telling her he was freed

From the clangor of arms and the bustle of a camp, freed from the cares of public employment, and the responsibility of office, I am now enjoying domestic ease under the shadow of my own Vine, and my own Fig tree; and in a small Villa, with the implements of Husbandry, and Lambkins around me, I expect to glide gently down the stream of life, ’till I am entombed in the dreary mansions of my Fathers.[19]

Washington was certainly not alone in wanting to avoid a call summoning a return to public service.  When his friend George Mason experienced unwelcome efforts recruiting him to join the Virginia House of Delegates, he deeply resented the effort, striking out and calling it “an oppressive & unjust Invasion of my personal Liberty,” taking him away from the “Sweets of domestic Life” where he enjoyed “Ease under the Shade of his own vine & his own fig-tree.”[20]

Sharing the two men’s heartfelt sentiments, a war-weary public also welcomed the peace, with many invoking Micah’s ultimate vision:

… and every man shall enjoy the fruits of his ingenuity, under his own vine and fig tree;[21]
We shall then sit down in peace and quietness, every man under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall make him afraid.  We shall begin to build large ships and trade with all nations….;[22]
Had America been cordially united, we should long ago have sat everyone under his own vine, and his own fig tree….;[23]
While we had liberty and justice, and in security enjoyed the fruits of our “vine and fig tree,” ….[24]

Following his recall to public service as president between 1789 and 1797, Washington managed to finally break away once and for all to pursue his delayed dream.  If he was happy at war’s end, he was absolutely elated by this time:

I am now seated in the shade of my own Vine and Fig tree, and shall devote the remainder of a life, nearly worn out to such Agricultural and rural amusements as will afford employment for myself, and cannot, or ought not, to give offence to any one; offering while I am on this Theatre, my sincere vows that the ravages of war, and the turbulence of passions; may yield their sceptors to Peace and tranquility that the world may enjoy repose.[25]

Alas, upon the approach of difficulties with France bringing on the pointless Quasi-War, Washington once again invoked Micah’s call referring to the problems the country’s important ally now represented.  In 1798, he told a female friend that he was

Worn out in a manner by the toils of my past labour, I am again seated under my Vine and Fig tree, and wish I could add that, there are none to make us afraid; but those whom we have been accustomed to call our good friends and Allies, are endeavouring, if not to make us afraid, yet to despoil us of our property; and are provoking us to Acts of self-defence, which may lead to War. What will be the result of such measures, time, that faithful expositor of all things, must disclose. My wish is, to spend the remainder of my days (which cannot be many) in rural amusements; free from those cares [from] which public responsibility is never exempt.[26]

Those troubles were no doubt further discussed when he had occasion to meet with the new president when, only weeks later, he wrote to John Adams that “It is unnecessary, I hope, … to express the satisfaction it would give Mrs. Washington and me to see Mrs. Adams, yourself and Company in the shade of our Vine and Fig tree” as they travelled in the neighborhood.[27]  It was to be one of his last references to his cherished state of bliss; he died the following year.

In a time of much discord and uncertainty, any opportunity allowing the revolutionary generation to envision that they were on a correct path to reclaiming a peaceful condition they believed once prevailed in their land was welcome.  Micah’s description of abundance and security allowed them a moment, no matter how brief, to invoke that ideal; the vision remained attractive and continually spoke to all parts of society.  Certainly, summoning them to the ideals that freedom and independence represented were powerful forces in and of themselves.  But one must ask: at its most basic level was it not just the simple call to be left alone, to pursue their own destiny in peace, that constituted the foundation of it all?

[Featured Image at Top: “Washington and Family at Mount Vernon,” engraved by Phillibrown and painted by Chappel. Source: Mount Vernon]


[1] New York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury (New York City), October 9, 1769, October 4, 1779.

[2] George Washington to John Marsden Pintard, November 18, 1785, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799 (Washington: GPO, 1931), 28:315.

[3] Daniel Jay Browne, The Trees of America, Native and Foreign (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1846), 473.

[4] Micah 4:3-4; James Luther Mays, Micah, a Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 93.

[5] Jack P. Greene, Understanding the American Revolution: Issues and Actors (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 366.

[6] The New London Gazette, August 4, 1769.

[7] Boston Evening-Post, February 5, 1770.

[8] Massachusetts Spy (Boston), May 7, 1772.

[9] Boston Gazette and Country Journal, November 22, 1773.

[10] “Oration Delivered at the Request of the Inhabitants of Boston, to Commemorate the Bloody Tragedy of the 5th of March, 1770, by Doctor Joseph Warren,” American Archives Series 4, 2:38.

[11] Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg), June 29, 1775.

[12] Affidavit of Nathaniel Thwing, August 2, 1776, American Archives Series 5, 2:739.

[13] Pennsylvania Ledger (Philadelphia), January 24, 1778.

[14] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 9, 499.

[15] General Orders, August 12, 1776, American Archives Series 5, 1:1125.

[16] Jeffrey H. Morrison, Political Philosophy of George Washington (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 144; Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Westminster, MD: Random House, 2006), 101-102, 261; Walter Berns, Making Patriots (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 28.

[17] George Washington to John Augustine Washington, November 19, 1776, American Archives Series 5, 3:765.

[18] George Washington to Chevalier de Chastellux, Feb. 1, 1784, Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 27:314-15.

[19] George Washington to Marchioness de Lafayette, April 4, 1784, Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 27:385.

[20] George Mason to Martin Cockburn, April 18, 1784, Mason Papers, Vols. 1:267, 2:747, 799, cited in Greene, Understanding the American Revolution, 240.

[21] Massachusetts Spy, December 14, 1781.

[22] Massachusetts Spy, June 6, 1782.

[23] New England Chronicle, August 1, 1782.

[24] Massachusetts Spy, May 15, 1788.

[25] George Washington to Sir Edward Newenham, August 6, 1797, Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from, Vol. 36, unnumbered.

[26] George Washington to Sarah Cary Fairfax, May 16, 1798, Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 36:263.

[27] George Washington to President John Adams, June 17, 1798, Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, 36, unnumbered.

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