It would surprise no one if we learned that our current president has never planted a tree. As talk of authoritarianism becomes elevator chatter, an anecdote about Thomas Jefferson makes it clear how much our leaders have changed since we started electing them. In Urban Trees: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American City, a book that is full of rich historical tidbits, author Jill Jonnes relays something quite profound about how strongly one of our early presidents felt about preserving nature.

In 1801, while residents of the Capitol were running wild, girdling and cutting down trees in the dead of night, mostly for fuel, Jefferson surprised a dinner guest by saying:

“How I wish I possessed the power of a despot. Yes, I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling sacrifices to the cupidity of their owners, or the necessity of the poor.” When his fellow diners raised their eyebrows, Jefferson elaborated that with such “absolute power, I might enforce the preservation of these valuable groves.”

Today’s idea of absolute power, I think, is a little different. But did the president really lack authority over the city’s public lands?

It would, replied the president, require armed guards, which he could not posts at every towering tree. “In a few years, not a tree will remain, and when it is too late, the Legislature will regret that measures were not taken for their preservation.”

Two hundred years ago our president was deflated by his inability to preserve well-established trees in the nation’s capital.

Such laments did not surprise those who knew Jefferson, for every day he set forth from the White House to take “long rides in every direction around the city and [he] never [returned] without some branch of tree, or shrub, or bunch of flowers in his hand. He is acquainted with every tree and plant, from the oak of our forests, to the meanest flower of our valleys.”

ps. Ronald Reagan’s approach? “[Y]ou know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?”