Hamilton was an eminent botanist and plant collector, and made The Woodlands a New World model of contemporary English landscape gardening techniques. Employing compositional principles advanced by such landscape and garden notables as Lancelot Brown and Thomas Whately, and nurserymen such as Nathaniel Swinden, Hamilton created an elaborate tableau that Thomas Jefferson called “The only rival I have known in America to what may be seen in England.” Numerous plant and tree species were introduced to North America for the first time by Hamilton at The Woodlands.
William Hamilton, like his other class contemporaries, was greatly influenced by English thoughts and practices regarding the entirety of an ideal country estate. The house and its outlying structures were part of a larger, integrated concept of landscape design--in terms of both view and of movement through the house and grounds. It is important to stress that the house’s prominent siting held a dual purpose in providing Hamilton and his family, friends and visitors with spectacular views and “circuits,” while at the same time consciously marking his place among the social elite. With this in mind, in positioning his house Hamilton chose a rise above the Schuylkill River at a point where it turns ninety degrees in its course just upriver from a ferry, and later a bridge crossing. A person traveling upriver or crossing on the lower or Gray’s Ferry could not have avoided seeing William Hamilton’s new house. The siting alone would not necessary have assured an awe-inspiring view, rather, it was a combination of the house’s location and its two-story monumental tetra prostyle portico, facing the river. In addition, William Hamilton first recorded plans to create a “small park” set apart from a rolling lawn in 1799, and it was not until 1785 that he explicitly set out to remake the grounds as a horticultural showcase in the English manner. Ten years later, visitors believed Hamilton had achieved this effect: the major roads, walks, and planting beds were in place; however, the grounds remained a work in progress. Hamilton and his gardeners would continue to test the viability and placement of various plant species until the end of his life.
Hamilton’s plant collection was vast, and he boasted that “there was not a rare plant in Europe, Asia, Africa, from China and the islands in the South Sea, of which has had any account, which he had not procured.” He was referring to a collection that could only have been amassed through access to a large network of botanists and nurserymen. The network’s local origins lay in the endeavors of James Logan, John Bartram, and Bartram’s English collaborator Peter Collinson. Procuring plants for genteel neighbors like John Penn, Jr. while abroad, and communicating with an international array of botanists at home, he commanded intellectual and natural resources on a staggering scale. Hamilton’s connections to the new nation’s top political leaders--Washington, Madison, and Jefferson--among others, their similar socioeconomic positions, and their mutual interests in botany and estate development, resulted in his successful lobby to receive seeds sent by Lewis and Clark to the government during their exploratory trip to the Pacific in 1804-1806. Hamilton’s interest in and knowledge of botany was well-enough imbedded in his popular persona that his 1813 obituary noted: “The study of botany was the principal amusement of his life.”
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