A Review of Hamilton for Gardeners
Like the rest of the world, the kids and I watched Hamilton on July 3rd.
And, yes, it blew us all away. We loved it.
And, if YOU watch it, your gardener ears will delight to hear that Hamilton liked to garden.
There's so much about the musical still swirling in my head... and ringing in my ears.
And even history buffs will find revelations in the relationships between the founding fathers featured in Hamilton.
But, today, I'm going to focus on the gardening aspects of the story that figure prominently in the musical.
Alexander Hamilton's firstborn was a son named Philip.
After Philip is killed in a duel, Hamilton sings,
"I spend hours in the garden. I walk alone to the store, and it's quiet uptown. I never liked the quiet before."
Then, later, as Hamilton and his wife mourn their son and repair their marriage, the cast sings,
"They are standing in the garden, Alexander by Eliza's side."
Toward the end of his life, Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, built a federal-style home they called the Grange in upper Manhatten (in modern-day Harlem). The Grange was no Monticello ("MontiCHELLo") or Mount Vernon. It was a pleasant and modest home, and somehow, it is fitting that the etymology of the word Grange means a barn.
In 1802, as work was nearing completion on the Hamilton Grange (as it is referred to today), Hamilton made detailed notes regarding the Grange gardens, and he even sketched a layout for his flower bed.
And, it's a thrill for gardeners to see that Hamilton took the time to write a list for his garden:
- "Transplant [the] fruit trees from the other side of the stable.
- [Repair the] fences ... behind stable.
- The sod and earth which were removed in making the walks.... may be thrown upon the grounds in front of the house, [along with] a few wagon-loads of... compost.
- [Dig] a ditch ... [alongside] the fruit garden and grove about four feet wide.
- The Gardener [should begin] planting of Raspberries in the orchard. He will go to Mr. [John] Delafield for a supply of the English sort and, if not sufficient, will add from our own and [get] some ... from our neighbors.
- If it can be done in time, I [would be happy] if space could be prepared in the center of the flower garden for planting a few tulips, lilies, [and] hyacinths. The space should be [an 18-foot circle], and there should be nine of each [type] of flower. (Hamilton drew a diagram at the bottom of the page to show how he wanted his "Clock Garden" to be planted.
- I [would also like] some laurel ... planted along the edge of the shrubbery and round the clump of trees near the house; [and] also sweet briars... A few dogwood trees, not large, scattered along the margin of the grove would be very pleasant, but the fruit trees ... must be... removed [first].
Hamilton's list made me chuckle because he ends with that comment about the fruit trees and it's kind of a full-circle moment for him because that's how he started his list.
Hamilton needs to transplant those fruit trees and move them to the other side of the stable. In his mind, nothing can happen until that gets done - that HAS TO get done first - that's the sequence in his mind.
When I make a list for the garden, I do the exact same thing.
I can start going off on all of these different tangents and ideas for the garden... but before any of that can happen, I need to put first things first.
For Hamilton and his garden, his list gives us a little clue about one of the first things he did: walkways. After Hamilton made his paths, he saved the soil that he had dug. I found that little nugget of information so relatable because I'm creating a garden here at the cabin and I'm doing the same thing Hamilton did hundreds of years ago: I'm starting with my paths.
And then, finally, the last thing that made me chuckle about Hamilton's list is that you can almost see him thinking out loud as he's writing this note. He starts out by saying, "I'd like some laurel..." and then sweet briars come to his mind... and then before long, he's dreaming of dogwoods. You can almost see the garden spring to life in this little list for his garden.
By December of that same year (1802), Hamilton wrote to his friend Richard Peters:
A disappointed politician you know is very apt to take refuge in a Garden. Accordingly, I have purchased about thirty acres nine miles from town, have built a house, planted a garden, and entered upon some other simple improvements."
In the same letter, he threw a little shade at someone he wasn't always so fond of: President Thomas Jefferson. And, at the same time, Hamilton acknowledged his lack of horticultural knowledge and experience:
"In this new situation (at the Grange)... I am as [ill-]fitted as Jefferson [is] to guide the helm of the [United] States."
This line takes on extra meaning if you've seen Hamilton, because the musical does a great job of portraying this rocky relationship that Hamilton had with Jefferson.
Now, for his garden at the Grange, Hamilton drew on the expertise of his botanist friend and family doctor, David Hosack.
Hosack's Elgin Botanical Garden covered twenty acres, and he was a generous gardening mentor to Hamilton, giving him cuttings and seeds and tips.
When Hamilton was shot by Aaron Burr, it was Hosack who tried in vain to save him.
Today, Rockefeller Center stands on the site of Hosack's Botanical Garden.
As for Hamilton's garden, there's one aspect that paid homage to his political life.
He planted 13 American Sweetgum trees to represent the original 13 colonies. And, it turns out, that the sweetgums were a gift from his old boss: George Washington.
The Hamilton musical has such a poignant ending. Here's a heads up: you'd better have some kleenex handy after the intermission.
Early in the show, Hamilton's ambition was prophetically captured when he says, "God help and forgive me! I wanna build something that's gonna outlive me!"
After his life was cut short, his wife Eliza devotes the next half-century to secure Hamilton's legacy.
When the musical memorably asks, "Legacy. What is a legacy?"
Gardeners will delight in the botanically-inspired response:
"It's planting seeds in a garden you never get to see."
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