Richard Peters (June 22, 1744–August 22, 1828), a federal judge and Revolutionary War patriot, devoted himself to agricultural experiments at Belmont, his family’s estate outside of Philadelphia, where he operated a model farm. Peters published extensively and became a leading authority on best practices for American agriculture.
Richard Peters was born at Belmont, the estate on the Schuylkill River that his father, William Peters, was then in the process of developing as a suburban villa and pleasure garden [Fig. 1]. Following William’s return to England in 1768, Peters assumed responsibility for the property, which served as his primary residence for the next sixty years. He made significant changes to the house and gardens, adding wings to the north and south sides of the building and a piazza across the front, and substantially reducing the size of the ornamental gardens in order to devote more land to practical farming. In contrast to his Loyalist father, Richard Peters was an ardent supporter of American independence. He served as secretary of the Board of War, working closely with Robert Morris to raise money and supplies for the Continental Army. He also represented Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress (1782–83) and served as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly from 1787 to 1792. Renowned for his lively wit and generous hospitality, Peters hosted many prominent Americans and foreign visitors at Belmont, particularly during the years that Philadelphia served as the seat of the federal government (1790–1800). Among those who strolled Belmont’s gardens and discussed agriculture and politics with Peters were George Washington, John Quincy Adams, James Madison, John Jay, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Peters actively experimented with new scientific methods of agriculture and animal husbandry intended to improve the productivity of American farms. The use of plaster of Paris as a fertilizing agent, which he recommended in a widely circulated pamphlet published in 1797 (with a dedication to his friend George Washington), influenced the methods of other gentlemen farmers, including Washington and Thomas Jefferson, with whom he frequently corresponded on agricultural matters. Peters went on to promote scientific methods of agriculture in A Discourse on Agriculture: Its Antiquity and Importance to Every Member of the Community (1816) and in more than 100 reports published under the auspices of the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture (founded in 1785), of which he was a charter member, and president from 1805 to 1828. Under his leadership, the Society gained new momentum, organizing exhibitions of farm products and labor-saving machinery, analyzing seeds and plant specimens, and distributing foreign seeds to American farmers. Peters also founded the Merion Society for Promoting Agriculture and Rural Economy in 1790, serving as its president for 38 years, and as a judge of the U.S. District Court of Pennsylvania from 1792 until his death in 1828.
In the late 1790s Peters spearheaded the planning and construction of a permanent bridge over the Schuylkill River (opened in 1805) which made it possible to commute to Philadelphia from country houses such as Belmont, rendering the west side of the Schuylkill truly suburban. In recognition of his service, one of the bridge posts was decorated with a portrait of Peters in a bronze medallion. Along with Benjamin Franklin, he was one of the first non-Quakers to join the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery. Peters also served for several years as president of the American Convention of Antislavery Societies, corresponded with many British abolitionists, and campaigned against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. His multifarious activities reportedly caused Peters to neglect Belmont, which some described as presenting a shabby appearance. When taken to task for the derelict appearance of his fields, the judge reportedly delivered the riposte, “How can you expect me . . . to attend to all these things when my time is so taken up in telling others how to farm?"
- Chastellux, François Jean, Marquis de, c. 1780–82, Travels in North America (1787: 1:304)
- “Nothing can equal the beauties of the coup d'oeil which the banks of the Schuylkill present, in descending towards the south to return to Philadelphia.
- “I found a pretty numerous company assembled at dinner at the Chevalier de la Luzerne’s, which was augmented by the arrival of the Comte de Custine and the M. de Laval. In the evening we took them to see the President of the Congress, who was not at home, and then to Mr. Peters, the Secretary to the Board of War, to whom it was my first visit. His house is not large, nor his office of great importance.”
- Anonymous English translator of Marquis De Chastellux, c. 1787, Travels in North America, 1780–81–82 (1787: 1:301)
- “The beautiful banks of the Schuylkill are every where covered with elegant country houses; among others, those of Mr. Penn, the late proprietor, Mr. Hamilton, and Mr. Peters, late Secretary to the Board of War, are on the most delightful situations. The tasty little box of the last gentleman is on the most enchanting spot that nature can embellish, and besides the variegated beauties of the rural banks of the Schuylkill, commands the Delaware, and the shipping mounting and descending it, where it is joined at right angles by the former. From hence is the most romantic ride up the river to the Falls, in which the opposite bank is likewise seen beautifully interspersed with the country houses of the opulent citizens of the capital. On your arrival at the Falls, every little knoll or eminence is occupied by one of these charming retreats.”
- Watson, Joshua Rowley, June 17, 1816, diary entry describing a visit to Belmont (quoted in Foster 1997: 292–93)
- “In the evening I accompanied my Uncle over to Bellmont to pay my respects to Judge Peters—the House is finely situated and looks down on the River Schuylkill command[ing] a view of the grounds of Lansdown, Eaglesfield and the distance closed by the City & Jersies. He show’d me his Gardens and Orchards in the latter of which was a variety of Grasses, but I saw none of that sort which in England is commonly called Heaver. In the Garden he show’d me a Chesnut Tree which General Washington planted, the day he came out to take leave of his old friend. . . . He has promised me some fruit from it, & a young tree of the same. . . .
- “I was also shown a grove of Pines in which the General used frequently to walk in and converse with the Judge. . . .
- "Bellmont house is old, but is well built of stone and like all the Country houses, has a Piazza in front. I don't see why those in England should not have the same, which would secure a fine airy walk in all weathers, besides being ornamental to the building.”
- Breck, Samuel, September 29, 1828, Address Delivered before the Blockley and Merion Agricultural Society (1828: 78–79)
- “The President who placed him on the bench, knew him [Richard Peters] well, and took great delight in his society. When a morning of leisure permitted that great man to drive to Belmont, the birth-place and country residence of Judge Peters, it was his constant habit so to do. There, sequestered from the world,—the torments and cares of business, Washington would enjoy a vivacious, recreative, and wholly unceremonious intercourse with the Judge; walking for hours, side by side, in the beautiful gardens of Belmont, beneath the dark shade of lofty hemlocks, placed there by his ancestors, nearly a century ago. In those romantic grounds, there stands a chestnut tree, reared from a Spanish nut, planted by the hand of Washington. Large, healthy, and fruitful, it is cherished at Belmont, as a precious evidence of the intimacy that subsisted between those distinguished men. The stranger who visits these umbrageous walks, trimmed and decorated in the style of the seventeenth century, pauses amid ‘clipt hedges of pyramids, obelisks, and balls,’ formed by the evergreen and compact spruce, to contemplate this thriving tree, and carry back his memory to the glorious virtuous career of him who placed it there.”
- Downing, Andrew Jackson, 1844, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1844: 31–32, 33)
- “The seat of the late Judge Peters [Belmont], about five miles from Philadelphia, was, 30 years ago, a noted specimen of the ancient school of landscape gardening. Its proprietor had a most extended reputation as a scientific agriculturist, and his place was also no less remarkable for the design and culture of its pleasure-grounds, than for the excellence of its farm. Long and stately avenues, with vistas terminated by obelisks, a garden adorned with marble vases, busts and statues, and pleasure grounds filled with the rarest trees and shrubs, were conspicuous features here. Some of the latter are now so remarkable as to attract strongly the attention of the visitor. Among them, is the chestnut planted by Washington which produces the largest and finest fruit; very large hollies; and a curious old box tree much higher than the mansion near which it stands. But the most striking feature now, is the still remaining grand old avenue of hemlocks, (Abies canadensis.) Many of these trees, which were planted 100 years ago, are now venerable specimens, ninety feet high, whose huge trunks and wide spread branches, are in many cases densely wreathed and draped with masses of English Ivy, forming the most picturesque, sylvan objects we ever beheld. . . .”
- “Judge Peters’ seat, Lemon Hill, and Clermont were of the ancient style, in the earliest period of the history of Landscape Gardening among us.”
- Mark Reinberger, “Belmont: The Bourgeois Villa in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” Arris: Journal of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians 9 (1998): 22, 33, view on Zotero.
- Royce Shingleton, Richard Peters: Champion of the New South (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1985), 6, view on Zotero; Samuel Breck, Address Delivered before the Blockley and Merion Agricultural Society, on Saturday, September 29th, 1828, on the Death on [sic] Their Late President, The Hon. Richard Peters (Philadelphia: Lydia R. Bailey, 1828), 6–15, view on Zotero; Richard Peters Jr., “Belmont Mansion,” Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia 30 (1925): 85–86, view on Zotero.
- Richard Peters and Samuel Breck, “A Collection of Puns and Witticisms of Judge Richard Peters,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 253 (1901): 366–69, view on Zotero; Rufus Wilmot Griswold, The Republican Court: Or American Society in the Days of Washington (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1855), 264–65, view on Zotero.
- Nellie Peters Black, Richard Peters, His Ancestors and Descendants: 1810–1889 (Atlanta: Foote & Davies, 1904), 92, view on Zotero; Peters 1925: 88–89, view on Zotero.
- Benjamin R. Cohen, Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 38–40, 97, view on Zotero. See also Richard Peters, Agricultural Enquiries on Plaister of Paris: Also Facts, Observations and Conjectures on That Sub[s]tance, When Applied as Manure: Collected, Chiefly from the Practice of Farmers in Pennsylvania, and Published as Much with a View to Invite, as to Give Information (Philadelphia: Charles Cist and John Markland, 1797), view on Zotero.
- Simon Baatz, “Venerate the Plough”; A History of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, 1785–1985 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, 1985), view on Zotero; Shingleton, 1985, 7–8, view on Zotero; Breck 1828, 23–26, view on Zotero.
- Frank Griggs Jr., “The Permanent Bridge,” Structure Magazine (October 2013), http://www.structuremag.org/?p=817; Peters 1825, 86–87, view on Zotero; Reinberger 1998, 33, view on Zotero. See also Richard Peters, A Statistical Account of the Schuylkill Permanent Bridge: Communicated to the Philadelphia Society of Agriculture, 1806 (Philadelphia: Johnson & Warner, 1815), view on Zotero.
- Breck 1828, 19–20, view on Zotero.
- Kathryn Kish Sklar and James Brewer Stewart, Women’s Rights and Transatlantic Antislavery in the Era of Emancipation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 146, view on Zotero; Edward Needles, An Historical Memoir of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (Philadelphia: Merrihew and Thompson, 1848), 29, view on Zotero.
- Harold Donaldson Eberlein and Horace Mather Lippincott, The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and Its Neighbourhood (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1912), 149, view on Zotero.
- Chastellux 1787, view on Zotero.
- Kathleen A. Foster, Captain Watson’s Travels in America: The Sketchbooks and Diary of Joshua Rowley Watson, 1772–1818 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), view on Zotero.
- Breck 1828, view on Zotero.
- Andrew Jackson Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, 2nd ed. (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1844), view on Zotero.