Charles Willson Peale and His Father
Not all great families are founded on a crime, but the Peale family was: Charles Peale (1709-50), the artist's father, was a convicted felon, transported to America after the commutation of a death sentence he received upon being found guilty of theft and forgery while an officer of the London Post Office. "Charles Peel of St. Mary Woolnoth [London]" was indicted on five counts of theft and embezzlement, including embezzling 170 by stealing, forging an endorsement, and then passing a bill of exchange. Tried at the Old Bailey, he "pleaded Guilty, and thereupon receiv'd Sentence of DEATH" in May 1735. The frequency with which the death penalty was imposed and the expansion of the definition of capital crimes were hallmarks of eighteenth-century English jurisprudence as the magistrates relied on the noose to protect and maintain both property and property relations.1
Peale was doubly implicated. Stealing a note was a straightforward, "traditional" crime of theft. But it was the forgery that gave Peale's crime its significance and called down the death penalty on him. Forgery had one of the highest rates of execution to conviction in mid-eighteenth-century England; even after the death penalty mania waned toward the end of the century, the sentence continued to be imposed disproportionately in cases of forgery. In the context of a modernizing economy, forgery not only evoked traditional fears about the fragility of identity but, by implying a potential to destroy contractual trust, threatened the very basis on which business was conducted. The abstraction of the market, and especially the representation of specie by paper instruments, required the economic fiction that buyer and seller were known to each other and met as equals. As the historian J.G.A. Pocock observes, "Once property was seen to have a symbolic value, expressed in coin or credit, the foundations of personality themselves appeared imaginary or at best consensual: the individual could exist, even in his own sight, only at the fluctuating value imposed upon him by his fellows." The precept "Who steals my purse steals trash," but "he that filches from me my good name . . . / makes me poor indeed" was taking on new force: a good name was becoming the equivalent of the clinkingly full premodern purse, and the law increasingly came down hard on counterfeits, both metal and flesh.2
What led Charles Peale to commit theft and forgery? Recent English historiography has produced a new version of the once predominant characterization of the eighteenth century as a period of economic prosperity and political and cultural stability. After a decade of interest in "history from the bottom up" scholarship that emphasized inter- and intraclass conflict, a more conservative political era has spawned a conservative historiography, one especially attuned to celebrating macroeconomic growth and material luxury. In this "Great House" interpretation of the culture, material luxury is taken for the society rather than interpreted as the product of the society. To sustain this view, history has to be largely descriptive, and commodity fetishism tends to creep into the scholarly language: the exquisiteness of a Chippendale obliterates the processes by which it was made and marketed; the richness of an Adam facade hides the working life of a Great House; the extended familial life of the Great House is based on the denial of that life to Caribbean slaves; and so on. In accounts of "progress," elaborations on "the spirit of the age," and effusive descriptions of the furnishings, what is omitted is a full reckoning of not only how progress is achieved but what it costs as well.3
If we strip away the rich appurtenances that romanticize Georgian England, we can see it as a culture in which money acted to dissolve traditional relationships of all kinds. If everything from offices to ancient demesnes was for sale and the cash nexus was the measure of all worth, then the list of capital crimes had to be expanded to set the outer limits of what would be socially tolerable. In such a zero-sum society, money was especially important for those who did not have it: most obviously the poor (many of whom, it is often forgotten, lived at or below the subsistence level) but also those men nearly of the middling sort who yearned for a prosperity they feared would pass them by. For Charles Peale, chafing in a career as a government functionary, the desire to rise, to become a member of the gentry, was so overwhelming that he was willing to steal to satisfy it.4
Yet Peale was fortunate. If he ran afoul of the law in its enforcement of property rights, he was probably saved from the gallows by his own membership in the class that the law served—or at least his apparent membership in that class, since Charles Peale is a slippery character, about whom the few details known are shadowed by ambiguity and falsehood. He claimed to be a graduate of Cambridge University, although no record of his matriculation, attendance, or graduation has been found. He claimed an inheritance to an estate in Rutlandshire and thus membership in the English "country" gentry. But his claim to the estate has no substantiation except for his profession of it. The efforts he said he made to obtain his family's due inheritance never succeeded. It has to be wondered if Charles Peale's forgery speaks to a tendency to dissemble, to inflate his own credentials, and even to assume the persona of another. The small case of Charles Peale, which on one level is an instance of simple résumé padding, says something about the strength of the desire for social mobility—the desire to remake oneself—in eighteenth-century England. Paul Baines has concluded that in that society, "forgery was a kind of bourgeois treason," but with the crucial difference that the forger wanted to sell into the society, not sell it out. Forgery pushed beyond the permissible limits of shape shifting in eighteenth-century England, but it did so (and became a major criminal problem) only because it skirted legitimate methods of success so closely. In eighteenth-century England, Charles Peale's crime was not just that he stole but that he failed.5
As the law was designed to benefit the bourgeoisie as a class, it usually benefited its individual members. Despite his questionable résumé, Charles Peale had enough of a foothold in respectable society to have his sentence mitigated. He could not escape his conviction, but he did avoid "Tyburn's tree." Perhaps because he pled the case or had influence at court, Peale's capital punishment was commuted to transportation to the American colonies. Parliament had passed the law permitting transportation in 1717, with felons to serve a term in bondage of seven or fourteen years, depending on the crime. The availability of transportation as a punitive option may have been one reason for the reduction of Peale's sentence. Charles Peale was duly embarked on the ship Dorsetshire on January 25, 1735, and sent to America with a "cargo" of 169 other felons. After crossing, the Dorsetshire dropped its transportees in Virginia, where Charles Peale landed, and Maryland.6
Lucky in avoiding the gallows, Charles Peale found himself fortunate again upon landing in Tidewater America. He arrived at just the moment when the system of bond labor for whites was ending in colonial Virginia, to be fully replaced by chattel slavery. Socially, bond labor had posed intractable problems for the colony and the Crown as bond men, once their terms expired, were released into a society that could not assimilate them economically or socially. After Bacon's Rebellion (1676), the threat of another class insurrection had to be removed for good. The remedy was a full-fledged commitment to develop slavery as the colony's primary labor system for staple agricultural production. Concomitant with the move to slavery was an improvement in the colony's economy that positively affected all its white residents. From the early to the mid-eighteenth century in Virginia, the rich were getting richer, but so were the less rich, and the class of the poor declined in both absolute and comparative terms. As the locus of coerced labor shifted from the general society to the plantation (and as racism and draconian racial laws metastasized in order to justify slavery for blacks), the result was a loosening of legal and customary restrictions on white laborers, including even transported felons.7
Culturally and politically the big planters put aside their class pretensions to embrace lower-class whites in common cause against Africans. Disembarked in Virginia, Charles Peale found the conditions of his punishment so lenient as to be nonexistent. While unable to continue his career as a postal official in the colonies—he apparently sought such an appointment but the authorities prudently turned him down—he was able to work in Virginia as a tutor and later as a schoolteacher, with some pretensions to publishing instructional books. With the War of Jenkins' Ear (1739), Peale left Virginia for Annapolis, Maryland, where he continued his career as a teacher. He married the already pregnant Margaret Triggs on November 1, 1740, and on April 15, 1741, their first of seven children, Charles Willson Peale, was born.8
Charles Peale was disappointed by his failure to become one of the landed gentry in England or the slaveholding planters in the Tidewater. He lived out his life as a schoolteacher, dying at age forty-one. The meagerness of his property at his death attests to a life lived on the margin. The total estate was valued at just more than 59. The inventory catalogues thirty-four categories of personal and household property such as six "Rush bottomed Chairs" totaling fifteen shillings, a tea table also at fifteen shillings, "1 Coffee Mill" valued at sixpence, and "2 Armed Chairs" worth two pounds. The inventory lists one suit of clothes, "Coat vest & Breeches," valued 1.5.0. The most valuable items enumerated are three horses and one colt, worth a total of 16.10, and a "Riding Chair" or light carriage assessed at 12.5. Peale kept a pig and an unspecified number of piglets (2.0.0), owned the rights to the annual crop of a wheat field, for the cultivation of which he had "1 old plow and Irons," and owned the time of an indentured servant named Eliza, valued at 13.9
Peale owned practically nothing that gave him standing in a Tidewater society whose status derived, above all, from the ownership of land and slaves. He could only serve those who had it. Lacking resources, he could at best mimic the style and manners of his social betters. For instance, with his horses, one of which was a fox hunter, Peale could cut a stylish figure as well as participate in the rural sports that animated the social life of men in the colonial and antebellum South. Horses literally and figuratively gave status to their riders; the historian Rhys Isaac reminds us that the eighteenth-century landscape looked very different to those who walked and those who rode. On a horse, a man could make a display, demonstrating his mastery over both the animal and other men and his equality with other men on horseback. In January 1745/46, Charles Peale missed school "to go a foxhunting" and then reacted bitterly when his students' parents complained about his absence. It is doubtful that Peale's response—"when I was paid better, for their Schooling, they might with more Propriety found Complaints agst. me"—mollified them. Peale was forgetting his place. He might ride to hounds alongside the gentry, but he would never be one of them, and the peevishness of his response reveals the weakness of his position. Charles Peale was not likely ever to be paid better, and adopting the arrogance of the planter class was not likely to win him further students.10
Charles Peale's choler was part of his general character. From his few surviving letters comes an image of a perpetually disgruntled, dissatisfied, and frequently self-pitying man. His ill temper may have been exacerbated by health problems on which he dwelled in morbid detail, as when he described "Pains in my Bowels & lower parts of the Belly" and went on to add that "I am sometimes with [bowel movements] very sick & mawkish at stomach." He concluded that this pain "generally much dispirits me." Perhaps he would have felt better if he had made any progress in his career and family life. Instead, his low and erratic salary left him floundering: "I have but a poor school; and my Income at least 100 less than it was when first I came here. And every Article of our Cloathing so extravagently dear that I cannot get my poor dear little Ones a second Shirt or Shift to wear." The repetitive dear in this passage, referring both to price and children, should not be taken to signify too much in the way of a connection. But in a cri de coeur written in 1747 about his dashed hopes for patronage and a better situation, Charles Peale starkly linked the relationship of debt and family: "Good God that I were out of Debt—or had no family."11
Unfortunately Charles Peale had both, and he attempted to get out of his predicament by appealing for patronage from the rich and politically powerful. In 1746 he solicited the colonial government for the position of country sheriff, which would provide him with a steady income from the collection of dues and fees. Later that year he applied to Benedict Calvert, one of the colony's grandees, for the position of overseer. He wrote about the attractions of the job: "I don't know that any thing that I shou'd be better pleased with, and that I cou'd acquit myself better in, from the natural Inclination I have & ever had to Farming & Plantations Business, than serving Mr. Calvert as a Steward or manager over his Plantations, because my Family wou'd thereby be situate on some quite refined Place." If he received the position and discharged his indebtedness, Charles Peale would enter into a "new Scaene & Oeconomy of Life, for which I am sure nature designed me tho Fortune diverted me from such a Line." In evoking "Fortune" to explain his predicament (on another occasion he wrote that he had to submit to the "Will of God"), Charles Peale absolved himself of blame and took refuge in a quietism that reinforced his self-pity. Neither fortune nor Benedict Calvert smiled on Peale: he did not receive the position.12
Charles Peale was not an outright failure but a marginal man, one who spent his life scrabbling for a secure toehold from which to ascend. Although he was not a prepossessing character, and might have failed in any era, the details of his biography cast some light on the problems of social mobility in the eighteenth century, when the political culture lagged in its adaptation to changes and growth in the economy. Commercial opportunities that rewarded risk taking and entrepreneurship coexisted uneasily with traditional notions of hierarchy, deference, and patronage. In cases such as Charles Peale's, the gap between his aspirations and the means at his disposal was simply too great for him to bridge. Charles Peale's big gamble was his resort to the crime of forgery, whereby he sought to appropriate an identity in order to obtain a status he could not reach on his own. Transported, with few resources, he foundered, trying fruitlessly to play the traditional game of deference and patronage, all the while complaining about his health, his debts, his inattentive, unintelligent students, and their demanding parents. Emotionally, he responded with a resigned fatalism that occasionally flared into dyspeptic anger. Charles Peale's statement that "nature designed me" indicated his fatalism as well as the belief in premodern societies that each person, as a link in the great chain of being, had a "place"; society was thus naturalized to justify stasis and acquiescence among the ranks. Such passivity, if one lacked patrons, was antithetical to the strong will and self-determination needed to succeed in the transitional eighteenth century, especially in raw America.
When Charles Peale died, of an unknown cause, his eldest son was eight. In his autobiography, Charles Willson Peale gave his father a brief obituary: "Mr. Peale, the Father, had a liberal Education; was a polite, agreable companion [above the line: "man"] & was great esteemed by all his acquaintance. He was truly a good man." Peale's indecisiveness in choosing between companion and man is significant, since the only criticism he leveled against his father was that he had "been used [to] much polite good company" and thus was "perhaps not the best Economist in the world," especially on the low income of a schoolteacher. The two words companion and man suggest the difference between outer- and inner-directed character that would mark much of Charles Willson Peale's life and art. Charles Willson Peale wrote companion on the line as the first word that came to mind to characterize his father. In concluding his eulogy, he crossed out the blunt conclusion that his father "died po[or]". Instead, he wrote about the effects of his father's early death: "he left his Widow to support h[is] five Children by her Industry alone." Charles Peale, his son intimates, was swayed by others to the point that he failed his family. It was not just that he died poor but that he left his widow unable to provide: attracted by and seeking to impress his companions, he failed his family as a man.13
The death of the father placed the Peale family in parlous economic circumstances. Peale had four siblings, and his mother had no means of support. In his autobiography, Peale recalled of his mother that "in her excess of Grief she could not, for some time, take any measure to assist herself & Children." Eventually she moved the family from Chestertown to Annapolis, where she could be supported by her own family and friends while she worked as a seamstress. Peale mentions the help provided by John Beale Bordley, a graduate of Charles Peale's school, but does not specify what it was. (Bordley, fifteen years Peale's senior, would become a lifelong friend and patron.) Lest it be thought that Peale's brief treatment of his father was overbalanced by a long appreciation of his mother, he wrote of her only that "[s]he ever possessed an even temper, and was kind to all her children and their connections, which continued to her last moments; thus she lived and died much respected by all who knew her." Peale's childhood is murky because he never discussed it. He begins to emerge as a historical actor in his own right only upon leaving school and apprenticing to a saddler. At age thirteen, a self-described "Orphan," Peale was on his own.14
Peale had his formative experience of work not as a skilled artisan but as a bound apprentice. He was articled to Nathan Waters, an Annapolis saddlemaker, from 1754 to 1761. He described himself as an apt and willing worker, one who responded to encouragement and rewards. "The Youth," Peale wrote about himself, "was disposed to be industrous, & the master to encourage that Industry, allowed him to work for himself after he had done his task." Peale was eager to take on extra work because he was impatient to become an adult. With the money earned from his piecework he bought two emblems of status, a watch and a horse. Luxury items of material display, they symbolized Peale's evolving personality: the watch, his desire to manage his time, and the horse, his wish for mobility and autonomy. In other words, Peale's very first purchases demonstrated the contrasting needs for order and boundlessness that would govern his life.15
Peale was also eager to start a family—whether to constitute the nuclear family that had been denied him by his father's death or to regularize an outlet for his sexual drive is not known. The two wants would not have been mutually exclusive, for they combined Peale's tendencies toward order and appetite. By the time Peale was seventeen he was actively prospecting for a bride. Though he could not marry until his term as an apprentice expired, he courted nonetheless, promising marriage upon the expiration of his bond. He was rebuffed by one candidate, Rachel Brewer, whom he did later marry, because, by his own admission, he was too importunate: "He knew and felt the openness of his disposition, but did not consider that the delicacy of a Lady required a more tender, and wining proceeding to produce a confession of Love."16
Peale's second attempt, which had its farcical elements, came immediately thereafter. Peale rode out to a family he had met at his master's house, asked to speak to the daughter alone, and then flatly expressed his desire for a wife, asking the woman if she had any suitors. Stunned by this whirlwind approach, she could barely respond. Peale described her confusion and wrote that she "seemed to be at a loss to know how to answer such a question, but she faintly intimated that she had. He replied that he was sorry for it ... and very politely took his leave of her." Perhaps timing this romantic interlude with his new watch, Peale recorded that "[t]his Courtship did not take more than one hour from the beginning to the end." A young man on the make, Peale had violated the eighteenth-century code of sensibility in which desire was masked by the profession of tender sentiments and courtships proceeded in a ritual dance between couples and their families. Peale learned the right lesson from these failures: successful courting required the male suitor to make allowances for the role women played to protect their sexuality. Peale would learn to act the part, even though he found the conduct of "coquetish" women "repugnant to the disposition of our generous open hearted lover." 17
Running through Peale's narrative of his youth and the piquant details of his courtships was his intense desire to act autonomously and without encumbrances, either personal or social. His contract as an apprentice and his indebtedness were obstacles to these desires. Toward the end of his apprenticeship, Peale had a dispute with his master over an agreement for an early release from his obligations that roused all his resentments against the conditions under which he worked. Peale's first comments about work in his autobiography had stressed the positive effects on both morale and productivity if a worker had incentives, either monetary or other. To induce his master to make good on his promise, Peale threatened a work slowdown; he invoked peer pressure by seeking an Annapolis friend of his master's to intercede on his behalf; and he threatened to file suit, arguing that the papers indenturing him were improperly drawn up since they did not consider his status as an "orphan." His master backed down, agreeing to a four-month reduction in Peale's term.18
Peale exulted in almost biblical terms at his release from bondage: "How great the joy! How supreme the delight of freedom! It is like water to the thirsty, like food to the hungry, or like the rest to the wearyed Traveller, who has made a long and lonesome journey through a desart, fearfull wilderness." Peale defined the desert in which he suffered as the world of compulsory labor: "a release from a labour, from Sun rise to sun sett, and from the beginning of Candle light to 9 O'clock during the one half of each year, under the controls of a master, and confined to the same wall and the same dull repititions of the same dull labours." It was not work that Peale indicted but the un-free conditions of labor. As I have noted, he had responded with alacrity when allowed to work independently and for his own benefit but objected to repetitive labor done under compulsion. As an apprentice he experienced the pain of dependency, the denial of personal autonomy in a social condition only a step or two up from chattel slavery.19
Despite his passionate outburst against bond labor, Peale did not question that work was necessary; nor did he fundamentally question the structures of work, including the bound labor of apprentices and slavery itself. Instead, he drew an analogy between work and the family. He persisted in seeking an early marriage in part because he associated founding a family with attaining an independence based on work. Originally, when he wrote about the end of his apprenticeship, he focused on his immediate desire—it "gave the Youth the opportunity of getting Married even before he came of age." Peale subsequently altered this sentence and, changing his tone from the practical to the abstract, launched into the paean to the joys of freedom quoted in the preceding paragraph.20
Peale came of age when free labor was still emerging unevenly from premodern forms in which compulsion more or less predominated. The unevenness of this process is revealed most dramatically, as we have seen, in the irony that bondage for whites (including Charles Peale) could be alleviated only by the institution of a far worse bondage for blacks. The continued association of the familial household with production, especially in agricultural regions such as Chesapeake Maryland, made it logical for Peale to view family and work relations as intertwined and to present a paradigm of social organization in which authority always resided with the master-father. Masters should treat their apprentices as fathers did their sons—and vice versa. Under this model, social conditions could be ameliorated only case by case where good-hearted sensibility elicited good behavior. Peale laid down the lesson: "Let Masters who have Apprentices, reflect on the feelings of the apprentice, and make that bondage as light as possible, let the Parents who have Children forbear to beat them, who are also in bondage to them one third of their lives." Peale concluded with an exhortation that precisely encapsulates the new sensibility: "Let Love and not fear be the mover to good works."21
Peale, generally silent about life in his father's household, never discussed how Charles Peale maintained discipline at home. But whether Charles Peale was loving or cruel mattered less than his absence from his son's life, which was crucial. Buffeted by his father's precarious circumstances, deprived of him at age eight, and farmed out as an apprentice in his early teens, Peale must have thought as a young adult that his life, like his father's, might be one of dependence and unfulfillment. He hastened to establish his own family to reconstitute the paternal family he had never had. His sense that he was following his father could only have increased when, at age twenty, having completed his apprenticeship, he found himself enmeshed in severe indebtedness. The irony of the situation must have been inescapable to the young Peale as well as to the older man looking back on his life and career. Charles Peale had been a "poor economist," and the son seemed to have inherited the trait.
Immediately after his release from his obligations, Peale, to set himself up in business, entered into a purchase agreement with Nathan Waters, his old master, that saddled him with a large debt and a draconian repayment schedule. Peale's indebtedness was compounded by his having borrowed 20 from one of the colony's grandees, James Tilghman, to make the down payment on the goods sold by Waters. Peale, in other words, went into debt to qualify for further indebtedness, a compounding he would quickly regret. He felt pressured to accept Waters's offer, even though he thought the "Articles illy assorted" and more than he wanted: "being over persuaded he [Peale] took the Goods on Credit, gives his note as an acknowledgement of the Debt, but mark! That, as soon as he came to the age of 21 Yrs. Mr. Waters calls on him and takes his Bond on Intrest." Thus in his early career as an artisan Peale threw off the bound labor of the precapitalist economy only to face the risk of a market in which the skill of the artisan was inadequate without stock, marketable products, and liquidity. The older economy depended on personal honor and traditional obligations, while the emerging economy depended on the assumption of fair and open dealing. In both cases, the young Peale felt himself prey to his superiors' false professions: "How cruel it is for those, whom years had ripened in the knowledge of the world, to impose a wrong advice to the young and uninformed Youth!"22
Peale interpreted his mistreatment as a violation of an ideal order in which society is modeled on the family, with the old instructing the young. He also identified interest as "the cause of mans doing such actions, as are base and unmanly, unbecoming the boasted reasoning of these Lords of the Creation. (as men vainly call themselves)." Peale did not indict the profit motive. He only obliquely attacked the economic system of which interest was a part, and he did not distinguish a fair rate of return on investment from usury. Rather, he criticized interest for tempting the appetite. Not only did it corrupt and unman men, but it also created disequilibrium because it violated the beauty of reason.23
Peale took his subject to a higher level with his sardonic reference to men as the "Lords of the Creation." That Miltonian phrase alludes to the prelapsarian state of Adam and Eve: "God-like erect, with native honor clad / In naked majesty seemed lords of all." Interest, the tempting "apple," unmans by turning the male into a susceptible Eve. As God rebukes Adam in Paradise Lost:
Was she thy God, that her thou didst obey
Before his voice, or was she made thy guide,
Superior, or but equal, that to her
Thou didst resign thy manhood, and the place
Wherein God set thee....
In Peale's cosmology, the Fall of Man means also the Fall of Reason, but the consequences are distressingly similar: man must work and suffer.24
Peale glossed over and evaded his own responsibility for his predicament. He blamed his creditors for failing to put the higher law of human relations before the economic laws of credit and interest. Retrospectively, Peale used an anecdote from Rousseau's Confessions to indict his creditors. Rousseau described an incident in which as a servant he had permitted the household's cook to be blamed for his own theft of a piece of ribbon; the cook was fired. Rousseau tortured himself with a guilt for which the Confessions were, in part, expiation. The anecdote speaks tellingly of the canker of guilt and shame that eventually has to be cut out, but Peale's situation and that of the cook in Rousseau's story are not really analogous. (Rousseau and the cook were roughly co-equals in the household, there was no betrayal of the young by the old, and the act was theft compounded by false testimony rather than a perfectly legal loan.) Indeed, Peale may have recounted this particular anecdote because he identified with Rousseau; he may be obliquely revealing his own sense of guilt for allowing himself to be tempted into a financial trap.25
If Peale shirked responsibility for his predicament, he did, at least retrospectively, accept the consequences of his personal "fall." Having voiced his animus against the property-owning class, Peale backed off and reverted to bourgeois bromides about success, writing that any misfortune is an opportunity for personal and social progress. Necessity, for Peale and the Protestant ethic, was the mother of improvement, since "as it very frequently happens, that those things which we conceive to be great misfortunes, in the end, become great blessings." If Peale had not been perplexed with debts, perhaps he would not have made those exertions to acquire knowledge in more advantageous Professions, than that in which he first set out with, and perhaps he might have been contented to have drudged on in an unnoticed manner through life." This at least was how the older Peale framed the biography of his younger self. Peale's mention of the desire for fame ("drudged on in an unnoticed manner") can only have been retrospective. Few, if any, narratives of the self-made man in America end in failure.26
Peale was thrown back on his own resources as an artisan, and he conceived his sense of self through work. He linked interest and theft by noting that interest robbed both debtor and creditor of autonomy and therefore self-worth. The debtor, made dependent, ceded his autonomy to another. The creditor, dependent in turn on a parasitical practice, was unavoidably shamed by it. "Some will foolishly say, and perhaps imagine that the wealthy, who live in splendor on their riches gotten by unjust means, are happy, because they wear the Garb of chearfulness," but this disconnection between appearance and personality could not long be sustained: "[T]hey may for a time have art enough to hide their feelings from the bulk of mankind, and their pride and weakness may be so great that they cannot take the resolution to set about a reformation, and therefore keep their inward sufferings to themselves, and too frequently end their days in self-mortification." By "art" Peale means artifice, not the fine art of the portrait painter. A personality can be disguised by artifice in dress or behavior only for a limited time before its true nature appears. Pride (and not just false pride) is linked to weakness: only those who, like Peale, have gone through the process of self-abnegation are able to attain full humanity.27
Again, there is an echo of Paradise Lost in Peale's writing. Milton contrasts the innocent, naked transparency of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with what is to follow for fallen man:
Sin-bred, how have ye troubled all mankind
With shows instead, mere shows of seeming pure,
And banished from man's life his happiest life,
Simplicity and spotless innocence.28
Instead of "art" there should be "artlessness" to avoid the falsity of those "shows ... mere shows" and effect personal reform. Here, Peale alludes to the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility, which emphasized artlessness of presentation. He also alludes for the first time to medicinal theories in which the body's health was regulated by purgatives. The undeserving wealthy end their days in "self-mortification" in the sense that their vital or active qualities decay; such persons are, metaphorically, hollowed out. And because, in Peale's view, the upper classes have a special responsibility to maintain and protect the manners and morals of the society, their lack of standards necessarily spreads to corrupt the whole society. Peale did not yet recommend that society purge those who parasitically enriched themselves, but he would do so later, during the radical phase of the Revolution.
Peale attacked "interest" because it was unearned: money, not man, did the work. Peale's view was the almost reflexive animosity of the have-nots against the haves: he produced what others took and profited from to his disadvantage. As Susan Rather shows in her study of John Singleton Copley and artisanal republicanism, eighteenth-century political theorists tended to treat artisans with obloquy and contempt, claiming that because of their narrow interest in trade they could not the interest of society as a whole and act "disinterestedly." But Peale's career reminds us of the popular, radical dimension of this political debate and the issue of class in eighteenth-century Anglo-America. Peale's idea of autonomy, in which resentment broadened into an ideology, was rooted in a rudimentary, unarticulated labor theory of value. The artisan's control of the means of production—his tools, but above all his skills—made him an individual and empowered him, potentially, as a political force. From his particular "fall" Peale learned the dignity, not the disgrace, of labor.29
When Peale was in his late teens, though, it was by no means certain that his misfortunes would end in success or that he was as resolute as he later depicted himself. Peale's plight in the 1760s was dire. By 1765 he was 900 in debt, a tremendous sum in a century where the average annual income has been calculated at between $40 and $65; against his debt, Peale held paper credits, of doubtful collectability, amounting to 300. It is not known how Peale accumulated such a huge debt; the interest on the 120 he owed Waters and Tilghman could hardly have amounted to such a sum in five years. In any event, Peale scrambled for work. He branched out from his original trade as a saddler to the related work of harness making and then upholstering. He took up watch repair, and from that he says he began a "new Profession, Watch and Clock Making," although it is likely that he built up timepieces from parts (especially watches as opposed to the more rudimentary clocks) instead of from scratch. From this part of the jeweler's trade he also went into silversmithing, making "Buckles, Buttons, Rings, &c and he once cast a set of Stirrups in Brass." Peale also expanded his territory, taking his skills and stock on the road as an itinerant artisan: "Mr. Peale made many efforts to raise money by his trades, to pay his debts, and several times made up a good assortment of saddles and Saddlery and sett out to travel through several counties with a Cart loaded with those articles ... intending in those excursions to pay his expences by his knowledge of Clock, Watch making & the Silversmiths business." But, unfortunately, "in every attempt he was unsuccessfull."30
Struggling to find ways to generate income, Peale expanded his repertoire of traditional trades to a novel one: painting. Peale presented his development as an artist, like most of his major career changes, in an offhand, laconic manner. On his travels he saw some paintings that were "miserably done" and decided he could do better. Had they been better efforts, he noted, they might have "smothered this faint spark of Genius." But since they were mediocre, Peale felt he might be able to transfer his skill with tools to the brush. His autobiographical citation of that "spark of Genius" suggests how a career as an artist enabled him to acquire an elevated sense of social status. The artist as genius is a familiar trope, and we should not be surprised at Peale for associating himself with it. Nonetheless, it was an ex post facto explanation. The actual circumstances by which Peale came to painting were pragmatic: it was a livelihood that might make independence and autonomy, and thus self-definition, possible.31
In the mid-eighteenth century, the shift from artisan to artist was not unusual, for art, not yet considered a profession, had a quasi-handicraft status. Like Peale, the artisans Jacob Eichholtz and Joseph Badger shifted their focus from making things to making faces. John Singleton Copley would write of these early days of portrait painting that "[t]he people generally regard it no more than any other usefull trade ... like that of a Carpenter tailor, or shew maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World." His complaint was not just that Americans lacked the taste and culture to appreciate the painter's work. It was that painters were not set off from the working class: the "noble Arts" mingled with the vulgar trades, and artisans moved back and forth between the two, blurring their distinctions. Peale concludes the section of the autobiography on his early career as a painter by recounting that he realized "he possibly might do better by painting, than with his other Trades, [a]nd he accordingly began the Sign painting business [italics added]." Peale continued to think of himself as an artisan first. In an early passage of the autobiography he speaks of painting a ship for a sea captain, and it is not clear whether he produced a marine portrait or painted the hull.32
Becoming a fine artist gave Peale a major advantage in gaining employment. He competed in colonial Maryland against a plethora of artisans, but "[b]efore these times there had been in Maryland only four persons professing the art of portrait Painting." And Peale's timing was right. Receiving his first commission in 1763, he started his career at the onset of the consumer revolution that transformed American material culture and stimulated American nationalism. The 1760s saw an exceptional jump in the consumption of imported, and especially luxury, goods as Americans began to fashion and emphasize a national identity, in part by purchasing novel, ornamental, and luxury products. A commissioned portrait was a display of conspicuous consumption in which the artist's depiction of the sitter's possessions and luxurious surroundings was perhaps as important as his skilled draftsmanship. Fortuitously, Peale was present at the beginning of this material revolution: international trade undercut the work of indigenous artisans just as the market for paintings started to develop. Portraits became an important sign of status not only because they indicated the sitter's ability to commission them but also because their props, costumes, and scenery encapsulated and signified the attributes by which Americans wanted to be known. Thus Peale's Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and Their Daughter Anne (Figure 4), which seems to draw the viewer's gaze to Cadwallader's impressively stout form, advertises the sitter's patriarchal authority and social power, and the luxuriousness of his and his family's life. In its intentions, eighteenth-century American portraiture was not all that different from sign painting: both were forms of advertisement.33
The late eighteenth century, especially in the middle colonies, was a transitional period. While material abundance indicated the triumph of the marketplace, Peale still lived in a society in which personal, rather than instrumental, relationships determined status and power. In the family, for instance, the model was one of patriarchal control over the family and the household servants, both slave and free. Outside, in the wider society, links of both kinship and patronage bound the upper classes in a web of mutual dependence and support. Peale entered this world, a long leap for the son of a transported felon, by a time-honored method of social mobility: he married up. In 1762 Peale, four months shy of twenty-one, married seventeen-year-old Rachel Brewer and through her family entered Maryland's political and social elite. Among the Brewer kin were the powerful Maccubbin and Carroll families, including the notable and influential Charles Carroll, Barrister.34
After the failure of his initial, whirlwind courtship of Rachel Brewer, Peale modulated his approach and, after apologizing for his initial precipitousness, soon obtained her assent. The historian Lance Humphries, in an ingenious piece of detective work, has challenged Peale's description of his courtship as the triumph of romantic love. The episode is one of the most curious in Peale's biography. Around the time of Peale's marriage, he was the "victim" of either a prank or a malevolent scheme to mock or anger him. Peale reported receiving a letter from a "Captain James Digby" in England indicating that Charles Peale's claim of a wealthy family was true and that Charles Willson Peale was entitled to an inheritance of 2,000. The letter from Digby urged Peale to go immediately to London to claim his right. Instead, Peale sent letters to London, never received a reply, and concluded that the whole episode was a hoax. Peale speculated that it was perpetrated by some rival in Annapolis "with the View of making this young man leave his business and go abroad." Since he did not, the matter was closed.35
Humphries, unconvinced by Peale's account of events, notes that Peale gave two different versions of the chronology of the Digby deception. Peale's preliminary, fragment autobiography (written in 1790 during another courtship; see Chapter 6) mentions that he received the letter before Rachel accepted his proposal, whereas the finished manuscript autobiography puts the letter's arrival after the marriage. Humphries supposes that the first version is more plausible—Peale first wrote the truth and then rewrote it to put himself in a better light—and suggests that Peale used the claim of an inheritance in Oxfordshire to enhance his marriage prospects and raise him to a par with his prospective in-laws' extended family. Humphries further deduces that this letter could have been written (its authorship has never been determined) only if the Peales, father and son, had talked widely enough about their familial background to ensure the circulation of their claims to gentility.36
In writing about the Digby episode, Peale continues the pattern of romanticizing his early years as a solitary youth, orphaned and in desperate circumstances, repeatedly beset by troubles that he surmounts by determination, application, skill, and innate moral sense. Peale called his autobiography a "novel," and the structure of its opening pages follows that of the eighteenth-century picaresque romance. Peale alternates the narratives about his successive predicaments with intervals in which he pauses to impart a lesson, as when he appeals to masters to treat their apprentices better. The genre requires that the naive and blameless young man be thrown by circumstances into situations that he overcomes and from which he learns. If the youth (or, as Peale called himself, "our young adventurer") is not actually innocent, he must make himself appear so; therefore, Peale downplayed his assent in going into debt and blamed the failures of his first courtships on the "coquettishness" of young women. The Digby hoax is a particularly piquant addition to the perils of the young Peale because it raises the issue of the Peale family's social origins, as well as the accusations of forgery and false identity that dogged the family into the third American generation, when Rembrandt Peale was accused of artistic plagiarism. Peale presents himself as the hapless victim of this deception. Humphries has suggested that the timing of the hoax gave Peale the opportunity to present disinterested testimony about his family in order to impress Rachel Brewer and convince her family of his worthiness. 37
No one has ever raised the possibility that Peale perpetuated the hoax or forgery himself. In the absence of the actual letter, its authorship can never be conclusive, and to insist on ascribing it to Peale would be malicious. Peale, however, has to be considered a suspect, in no small part because he had most to gain from the letter's arrival. Alternative authors suggested for the letter are unconvincing. The Digby letter, after all, is not a "forgery" but a pseudonymous letter; does the adoption of the term forgery betray guilty knowledge? Peale, who attributed the letter to a malicious competitor, was a run-of-the-mill artisan. Why would anyone harass him, especially in such a convoluted way? If the Peales irritated people with their bragging, the letter actually confirmed their claim to a gentle birth and an inheritance. Its immediate local impact in Annapolis, as Humphries discerns, was to enhance the Peales' status. Of all the possible authors of the "hoax," only Peale had the inside knowledge necessary to concoct the scenario of an inheritance. Whether he simply exploited the fortuitous arrival of the Digby letter or forged it, in effect following his father's criminal example, must remain a tantalizing unknown. What is clear, thanks to Humphries, is that Peale probably made his marriage look more romantic and less motivated by his desire to rise socially by dating the letter after his marriage—a smaller fabrication, but a fabrication nonetheless.
Arguing against Peale's authorship of the Digby letter is the trouble and expense he went to in retaining counsel and preparing a dossier supporting his family's claim to the "inheritance." That dossier included Peale's first letter. Interesting, then, that this letter, his response to "Captain Digby" on September 25, 1762, is not in Peale's own hand but in that of an unidentified copyist. Although Peale exhibited visual and manual dexterity in his work as an artisan and painter, his handwriting was poorly formed, and his spelling and grammar were shaky as a consequence of his lack of schooling. To add weight to his case, Peale had his appeal written out by a handwriting expert or drafted by a lawyer, complete with elaborate ornamental curlicues and furbelows; not even the signature appears to be Peale's.38
The Digby letter permitted Peale to write out a formal statement to a lawyer in London summarizing his family's situation and emphasizing how well he and his brothers were doing. In other words, the Digby episode, as a legal dispute, gave Peale the opportunity to write about himself and his family without appearing to brag. Working hard to ingratiate himself with the Brewers, Peale knew that his self-presentation in response to the forgery was as important as the hoaxing letter itself. This was the first, but not the last, time that Peale, on the assumption that the written record was transparent, gave evidence in writing that he was what he professed himself to be. Equally important, writing was a way for Peale to assure himself of his own stability and worthiness to enter a higher station in life. In responding to the Digby hoax, Peale wrote not just his own history but his own present. Paul de Man's thesis that a life does not exist until a person begins writing it was proved true by Charles Willson Peale in the case of his first marriage and throughout his adult life. The episode of the letter also paid off for Peale in posterity. By encoding the family myth of a lost inheritance in the legal documents Peale assembled, he made it easier for later historians to skip over the facts of Charles Peale's biography and assert that the Peale family lineage was genteel. Just as artists such as Copley distanced themselves from the trades, so an older generation of art historians was interested in enhancing the social origins of artists and the arts in early America.39
Finally, the myth of a lost inheritance, of hopes raised and dashed, of courtship thwarted and then consummated, added a romantic fillip to the course of the young Peale's life. By 1761-63 Peale had both achieved his ambition of finding a career that held promise and married the woman who had first attracted him when he was a lowly apprentice. Not just married, Peale had married well. In one carefully constructed scene where Peale describes his courtship of Rachel, it is impossible to miss the implication that new doors were opening for him. Peale writes how he knocked on the front door of the Brewer house and was rebuked by the daughters of the house for his presumption. "Go round to the other door you Impudent baggage," they shouted at the visitor, not recognizing him. The abashed Peale—"our young adventurer"—made his way to a back door, whereupon the social snub dissolved in smiles, blushes, and civility as Peale showed himself. Adopting a plot development universal to all romances, Peale avowed that he was attracted to the rudest of the girls and that she in turn was attracted to, and ultimately married, him. While Rachel initially rebuffed the precipitate Peale, he persevered and eventually won her consent. Having convinced Rachel's family that he had a promising future and was a suitable husband, he hoped never again to enter by the servant's entrance. With a wife and the possibility of a good career, Peale was no longer a dependent or what the girls called him, "baggage."40
Chapter One Notes
1. The verdict against Charles Peale is in PP1:4-5. See Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, England, 1992), pp. xiv, 50-73.
2. Leon Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and Its Administration from 1750, 3 vols. (London, 1948), 1:146-59; William Shakespeare, Othello, 3.3.159-61; J.G.A. Pocock, quoted in Paul Baines, The House of Forgery in Eighteenth&nbhy;Century Britain (London, 1999), p. 14. See also Constantine George Caffentzis, Clipped Coins, Abused Words, and Civil Government: John Locke's Philosophy of Money (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1989), for the relationship between maintaining the value of coins and words.
3. See John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1997), for an example of this type of conservative historiography. A visual signpost of its recurrence was the National Gallery of Art exhibition "The Treasure Houses of Britain" and its catalogue; Gervase Jackson-Stops, ed., The Treasure Houses of Britain: 500 Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting (Washington, D.C., 1986). See Raymond Williams, The English Novel (London, 1970), esp. pp. 9-23, for an initial literary deconstruction of the "Great House syndrome," one that needs reapplication today.
4. For a discussion of money as a solvent of traditional relationships in this period, see E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York, 1991), pp. 24, 33, 31; see also Linebaugh, The London Hanged, p. 115, for Walpole's "Robinocracy."
5. The little that we know about Charles Peale is unreliably recorded in Sellers, CWP, pp. 3-16. The construction of a genteel myth about Charles Willson Peale's past, and its importance to the early history of American art, is dissected in Lance Lee Humphries, "Rachel Brewer's Husband: Charles Willson Peale. The Artist in Eighteenth-Century American Society" (M.A. diss., University of Virginia, 1993), pp. 1-10; the Baines quote is from The House of Forgery, p. 22. The problem of identity and verification in early America has been explored by Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America (New Haven, Conn., 1982), pp. 1-32.
6. Linebaugh, The London Hanged, p. 95; Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975), p. 339; Abbot E. Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776 (1947; reprint, New York, 1971), pp. 110-35; Jack Kaminkow and Marion Kaminkow, eds., Original Lists of Emigrants in Bondage from London to the American Colonies, 1719-1744 (Baltimore, 1967), pp. 122, 192.
7. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, pp. 295-315.
8. Sellers, CWP, pp. 8-10.
9. "Inventory of the Goods and Chattels of Charles Peale, July 17, 1751," PP1:30-31.
10. Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1982), p. 60; Charles Peale to George Garnett, January 30, 1745/46, PP1:14.
11. PP1:12, 20, 27.
12. PP1:12, 20, 27.
13. PP5:4. For the responsibilities of the patriarchal head of the family, see Sidney Hart, "Charles Willson Peale and the Theory and Practice of the Eighteenth-Century Family," in The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770-1870, ed. Lillian B. Miller (New York, 1986), pp. 112-17. Hart's chapter, which conveys a sense of the contradictions of the late eighteenth century, is in contrast to Daniel Blake Smith's Inside the Great House: Planter Family Life in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Society (Ithaca, N.Y., 1980), especially pp. 281-99, the summary conclusions of which overanticipate the arrival of the modern family in the eighteenth century in the Chesapeake region.
14. PP5:4, 137, 9. In the eighteenth century, the term orphan could apply to someone who had lost only one parent, especially if that was the father; Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1989).
15. On horses, see Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia. The history of watches and modern times is voluminous; for it and the later regularization of time as a means to oppress, see E.P. Thompson, "Time, Work Discipline and Industrial Capitalism," in Thompson, Customs in Common, pp. 352-70.
16. PP5:7-8. Peale's eagerness to get married at seventeen ran against the trend in the eighteenth century of a rising age of first marriage; see John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607-1789 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985), p. 228.
18. PP5:7-8. For Peale's early courtships and marriage, see Humphries, "Rachel Brewer's Husband," pp. 40-55.
19. See PP5:8-11 for CWP's account of his trial by apprenticeship and bad masters.
20. PP5:10. One reason why America was able to adapt so readily to slavery was that the colonies' experience with other forms of forced labor made the step a short one; see Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, pp. 295-315.
22. For a discussion of the traditional versus the emerging economy, see Smith, Inside the Great House, passim. On the clash of these two economic systems in the Chesapeake region, see also Hart, "Charles Willson Peale." Also see Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1810 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1986), and Albert H. Tillson, "New Light on the Chesapeake," Reviews in American History 22 (September 1994): 393-94.
24. John Milton, Paradise Lost, in The Poems of John Milton, ed. John Carey and Alastair (New York, 1968), bk. 4, lines 293-310; bk. 10, lines 145-49. Peale knew and used Paradise Lost both as a poem and as a subject for his paintings; one of his first paintings (unlocated) was of Adam and Eve in the Garden.
25. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile; or On Education, trans. and ed. Alan Bloom (New York, 1979), p. 171.
26. PP5:33; see also Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (New York, 1978), on the implications of the Fall of Man for social, political, and economic arrangements in the secular world. On the self-made man in America, see John G. Cawelti, Apostles of the Self&nbhy;Made Man (Chicago, 1965), for the powerful ideological aspects of the myth.
28. Milton, Paradise Lost, bk. 4, lines 315-19.
29. Susan Rather, "Carpenter, Tailor, Shoemaker, Artist: Copley and Portrait Painting around 1770," Art Bulletin 79 (June 1997): 269-70. The literature on trans-Atlantic artisans, republicanism, and radicalism is immense; the following are starting points. For an introductory overview, see Gwyn A. Williams, Artisans and Sans-Culottes: Popular Movements in France and Britain during the French Revolution (New York, 1969), especially pp. 3-18 on class and rights. On America, see Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York, 1976), pp. 71-106; Howard B. Rock, Artisans of the New Republic: The Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson (New York, 1979), pp. 19-44; Richard Alan Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1978), pp. 7-38. Still an excellent overview of the early American economy, with special emphasis on labor, is George Rogers Taylor, The Transportation Revolution, 1815-60 (New York, 1951), pp. 3-14, 250-69.
30. The question of early American income is murky because of problems of evidence and problems of methodology. The figures given here (based on 1840 dollars) represent the low and high of the scholarly consensus; McCusker and Menard, Economy of British America, pp. 259-60. We do not know how much Peale earned as an artisan, but his indebtedness is summarized in an editorial note, PP1:37-38; PP5:14.
32. Rather, "Carpenter, Tailor"; PP5:14-15, 21.
33. T.H. Breen, "The Meaning of 'Likeness': American Painting in an Eighteenth-Century Consumer Society," Word and Image 6 (October-December 1990): 325-50. Ellen Hickey Grayson, "Towards a New Understanding of the Aesthetics of 'Folk' Portraits," in Painting and Portrait Making in the American Northeast, ed. Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife (Boston, 1995), pp. 217-34, explores the link between artisans and the development of a particularly American aesthetic. See also Ursula Frohn, "Strategies of Recognition. The Conditioning of the American Artist between Marginality and Fame," in American Icons: Transatlantic Perspectives on Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century America Art, ed. Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Heinz Inckstadt (Santa Monica, Calif., 1992), pp. 212-18.
McCusker and Menard's Economy of British America, pp. 268-69, summarizes, with many caveats, the consensus view that there was a "growth spurt" in the economy beginning in the 1740s and continuing up to the Revolution.
34. The courtship is mentioned briefly in PP1:35 and in PP5:12-13. See also Lance Humphries, "Rachel Brewer's Husband," pp. 40-46. (This Charles Carroll was called "Barrister" to distinguish him from two other prominent men of the same name: Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Charles Carroll of Duddington.)
35. Humphries, "Rachel Brewer's Husband," pp. 46-55. PP5:13.
36. Peale's contemporaneous account of the "Digby" episode is in CWP to "Captain Digby," September 25, 1767, PP1:34-36; see also Humphries, "Rachel Brewer's Husband," pp. 44-47.
37. Humphries, "Rachel Brewer's Husband," p. 43.
38. The actual letter that Peale had written for him is reproduced in F:IIA/1D2-7. On handwriting, and particularly the way that different styles were adopted for different purposes in the eighteenth century, see Tamara Plakins Thornton, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (New Haven, Conn., 1996), pp. 35-41.
39. Paul de Man is quoted and summarized in Paul John Eakins, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, N.J., 1985), pp. 185, 184-209.
40. CWP to "Captain Digby," September 25, 1767, PP1:35; PP5:7.