The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family: Volume 5: The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale

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Charles Willson Peale was one of the most extraordinary figures of the early Republic, most famous perhaps as the painter of more than a thousand portraits of the generation that won American independence. He also built up a private museum of natural history and art, which he intended as an institution that would be his legacy to the nation. (He led an expedition to exhume and mount the skeleton of the American mastodon, an epochal event in the new science of paleonotology). He was a major player in many of the young nation's significant cultural and political events. Drawing on his diaries and letters, Peale writes of his service in the Philadelphia militia during the Revolution and his fighting at the Battle of Princeton. He includes descriptions of his difficult involvement in Philadelphia's radical republican politics and his participation in the American Philosophical Society, where he won the friendship of men like Jefferson and Franklin.
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VOLUME 5, The Autobiography of Charles Willson Peale


Copyright © 2000 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-07547-2

Chapter One


Charles Willson Peale's autobiography starts in his ninth year with the traumatic death of his father at the age of forty-one. Peale gives us virtually no information about his boyhood but instead discusses his father and the impact his death had on the family. Except for a few mentions in his letters, Peale's characterization here of the elusive Charles Peale (1709-50) is the only time he writes at length about his father.

Peale's narrative of his early life-his apprenticeship, the courtship of his first wife, Rachel Brewer, and his first vocation as a saddler in Annapolis-provides almost all of our knowledge for his early years; there are no extant diaries or letterbooks for this period. Similarly revealing is Peale's discussion of how he became interested in portrait painting, the pivotal transition from artisan to artist. The narrative in this and the next chapter also fills in the story of the Peale family's futile attempt to claim a landed inheritance in England. In addition, here is Peale's only account of his first experience in opposition politics, the bitterly contested Maryland election of 1764, considered by historians to be a dress rehearsal for the American Revolution. It is only when we get to his fight to New England to avoid debtor's prison that we are able to compare his narration in the Autobiography with a diary account. The chapter concludes with Peale's trip to London to study painting with Benjamin West and his return to his young family in Maryland.

Mr. Peale, the Father, had a liberal Education; was a polite, agreable companion Man, & (was) great esteemed by all his acquaintance. he was truly a good man. His qualifications had recommend him to the Mastership of the Chester-Free School; where he lived many years an admirable Teacher (of the).

Pity it is that the Teachers of our Children are not more generally respected and their incomes more liberal than they generally are. It indeed was not Mr. Peale's Case; he was greatly respected; But his Income was low; as is too generally the Case with Teachers.

Mr. Peale having been used [to] much polite good company, and perhaps not the best Economist in the world; the income of the school small, and having the expence of a young family, he (died po) left his Widow to support h[is] five Children by her Industry alone. [CWP insertion] Her distress was great in loosing so Good, so kind, & so affectionate a Husband as Mr. Peale ever was.

And in her excess of Grief she could not, for some time, take any measure to assist herself & Children.

But in Mr. John Bordley (who had received his Education in the family) she found a g[enerous] friend whose kindness to the family in this time of difficulty, was truely affectionate, nor did he cease to serve them as long as he lived [end insertion]. She remooved soon after the death of Mr. Peale to Annpolis where she comenced Manteau-Makeing and by her Industry maintained herself & Children with reputation

Charles was now put to school; but the (lattin) Latin Language, which he had begun in his fathers life time, was to be no part of his Education; and after he had learnt Arithmitick, writing &c, before he was 13 Years of age he was bound an apprentice to a Saddler, and was kept diligently to his trade for several years.

His Master finding him an apt Boy. sett him to making Saddle-Trees, plating them, and even to the branch of currying leather &c,

The Youth was disposed to be industrous, & the master to encourage that Industry, allowed him to work for himself after he had done his task at Saddle-Tree making, and gave him 2/ for each Tree he made.

This Practice of giving Tasks, at Trades, wh[en] it can be done, has many advantages. The artist acquires a readiness to Execute an[d] with that, excellence, The labour is pe[r] formed with chearfulness, and (great) considerable encoragement given to Industry.

By working late and early, our youth had scraped together a little money; with which he bought a Watch, and some[time] afterwards a Horse.

To possess such property appears to be the too prevailing passion of American Youth; for, with such, they are drawn into other (unavoidable) expences, and too often into (other) extravagances. whereas could they be advised to dispose of their first earnings, however small they may be, to some increasing fund, much benefit would accrue to themselves, and good to the Community in general.- Men as well as boys, often desire things which they do not realy want, & are more expensive than profitable; they do not weigh the expence of keeping, against the enjoyment. Doctr. Franklin has wisely said "It is easier to build two Chimnies than keep one fire."

The Watch getting out of order, he was obliged to pay 5/ to have it put in repair, not long after the Watch was again wrong and the boy thinking it too heavy a Tax to pay out of his hard earnings, determined to try if he could not save the expence by repairing the watch himself, and in this attempt it may easily be immagined he did the watch but little service, however by this essay, he acquired knowlege of the principles of such Machines.

A little turned of 17 Yrs. he rode over [arrow up]beyond[aroow down] South River to see a Boy of his acquaintance Master Jno. Brewer. having enquired his way, he arrived in the time Dinner was prepairing, and the Kitchen being in the (road) Way to the Dwelling House, he rapted at the Door to enquire if Mrs. Brewer lived there. two of her daughters were in the Kitchen to look to the preparations of Dinner, and Miss Rachel hearing the rap, supposed it was by some of the Negro Children, Called out "go round you impudent baggage" which was immediately obyed by our young adventurer. The Young Ladies seeing a stranger, blushed exceedingly, making many appoligies for their rudeness. Then Charles was usher[ed] into the House, and treated with the utmos[t] civility. This Lady who accosted him so roughly in her first words to him, shortly became his favorite, and altho' a mere boy he began seriously to pay his addresses to her. Miss Rachel belonged to the class of small women, of fair complexion, altho' her Hair was of a dark brown colour which hung in curling ringlets on her long beautiful white neck.- Her face a perfect Oval, she had sprightly dark Eyes, her Nose strait with some few angles, such as Painters are fond to immitate,-her mouth small and most pleasingly formed.- Inshort she would be called handsome amongst the beautiful of an Assembly of her Sex.-

How captivating is beauty when joined in a person desirous to please! her manners were soft, modest, gentle and Innocent, with a becoming affability, her mind formed to piety by the example of an Excellent Mother.

Our Amorous youth having no greater wish than becoming the Husband of so fine a Girl, begs the mothers permission to wait on her daughter at such times, as he could leave his masters business, this was readily granted After many Visits, and when Charles thought he had secured the Ladie's (heart), he made his proposials of Marriage, but unfortunately for him, he was too pressing on this occasion. 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, and which by their Education they are taught to hide-to esteem a shame and weakness to discover.

And the too frequent coquetish conduct of the Ladies to those whom they realy love, so repugnant to the disposition of our generous open hearted lover, who wished to be relieved from a painful anxiety, with the fond hope of being put into a serene and pleasing state of a certain (expectancy) assurance of being made happy, at a proper time. These considerations made him plead with the Lady to relieve him from a doubtful, painfull situation of mind, too perplexing to be borne, and that he would be a constant and faithful admirer, even studious to please her in all his actions.

During the most of this discourse the young Lady was silent, (perhaps if her sister had not been present it might have been otherwise) and now having used every argument he was master of, to persuade, he declaired that she must now give him a final Answer, and pulling out his Watch, he told her he would wait one hour for her determination. And when the time was nearly spent, he became more uneasey, and he beged, he entreated,-that in 5 minutes he should be (happy) made the happiest or the most miserable of beings.

The Ladys sentiment prevented any reply.- The time expired.-he went imediately to the House and thanked her Mother for the kind entertainment he had received, and said he hoped that miss Rachel would get a better Husband than he could make. That he must now take his leave of the Family for ever. but the sunday following he called at Mrs Brewers (for his) to get his Whip which in his hurry of taking leave he had forgot. He then only made his obedience to the family, and afterwards rode to West River, to see a Lady with whom he had some acquaintance in several Visits she had made in his Masters family. And finding the Lady at home, he asked to speak in private to her, and began to declare his Intentions of seeking a Lady that might make him a wife. he asked her, if (she had any engagements on her hands). The Lady was confused, and 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, but he would give her no further trouble, and very politely took his leave of her.

This Courtship did not take more than one hour from the beginning to the end of it. and it has been said that this Lady was afterwards unhappily Married.

He now applied again closly to his work, having lost all his spare time in a fruitless courtship.

On a Summers Evening walking out for recreation; by chance he spied Miss Brewer before her Aunts House at Annapolis. after the usial salutations, a conversation took place, in which he lamented the cause of his absence from her Mothers House, Miss informed him that he was precipitate, and that the manner of his treatment of her, did not deserve an answer, and she thought that she acted properly by (keeping) remaining silent, that if he chose to take it as a denial, she was not (too) blameable. He then beged pardon, and asked her if she would forgive him, and he would again Visit the family, which the Lady assenting to. He then beged her to promise to make him a decissive answer on the next sunday, and he would then wait on her. Miss replied that she believed she would, and that her Mama would be glad to see him. Accordingly on the following sunday, he waited on her, and on that day, she .nally agreed to accept him for her intended Husband.

He was not more than 18 Yrs. old at this time. & he ever after spent all the time he could be spared from his masters service, in his attendence on the Lady, let it [CWP insertion] hail, rain or blow, no weather detered him from crossing South river & a Creek every week to visit Miss Rachel Brewer.[end insertion]

His Master being in a bad state of health, and having a desire to go a Voyage to (sea) Bermodus, proposed to this apprentice, that if he would take the management of the business on him, and be carefull and diligent, that he would give up 4 months of his time.

This proposal was pleasing to Charles, and he set about to do every thing his Master could wish of him; he cut out all the work and managed the business in the most frugal and best manner he was capable of and continued to do so the whole time of his apprenticeship, but the master did not make that Voyage. (he had spoken of), and a considerable time after this in a conversation with his apprentice, he shewed an Intention of detaining him the whole time his Indentures specified.

This roused the Youth to a considerable resentment, as he knew that he had on his part, fully complied with the proposals, of his master, and that the masters not making the Voyage was no fault of the apprentice.

Charles boldly declared that he would not serve those four months. And knowing that Mr. Charles Wallace had a considerable influence with his master he went to Mr. Wallace and told him what had passed between his master and himself.-that he knew that his master could not find (any) fault with any of his management of the business and therefore he thought it hard to be deprived of the promised time, that he was still willing to continue the same deligence as before, but if his master would not agree to give him the time proposed, that he would not serve him a day longer, as he was well informed, that the Indenture which bound him, was not executed according to Law, which required all Orphans to be bound in open Court. And altho' he now considered himself as free, yet if his Master would promise to Mr. Wallace that he would give the 4 months as he before had agreed to do, that he would then return to the same deligence in his masters service as before. (These terms were too advantageous to be refused.) which would be continuing a service about 12 months longer. These terms (and were too advantageous His Master) were soon obtained of Mr. Waters, they were too advantageous to be refused.

And now the long looked for time when he was freed from a master arrived, (which gave the Youth the opportunity of getting Married even before he came of age.)

How great the joy! how supreme the delight of freedom! It is like water to the thirsty, like food to the hungry, or like rest to the wearyed Traveller, who has made a long and lonesome journey through a desart, fearfull wilderness. These Comparisons may appear strong, and perhaps it is not possible for those who have never been in such a situation to fully feel the sweet, the delightfull sensations attending a release from a bondage of 7 Yrs. and eight months, 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 walls and the same dull repititions of the same dull labours.

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. Let love and not fear be the mover to good works. Shame if properly seasoned, is a greater scourge than the Birch.

And a steady observance, never to make any order, but what ought to be obeyed, and when once ordered, to have it fully executed, even in the most trivial matters. Such a conduct early pursued, would save much trouble to Parents as well as Children.


Excerpted from THE SELECTED PAPERS OF Charles Willson Peale AND HIS FAMILY Copyright © 2000 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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