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Peale and Jefferson: A Correspondence from Belfield

By: Dave Tavani

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The correspondence between Charles Willson Peale and Thomas Jefferson, while Peale lived at Belfield, is a very interesting window into the lives of two great American men. Peale and Jefferson were friends from revolutionary times--in fact Peale painted Jefferson’s portrait. Jefferson initiated the correspondence with a letter to his friend Peale dated August 20, 1811 and also wrote the last surviving letter, which is dated August 26, 1820. The letters span almost the entire time that Peale actually resided at Belfield. He purchased the farm in 1810 and stayed there until 1821 when his wife Hannah died of yellow fever. After her death he moved back into Philadelphia and later sold the farm in 1826, one year before his death. Peale and Jefferson discussed many farming-related topics throughout their writings to each other, for prior to Peale’s retirement to Belfield, Jefferson had retired to Monticello. They discussed various crops they had planted on their respective farms, farming tactics, and many machines and inventions that they developed or used in their work. Peale also wrote frequently of his natural history museum and his plans to dispose of it before his death. Both Jefferson and Peale touched on the topic of their own personal happiness and health from time to time.

The nature of their correspondence was rather interesting itself. Peale’s letters were both more frequent and more lengthy than Jefferson’s. This was probably because Jefferson had numerous correspondents and he often indicated the amount of time it consumed. Also, Peale had a sense of inferiority in comparison with Jefferson and always stated that he hoped his letters would "amuse" Jefferson at best, while he hoped to learn much about farming from Jefferson. In his first letter to Jefferson he wrote:

I most cheerfully accept your kind invitation of a renewal of corrispondance, tho’ with very [little] expectation that I shall be able to add to your stock of Information in your favorite occupations, however with this pleasing hope that as my subjects must necessarily be on the culture of the Earth, I [must] shall get instruction in my new occupation, that of a farmer (109).

As can be observed in the previous quotation and others to follow in this paper, Peale was not a very adept speller, and his grammar was not all that excellent either.

In their earlier correspondence Peale told Jefferson of the crops he had planted on his farm. In his letter dated October 3 and 14, 1811 Peale tells Jefferson: "Since my last letter I made tryal of my Potatoes, & find that those which we planted with Stable Manure is not so good as another field in which we used long straw only—the Potatoes of the latter is not so strong in taste, more mealy, and I believe will give as plentiful a crop as that done with Stable manure" (116). Later he also told Jefferson of his idea to switch from growing peaches to growing plums because worms feed on peaches. Afterward he learned that worms feed on plums just about as often as they feed on peaches.

Peale also wrote of some farming tactics and was always interested in learning from Jefferson since he considered himself so far behind Jefferson in farming. In the October 3 and 14, 1811 letter, he wrote of his neighbor Dr. Beneville’s use of "french drains" to keep the fields from flooding. In his March 3, 1812 letter he wrote: "I have learned that the best mode to free land from weeds, is to plow late in the fall and early in the spring; to manure and sow plenty of good seeds to take the place of weeds. Plowing deep I think is also important" (148). Plowing was a prevalent topic between Peale and Jefferson, and they also spent a considerable amount of time discussing plows as well. Jefferson wrote to Peale on April 17, 1813: "Ploughing deep, your recipe for killing weeds, is also the Recipe for almost everything good in farming. The plough is to the farmer, what the wand is to the Sorcerer" (192).

The list of machines and inventions that Peale and Jefferson discussed is very extensive. The list includes: Jefferson’s plow, Peale’s cart used to get milk to market, various gardening tools, a grain thrashing machine, a machine for removing clover seeds from the clover, a corn shelling machine, a straw cutting machine, a machine to remove the heads of clover, Peale’s wood cutting machine (with a pendulum), Jefferson’s wood cutting machine (without a pendulum), false teeth made of enamel, a corncob breaking machine, a polygraph, the Spinning Jenny, two small fruit gathering machines, Peale’s windmill and windmill sails, a grain sowing machine and Peale’s experimental wire fences. Their ongoing discussion of machines filled most of their letters, and they often included sketches of their machines or inventions. Peale later expressed some mild regret in spending an extraordinary amount of time developing and discussing machines. A letter to Jefferson dated August 9 and 13, 1816 reads: "I have thought a great deal on the follies of my life—how much time I have consumed in mechanic labours—how much better it would have been for me to have choosen my other imployment than indulge my fancies in making various Machines, and doing work that I had not been accustomed to do" (431).

When Peale retired to Belfield, his son Rubens took over his work at his museum. He mentioned the museum to Jefferson on a few occasions, and in a letter dated May 2, 1815 he wrote:

I am now in my 75th. Year, and it is my wish to settle all my worldly affairs in the best manner I can—The Museum must be sold, for if it is not disposed of, before my death, a division of it will be its destruction-- when I applied to the Legeslature to grant me permission to extend it over the wings of the State-House, I then offered to secure its permancy there, which would have given the state of Pennsylvania the honour of an important establishment without one cent of cost to her (323).

From the following letters it can be seen how the fate of the museum becomes a source of anxiety for Peale. After this letter he tells Jefferson of his idea to dispose of the museum by a lottery, which did not arouse much interest. Later the corporation of Philadelphia wanted to charge him four hundred dollars a year for rent, which incited Peale with the desire to sell it. In 1816 the corporation of Philadelphia decided to impose a sixteen- hundred dollar rent to insure the building that housed the museum, of which Peale considered: "a total expultion of the Museum" (430). Throughout the remainder of the correspondence Peale indicated that the corporation of Philadelphia was not interested in backing his museum, nor were they interested in his proposition to sell it. Despite his efforts they remained disinterested and he turned to congress. He proposed selling the museum to congress, but again to no avail. As Peale’s correspondence with Jefferson ended he had not resolved the issue of the museum’s fate.

Peale more so than Jefferson wrote of his personal happiness and health, however on occasion, Jefferson mentioned it also. Peale’s main reason for moving out of the city to Belfield was, as he describes it in his first letter to Jefferson:

But the important reason I have for liking the farmers life, is yet to be told, For many years before I came to this place, my lungs was not sound; salt phlegm troubled me, and I sildom could get into sound sleep before I had thrown off that phlegm—By using a great deal of exercise in the open Air; with hilly grounds, fine Water and temperate eating I am more than paid for the cost of the farm, by strong health (112).

In a letter dated November 14, 1814 Peale also wrote about his wishes and health to Jefferson:

My wishes now are to live as quiet and easey as I can consistant with the necessary labour to ensure health, for without labour I cannot believe any Person can enjoy perfect health, as by experience I often have found when the Body is in some degree uneasey, whether it may [be] something of that inexplicable disease, Gout or Reumatism, some active labour, such a[s] plainning a board or diging in the Ground, to produce a gentle spersperation, generally performs the cure. I made Doctr Wistar laugh, when I told him that I knew the cure for a Cough—By running up & down a steep hill with an open mouth, thus inhalling the oxegen or pure air (281).

As far as his views on happiness, one quote from January 1819 seems to some it up rather well: "That the attainment of Happiness, Individual as well as Public, depends on the cultivation of the human mind" (673). Jefferson on the other hand often complained of his many correspondences and how they hindered his ability to enjoy himself. In March 1816 he referred to his correspondences as "the affliction of my life by the drudgery they subject me to in writing answers" (475). In February 1818 he wrote to Peale: "My great enjoyment is reading, but an oppressive correspondence rarely permits me to look into a book" (577).

The correspondence ends with a letter from August 26, 1820, written by Jefferson. At that point Peale had not yet resolved the situation with the museum, and the last few letters from both Peale and Jefferson had decreased significantly in length. Observing this correspondence between two great American men offers a more human perspective of Peale and Jefferson. When we think of such men, the fact that they were normal human beings with families and friends is often lost in the shadow of their great accomplishments. By looking at these letters closely we can be reminded of the fact that Peale and Jefferson were indeed men with families and friends and interests that are common to ordinary people.

Letters of Peale and Jefferson

August 20, 1811: Jefferson to Peale

September 10, 1811: Peale to Jefferson

October 3 and 14, 1811: Peale to Jefferson

March 2, 1812: Peale to Jefferson

August 19, 1812: Peale to Jefferson

April 17, 1813: Jefferson to Peale

December 28, 1813 and January 15, 1814: Peale to Jefferson

November 14, 1814: Peale to Jefferson

March 21, 1815: Jefferson to Peale

May 2, 1815: Peale to Jefferson

June 13, 1815: Jefferson to Peale

July 12, 1815: Peale to Jefferson

December 23, 1815: Peale to Jefferson

July 7, 1816: Peale to Jefferson

August 9 and 13, 1816: Peale to Jefferson

August 24 1816: Peale to Jefferson

February 28, 1817: Peale to Jefferson

March 16, 1817: Jefferson to Peale

May 20, 1817: Peale to Jefferson

January 15, 1818: Peale to Jefferson

February 18, 1818: Jefferson to Peale

March 2, 1818: Peale to Jefferson

January 1, 1819: Peale to Jefferson

August 7, 1819: Jefferson to Peale

August 21, 1819: Peale to Jefferson

April 22, 1820: Jefferson to Peale

July 3, 1820: Peale to Jefferson

August 26, 1820: Jefferson to Peale


Miller, Lillian B. The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family

Volume 3. Yale University Press, New Haven and London: 1991.