Charles Willson Peale was an “artist, politician, scientist, tinker, and showman,” who was one of the leaders in enhancing civic society. Namely, he created a museum, which he said was to promote “the interests of religion and morality by the arrangement and display of the works of nature and art.” Lillian B. Miller, Patrons and Patriotism: The Encouragement of the Fine Arts in the United States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1966), 90.
Peale first opened the museum in 1786 with his brother James Peale, and the museum had paintings, fossils, stuffed birds, stuffed wild animals, and a “miniature theater with transparent moving pictures.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 556. It served as a contrast to the European museums of the day, which were only open to “select or privileged groups befitting Europe’s hierarchal societies . . . .” Id. Peale opened the museum to all who were able to pay the twenty-five cent admission. Id. He decided that if it were free, it would be abused and not appreciated, and if it were too expensive, not enough of the public would be able to enjoy it. Id.
Peale’s museum enjoyed great success, “attracting nearly forty thousand visitors a year,” by 1815. Id. citing David C. Ward, Charles Willson Peale: Art and Selfhood in the Early Republic (Berkeley, 2004), 103-04.
Peale’s museum fit into the greater spirit of the early Republic’s approach to art and education for the public. Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans encouraged “[a]nything that might inspire patriotic and republican sentiments, such as viewing Washington’s statue or one of his many portraits,” and criticized anything European. Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 557.
Further, and perhaps most notably, many Republicans, including Jefferson, began naming areas after the names of Ancient Rome or Ancient Greece. Id. Jefferson himself proposed naming new states in the Western United States various classical names, such as “Assenisipia, Pelisipia, and Cherronesus.” Id.
It is clear from these developments that early Americans were anxious to make a society separate from Europe but reminiscent of the ancient civilizations that laid the foundation for America to exist. Much of this sentiment carries forward to today. As close as Europe was and continues to be culturally, politically, and economically, America has always had a desire to be different. Peale’s museum is just one manifestation of that desire.
Peale’s museum also helped foster an environment in America where learning was accessible and desirable. One of the key underpinnings of the early Republican ideals was that Americans should be informed, educated, and have a thirst for knowledge. Peale’s museum created a model for other museums, all of which permitted the common American to live up to those ideals of the Republicans.
These early actions by Peale, Jefferson, and others planted the seeds for a more robust, healthy society, capable of sustaining the Republic for an unprecedented period of time. So far, so good.