An article from the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.
It was meant to be a spectacle. And it was. But not in the way intended.
In this episode of In the Course of Human Events, author and historian Eliga Gould tells the incredible story of Charles Willson Peale's Triumphal Arch, built to celebrate the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolution and established international recognition of the United States. Monticello's Gaye Wilson and Hannah Zimmerman join our look into this pivotal yet often forgotten moment in American history, where polictics, art, celebration, and tragedy intertwined.
Hannah Zimmerman: There are no public monuments in the United States even today to the Treaty of Paris. There are monuments to every person and every event in the United States history, but the Treaty of Paris gets a temporary, extremely theatrical, ephemeral arch in the middle of Philadelphia that literally goes up in flames.
Gaye Wilson: I am Gaye Wilson, a Senior Research Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.
Hannah Zimmerman: I'm Hannah Zimmerman, the Digital Programs Coordinator. Welcome to another episode of "In the Course of Human Events," a Monticello Podcast.
Eliga Gould: My name is Eliga Gould. I'm a historian at the University of New Hampshire. I am writing a book about the Treaty of Paris, which I'm calling Crucible of Peace: A Global History of America's Founding Treaty.
If you think of the United States as having three founding documents, the first, of course, is the Declaration of Independence. The second is the Articles of Confederation, that is, the Constitution 1.0. But the really important third leg is the Treaty of Paris, and that's because until George III recognized the independence of the United States, the other two documents might only be conjectural.
Treaty of Paris
Gaye Wilson: The Treaty of Paris did end the war for the United States with Britain. It took a while in the negotiation stage because we had international allies--France, Spain, the Netherlands, and all of that had to be negotiated as well. But the document that was signed on November 30th, 1782, by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, Henry Laurens that did essentially end conflict with Great Britain.
Hannah Zimmerman: I think what's often lost with the American Revolution is that it is a World War. It's involving all of those powers that you just named, but it's also involving the Native American nations here in the United States. It's involving vast pieces of land. And decisions are being made about where do the boundaries of the United States begin and end. And so the treaty is an integral part of ending that war and solidifying the United States place in world politics and power.
Gaye Wilson: And of course, with the boundaries that were set, it made it a much larger and more significant nation, geographically, in that the Mississippi River was established as the western border. So it was quite significant just in the geographic makeup of the new country.
Hannah Zimmerman: Gaye, you mentioned all of the signers--Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, Henry Laurens. They brought the A-team for the Treaty of Paris and they're just missing Thomas Jefferson.
Gaye Wilson: They just barely missed getting Thomas Jefferson there in that he had turned down two commissions to go to Paris because of his wife's health, her health was not good, and he was pretty open about he would not leave her, and she could not make the trip.
Hannah Zimmerman: He still got to go to Paris. Ambassador to France is a pretty good consolation prize.
Gaye Wilson: It was not bad.
Eliga Gould: Charles Willson Peale builds The Triumphal Arch to celebrate the end of the Revolutionary War, and in particular, the ratification of the Treaty of Paris. It must have been a wonder to behold. It was 40 feet high, and it straddled the main thoroughfare in Philadelphia, Market Street. There's a central opening and it's wide enough for a horse-drawn carriage or sleigh to pass through it, and then on the side openings, pedestrians can walk through.
Charles Willson Peale, his idea is to paint scenes, which covered the arch. Most of them are symbolic. The one of George Washington, for example, shows Washington dressed as the Roman hero Cincinnatus, who had famously hung up his sword at the end of the war and returned to his plow as an ordinary farmer. Cincinnatus had declined to be a dictator for life, and this had been the great fear—that Washington would want that. There were a number of others, a victorious soldier, the 13 stars of the United States.
Peale puts all of this on the arch, so most of the covering is either canvas or paper. It's built with a timber frame. And there's a series of platforms inside it. And he's perfected a method for having illuminated paintings. He's got a thousand lamps behind this, he's on one of the platforms and he's tending them. He may well be lighting them again. We don't know exactly how that part of things was going to work. And so as night falls, the people of Philadelphia will be able to see these backlit transparencies. It must have been quite a remarkable scene.
Peale had fashioned a larger-than-life figure of peace. And it's not just Peace, but she has her courtiers around her in clouds. And at Peale's signal, this figure of Peace was to descend by a rope onto the upper deck of the arch. You can practically hear the crowd gasping as Peace suddenly appears. It would've been great.
Gaye Wilson: In the Pennsylvania Gazette they gave it a lot of coverage, encouraging people to come out to see it because it was going to be beautifully illuminated, and it was "the ingenious Captain Peale, who was now preparing the paintings." They said, "as the illumination will continue for many hours, the spectators will have an opportunity of examining the whole work at leisure. From a balustrade will be thrown up a constant succession of fine fireworks." I think it does show that at that time there was a high degree of excitement about the Treaty of Paris.
Hannah Zimmerman: And I think two things in that article are so interesting. Number one, they refer to Peale by his military rank. He's Captain Peale. So the Treaty of Paris is celebrating the end of a war and using his military rank shows his commitment to the cause. And also what a big event it was.
Gaye Wilson: Peale had done other illuminations, not quite this extravagant, but when they learned of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, there was a major celebration in Philadelphia at that time. He did another when Washington was actually coming to Philadelphia after this battle, and oh, the great commander was going to arrive. He made these paintings that could be illuminated because they were on a sheer fabric. He put them over the windows of his house, then with the lamps behind, and the public then could pass by and enjoy looking at these paintings. So it was entertaining, but yet he was giving a history lesson.
Who was Charles Willson Peale?
Eliga Gould: Charles Willson Peale was a self-trained portrait painter. He's from modest origins. He's not a wealthy man. He's one of these figures who really rises to prominence as a result of the Revolution. He served in the Continental Army. And then he's very active in Philadelphia politics. We remember him today for the portraits that he painted of Revolutionary leaders. Probably his most famous is of George Washington, which he painted a number of times.
Peale eventually became one of the great showmen. This is before the invention of movies, a good several decades before even the invention of the photograph. But there already is a cult of imagery, magic lantern shows projected images onto screens. Those are already quite popular, very big deal. Peale is already thinking about creating visual images that people will pay money to come see. But historians who write about Peale's life credit the arch as the pivotal moment in moving toward things that would have a more popular appeal, reaching out to ordinary people, putting the nation's history on display.
Gaye Wilson: In 1791, Peale would like a portrait of the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. So he makes an appointment with Jefferson, but he gets a little miffed apparently because Jefferson stood him up. He writes a short note to say, "Did I imagine that you had an appointment for a sitting today?" Jefferson must have made the second one because then what does result is a very fine portrait of Jefferson from 1791, the only one we actually have of him as Secretary of State. And even though they got off to a bit of a tense beginning, it seems that they did become very good friends, and it was a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
They did have a lot in common. They were interested in art. They wanted the images of these men who had in some way been important to the founding of the new United States to inspire others. Jefferson had collected a very fine group of portraits. And if you go to Monticello today, take note of these as you go through the parlor. So Peale, very much a man of the arts, and, in fact, I think he even named some of his children after famous artists.
Hannah Zimmerman: Charles Willson Peale was married three times and he had about 18 children, not all of whom lived to adulthood. And he named all of his children after his interests. So his children were Raphael Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Rubens Peale. His daughters were also named for famous artists, so there was an Angelica Kauffmann Peale. And then his interest in science shows up: he has a son named Charles Linnaeus Peale. And then there's a Franklin Peale named for the American Scientist, Benjamin Franklin.
So with the Arch and the portraits that he's making and also his museum, he's sharing the wonders of the world with the public. He's creating a place for people to come and learn and be in awe of the American experiment.
Gaye Wilson: I think you've hit on here that what begins as just a portrait gallery grows. He begins to incorporate natural history specimens, and some count it as our first real museum in this country, in that it was a combination of art and natural history.
I can turn back then to Thomas Jefferson because that was another interest of theirs that they shared. When Lewis and Clark returned from the Western expedition, Peale's museum was a repository for some of the things that they actually brought back.
Another expedition that sent him back some specimens was Zebulon Pike. He was going down along the Arkansas River, and he's able to purchase two grizzly bear cubs. So he sends them back to President Jefferson, and Jefferson writes his granddaughter right away and says, “I think these are going to be big and dangerous.” However, the letter he writes to his good friend Charles Willson Peale was, “they're very docile and they don't eat much. How would you like to have them for your museum?”
Peale jumped upon it. Jefferson makes arrangements to send these grizzly bear cubs to Philadelphia. So off they go to Peale's Museum. Peale manages somehow to have them on display for the public. But grizzly bear cubs grow pretty quickly, and one night, one escapes from the cage, terrorizes the Peale family, until it's finally shot in the basement kitchen. They decide they better put the other bear down as well. So the ultimate way the bears are shown to the public is that they're stuffed and in a glass case, which is a little sad, but still, it was enlightenment information of this is an animal we don't see here on the East Coast. Look at it, study it. It's unfortunate the bears came to a demise, but it did serve a purpose.
Hannah Zimmerman: Just when you think the story of Charles Willson Peale cannot get any wilder, enter two bears.
Gaye Wilson: Two grizzly bears.
Disaster at the Arch
Eliga Gould: On the evening of January 22nd, people are making their way to the arch. Some are on foot, and the really fancy, wealthy people are in horse-drawn carriages. It's very orderly. Philadelphia had seen some fairly rowdy celebrations and riots, and so there's great care taken to control this. They also prohibit any other illumination in the street. They want to make sure that this is the only celebration happening.
Peale was going to have fireworks launched from the top of this thing and beside it. The problem is, he drenches the transparencies with oil and varnish, so they're highly flammable. I don't know what he was thinking. It's a recipe for disaster.
Peale was on one of the platforms. I mean, it's kind of like the Wizard of Oz. He's got all these lamps and he's tending them when this rocket goes off and ignites the paintings. And so he has to get out of there. He leaps onto a platform underneath the upper platform, but there are rockets there that are going off. You know, one hits him, catches his coat on fire, and in a desperate bid, he pushes through the sail cloth, which covered the back of the arch, and jumps and he hits a board on the way down. It breaks two of his ribs, but it breaks his fall as well, and it probably saves his life.
The accounts we have of this, they talk about not only people panicking, but horses panicking. Really, it's a miracle that there are only two casualties. One of them is the artillery sergeant in charge of the fireworks. The other is an unnamed woman. But a lot of people are injured, including Peale himself.
Hannah Zimmerman: The scene described is chaotic. Peale is falling. People are panicking, horses are panicking, there's fire. Two people die. This is just chaotic. And it's so interesting, it's not reported as this horrible disaster the same way it would be reported today. It's interesting that he still remained a public figure that is famous and not infamous, in that his reputation doesn't suffer because of this horrible accident.
Gaye Wilson: You can go back to the theater of the time because all of the footlights were candles or little oil lamps of some type. And of course then things are going to catch on fire curtains, scenery—way it goes.
Arch, Take Two
Eliga Gould: In some ways, it's fortunate that the arch burned so quickly. These paintings are gone in a matter of minutes because they're so flammable. The timber frame survived, so all Peale had to do is to repaint the paintings.
The Pennsylvania assembly does not give him another 600 pounds, so Peale has to raise the money by subscription, and some of it he pays out of his own pocket, but there are wealthy benefactors who are willing to help him.
There's quite a lot of conflict between the rich and poor during the Revolutionary War. There is a lot of economic dislocation. You see the well-off in Philadelphia rallying around Peale. I think part of what's going on here is putting on a good show by Pennsylvania and Philadelphia's leaders. And when you look at the threats that accompany the broadsides before the first arch, saying, “Iif you throw fireworks or stones or create problems here, if there's any riotous behavior, we'll throw you all in jail. We're not kidding around here.” A sense of class tension is running just beneath the surface, and I'm sure that's one of the reasons why there were people willing to sort of pony up and help Peale cover the costs for the second attempt to build this arch.
You know, It probably takes him about six weeks to redo the paintings. It must have been tedious work. It can't have been fun. And he's burned, he's not in great health. He rebuilds the arch, recreates it on Chestnut Street, across the street from the Pennsylvania State House, what today we call Independence Hall. And this time the fireworks are launched far away. There's no danger that they're going to set this thing on fire. We know from reports that it's still a great event.
It happens in May, I just have an image. I would picture myself on Chestnut Street, looking up. It's a lovely spring evening, and I think it was actually quite beautiful. To Americans in 1784, the Treaty of Paris is a really big deal. And I think Peale's Arch, the fact that the Pennsylvania assembly appropriated so much money to it, the fact that people came out to see it not once but twice, and the fact that Peale put so much effort into it, I mean, I think that really underscores just how important this document was.
Gaye Wilson: Well, I almost think because he wants to salvage his reputation, he does undertake, and much at his own expense, building the second arch. But of course that time they moved the fireworks to a distance away.
Hannah Zimmerman: That's a good tip. Don't have fireworks right next to an arch made of wood, paper, oil and cloth. That's just as an important safety tip from 1783.
Gaye Wilson: We've been talking about how people were so excited with the Treaty of Paris. They're building a new nation, but there were still a lot of problems that had not been resolved. There was poverty. There were concerns about keeping the government afloat and where was that money to come from, the issue of taxes. And so this was an undercurrent. And in the paper when it was advertising Peale's illumination, it said "Boys and others: you must behave yourselves." So I think there was an undercurrent that things could so easily get out of control because there was definitely some class distinctions there.
Hannah Zimmerman: In the decade between the Declaration of Independence and the writing and the adoption of the Constitution, the United States is operating under the Articles of Confederation, which are a mess, frankly. There's no strong central government, all of the different states have their own currency. There's no plan for dealing with the national debt that was incurred as part of the war. So all of the unrest that you mentioned makes a lot of sense. I think having a big public celebration for the Treaty of Paris is meant to be a uniting moment. It's state sponsored civic education and civic celebration.
Impact of the Treaty of Paris
Eliga Gould: The Treaty of Paris it's got 10 articles. The first article is where George III recognized the independence of each of the 13 states, and he names every state, from New Hampshire down to Georgia. The other nine articles recognize the United States as a unified union, an empire of liberty, as Americans were already starting to call the United States.
The second article recognized American claims to all of North America as far west as the Mississippi River. So one of the challenges in the treaty is to work out how that territory will be governed. The Treaty says nothing about Native rights. A lot of historians, certainly indigenous historians today, are very critical of Great Britain for saying nothing about that in the treaty. The British betrayed their Native allies, many of whom had fought alongside the British during the Revolutionary War.
One of the most controversial clauses of this treaty was inserted on the morning before it was signed. Henry Laurens, who is one of the American Peace Commissioners, he had been governor of South Carolina and one of the biggest slave traders in the colony. And he shows up in Paris right before the treaty was going to be signed, and at his insistence, Britain agrees to a clause added in the treaty's seventh article, whereby the British agree that when their forces evacuate places that they still held, and they still held, at that point, Charleston and New York, that they will do so without "carrying away," and this is a direct quote, "negroes or other property of the Americans." Basically, the clause is there to compel the British army to hand over enslaved African Americans, whom they held either because they had taken them and were keeping them in bondage or because they had liberated them by allowing them to serve in the British Army, and the clause covers both categories.
This becomes a huge bone of contention during the evacuation of New York. George Washington claims three enslaved people in the New York garrison. Britain refuses to return them, Washington insists that they should. It's not a great moment for Washington. Thomas Jefferson himself loses enslaved people to the British during the Virginia campaign. If he can't get them back, he wants to be compensated. The British agree to it. So it's another moment where they're actually betraying the Black loyalists who fought for them. It's another less than, shall we say, glorious part of the treaty's history.
Another thing that the treaty did is to require American debtors to honor their debts to British creditors. This is a very big deal for Jefferson. The estate that he inherited it from his father-in-law was already encumbered with debts to British creditors. Jefferson doesn't lead an inexpensive life. He racks up debts as well. Under the Treaty of Paris, those all have to be honored, and that's one of the things that will keep Monticello in debt for the rest of his life, and those debts had to be honored after he died in 1826. People that Jefferson enslaved were some of the people who paid that price by being sold after his death.
Hannah Zimmerman: Prior to the Declaration of Independence, Dunmore's Proclamation in 1775 frees any Black individuals who join the British Army and fight for the British cause. Between 5,000 and 8,000 Black soldiers fought for the continental Army, the American army, but three times that 15,000 to 20,000 Black soldiers fought with the British. Nineteen of Jefferson's own enslaved people fled to British lines in exchange for liberty. So we're finding a lot of connections between freedom and Black soldiers and the promise of freedom that doesn't play out with the Treaty of Paris.
And then the Treaty of Paris doesn't consider Native Nations at all when dividing the boundary lines between American lands and British lands in North America. The idea that Native nations had sovereignty just is not taken into account. Their land is divided over and over again to two other countries that are just not thinking about them at all.
I'm a former sixth grade teacher and the students were completely mystified by the actions of the United States government with regards to Native Americans in this time period because, of course, you do not move onto land where people are already living. You don't move into the house next door when your neighbors are still there. The fairness and justice that sixth graders understand is something that the founders missed out on when they're in Paris.
Why don't we think about the Treaty of Paris?
Eliga Gould: Why don't we think about the Treaty of Paris today? You know, If you go to the National Archives, you will see on display the Declaration of Independence. You'll see the Constitution. They've got the Treaty of Paris, but it's not on display. Why is that?
I think there are a couple of reasons. One, the United States today is the most powerful nation on earth. We've forgotten how important the moment of international recognition was. But if you think of places that don't have that recognition, say, Taiwan, or what the people of Ukraine are going through, you get a sense of just how important this was. So some of it is we've forgotten our own history.
Another part is, of course, the Treaty of Paris was one of our founding documents that Americans didn't write on our own. We actually wrote it together with Britain. And today, of course, we feel like we've got broad freedom to make the history that we want to make, but the Treaty of Paris reminds us that at the nation's founding, we actually needed the recognition of other nations—that mattered a lot.
Gaye Wilson: I found it very interesting to see how excited the populace was at that time, how much they wanted to celebrate it, how much went into the planning of these celebrations. So it was a big event.
Hannah Zimmerman: And I think that Charles Willson Peale is the only person in that time period who could have possibly pulled it off. He didn't quite pull it off the first time. He kind of did the second time. But if anyone was going to be able to do it, it was going to be him.
Gaye Wilson: He had quite the imagination. He was quite the showman. But I think he was also a man with a purpose and that he wanted to educate for the cause of this United States-- he was sincere about that and remained so throughout his lifetime.
Hannah Zimmerman: Thanks, Gaye. It was great to talk to you about Charles Willson Peale.
Gaye Wilson: And thank you Hannah. It was great fun talking with you. And also I want to thank Eliga Gould for bringing our attention to this Treaty of Paris of 1783, a very important moment in our history.
Hannah Zimmerman: Such a good story.
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Narrated by Eliga Gould
Co-hosted by Gaye Wilson, and Hannah Zimmerman
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn
Header image generated by Dall-e and afterwards edited
Signed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay, the treaty recognized U.S. independence, gave Americans fishing rights off the coast of Newfoundland, and acknowledged the Mississippi River as the country’s western boundary.