Today there is no shortage of ways to capture someone’s likeness. Before photography, however, your options were largely limited to having your portrait painted—an expense that few could afford—or silhouettes. These shadow-like images created from projections and paper were affordable, reproducible, and popular. Wildly popular, in fact. Even Thomas Jefferson joined the silhouette craze and had several on display at Monticello.
Hoping to cash in on this trend, renowned portrait painter Charles Willson Peale purchased a device to simplify silhouette production. Yet it was perhaps his young enslaved servant Moses Williams who learned to operate this new device that profited the most. Williams received a small cut from each silhouette sold, which he saved and used to buy his own freedom and later a home.
Learn more about Moses Williams and silhouettes in this latest episode of Monticello’s podcast series, “In the Course of Human Events.”
Charles Morrill: [00:00:00] Moses Williams -- it's so much like the stories that we tell about enslaved people at Monticello every day. People in bondage asserting their humanity and doing the very best they could.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:00:12] My name is Laura-Michal Balderson. I am a guide here at Monticello and I have with me my colleague, Ashley Hollinshead.
Ashley Hollinshead: [00:00:20] Welcome to our podcast, "In the Course of Human Events."
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:00:23] I think Moses Williams is a fascinating individual. There are four, probably five silhouettes at Monticello cut by Moses Williams.
Ashley Hollinshead: [00:00:33] This is a man who is taking this skill that he has learned, and he's using that to better, not only his life, but potentially the lives of his children, which is something that we see enslaved people across America doing.
2. Payment for a Portrait
Charles Morrill: [00:00:50] Hi, my name is Charles Morrill. I'm a guide at Monticello. My story is called 8 cents. And if you'll bear with me for just a bit, you'll see why.
Moses Williams was born into slavery around 1777. His parents were John and Lucy Williams. They were enslaved people, owned by a Maryland aristocrat who used them all to pay a Philadelphia artist named Charles Willson Peale for a portrait. Peale did support a law to abolish slavery in Pennsylvania, but he still accepted human beings as payment.
He freed John and Lucy Williams when their son Moses was about 11 years old, but kept Moses in bondage.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:01:35] So I can shed a little bit of light on the circumstances surrounding the freedom of Williams's parents. It's a little bit legally complicated, but a lot of people in Pennsylvania want slavery to end. So Pennsylvania passes an act for the gradual abolition of slavery that transitions a lot of enslaved people from technically enslaved to technically indentured, which means that they will be freed. It's usually around the age of 28. And that is part of that process of Williams's parents receiving their freedom. And there is this expectation that eventually Moses Williams is going to be a free man as well.
Ashley Hollinshead: [00:02:16] I think when we look at Peale's beliefs about slavery, it's very similar to Thomas Jefferson's views on slavery, right? Peale recognizes that slavery, as an institution, is morally wrong, but Peale is looking at slavery as more of a wrong to white people than he is looking at the sufferings of enslaved Africans and African-Americans. And in this case, they are being treated as a monetary exchange for something, which wouldn't have been an uncommon practice at this time, as terrible as that sounds.
3. Charles Willson Peale and His Museum
Charles Morrill: [00:03:00] So who was Charles Willson Peale? He was a scientist and an inventor. He was also, of all things, a museum proprietor. He fought in the Revolutionary War and he also became, really, one of the country's first portrait artists. And he painted many famous people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and so many more. And he exhibited a lot of these portraits in his museum, which was located, at one point, on the second floor of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, above that historic chamber where the Declaration of Independence was voted on back in 1776.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:03:36] So he opens this museum, which is a fascinating place. It's one of the first museums in the United States. It displays all sorts of different things that many people who were visiting would never have seen before-- natural history specimens, a lot of taxidermied birds.
Ashley Hollinshead: [00:03:54] It reminded me a lot of the entrance hall at Monticello in terms of what Peale is trying to accomplish with his museum in educating people about the world around them. And Thomas Jefferson, a lot of the American Indian objects that are being sent to him by Lewis and Clark during their Corps of Discovery Expedition, Jefferson, he is displaying them not only in his entrance hall but he's also sending objects to Peale to display in the museum in Philadelphia.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:04:24] But Peale also has a sort of sensationalist quality to this museum. There's a woman who works for Peale, who was born without arms. She also does silhouettes. And she does other performance- type feats that today we would just think of as adaptations that are made by a person with a physical disability. And so she uses a portion of one arm and her toes and her mouth to use these scissors to cut out silhouettes of visitors. And she signs all of her silhouette portraits, "Cut Without Hands."
4. Moses Williams in the Peale Household
Charles Morrill: [00:05:00] Peale father 17 children with three different wives. He named many of them after famous artists. So you've got Raphael Peale and Rembrandt Peale and Rubens Peale and even Titian Peale. Many of them followed their father's footsteps by becoming artists themselves. A note about his wives: the times were perilous, medically. He lost two wives due to disease and he lost a third wife in childbirth.
Anyway, Moses Williams was raised alongside Peale's children. He learned taxidermy for the museum and he helped with museum displays. Sometimes Peale had him dress as a Native American and walk through the streets of Philadelphia to advertise the museum. But unlike Peale's children, Williams was never trained in oil painting.
Peale's son Rembrandt wrote that Williams was, in his words, "entirely worthless." Now, here we have to hold up. I think that anytime you have an aristocratic white person making an observation of an enslaved person back then, it's highly suspect.
There may have been tension between Rembrandt Peale and Moses Williams who were close in age. The Peale children definitely competed for their father's attention. And maybe Williams was part of that mix. We don't really know. Rembrandt Peale also said that the appeal families, white cook, a woman named Maria, that's all we know of her name, refused to even sit next to Williams. You'll hear more about that later.
5. Silhouette Craze
But in 1802, something happened. Charles Wilson Peale's good friend, an English inventor by the name of John Isaac Hawkins, designed a simple machine to more easily create silhouettes. It was a simple sort of affair, a system of pivots and levers. The subject sat in a chair next to the device mounted on the wall. And the idea was the operator would then trace the person's outline with a brass arm. The machine's attached levers would simultaneously reduce and emboss the subject's outline on a small piece of white paper. Then you took a pair of scissors, cut the outline, and placed it on a black background. All of this was actually a pretty tricky thing to do well. But Williams became fascinated with the concept and he started practicing. And in pretty short order, he became really, really good at this.
And what happened next was that Philadelphia-- and then the entire United States --went nuts for silhouettes.
You have to remember back in Williams day, something like 5,000 people had died in just one of the city's yellow fever epidemics alone. Children often died young, loved spouses died in childbirth, older people didn't make it through the winter, you name it. Sure, silhouettes were the new, new thing, but they also gave people something to remember those who had gone often far too fast.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:08:01] So silhouettes are popular at this time period for several different reasons. One is just practically, they are cheap and fast. And in an era before photography, that is probably the most important draw. You don't have to sit for hours for a painted portrait. You don't have to pay for a painted portrait. And you often get two or sometimes four silhouettes at a time because they're going to take a single sheet of paper and fold it once or twice. So, you've sat for a minute or two, you get four copies of this image, you can send it to your family with your next round of letters.
And in many ways, something feels very Republican about the silhouette, because you can't tell what clothes are made of, you can't tell what color the hair of these people would have been. And so there's a real equalizing factor. I think that's popular within this new country, right, where people are trying to suss out what exactly it means to be citizens of a democratic republic.
There's also this new fascination with what people's heads look like. We, we're not quite at phrenology yet. That doesn't come until a little bit later in the 1800s, but there is a sense of people want to look at the profiles of other human beings and they want to read something in that profile. So they want to know, from the shape of your nose or the slope of your forehead, are you inquisitive? Are you funny? Do you, you know, enjoy learning new things? Are you grumpy? And, and they, they think that this is an emerging science that you can actually tell these things from looking at someone's profile. So, for many different reasons, silhouettes are really popular at this time period.
Charles Morrill: [00:09:55] Peale and Williams seem to have come up with an agreement if Williams would cut the silhouettes in Peale's museum for 6 and then later 8 cents, Williams could keep the money. In the first year alone, Williams cut something like 8,000 silhouettes. Rembrandt Peale said his father freed 27-year-old Williams a year earlier than he'd intended. He'd literally cut his way to freedom 8 cents at a time.
And what Peale called the "madness for silhouettes" went on for years, William set up shop in Peale's museum and continued to cut silhouettes for all kinds of people. In late 1805 - early 1806, President Jefferson invited leaders and diplomats from the various native American tribes to Washington DC. Some of them traveled up to Philadelphia and we think Williams cut their portraits as well.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:10:44] There's a delegation of about 27 Native Americans, from a number of different nations, who travel to Washington DC. About 12 of these men and their translator go up to Philadelphia. And they go to Peale's museum and a number of them sit and have their portraits made by Moses Williams. And again, multiple copies made at the same time-- so the Smithsonian has one of the original sets. And Peale sent a copy to Jefferson, and it includes a number of different gentlemen: Tahawara, Sagessaga, Mechenecka, amongst other indigenous men from a variety of nations, the Kaw Nation, the Sauk Nation, we believe the Missouria Nation is represented as well.
And this is just a really fascinating moment because these men are here as diplomats from sovereign, indigenous nations to negotiate treaties with the United States. And they are sitting in a room of a museum that displays indigenous American skeletons as natural history specimens. And their portraits are being made by a biracial man who sometimes dresses up as a Native American in order to promote this museum for marketing purposes.
And so this is an entirely fascinating moment where you have these ideas all coming together in one room, right? The stereotype of the American Indian for marketing purposes with the scientific idea at the time of Native Americans as less human, possibly even part of the flora and fauna of the continent. But then you also have these living, breathing human diplomats who are sitting there having their portraits taken. And they are participating in this craze for silhouettes. They are doing the same thing that every other person in the United States is doing.
6. A Brick House
Charles Morrill: [00:12:41] And increasingly, historians are writing that the silhouettes were such a draw, they brought people to Peale's museum. So, Williams's efforts helped to put the museum on a firm financial footing. And this income helped to provide Peale with enough money to perfect another Hawkins idea, the polygraph or copy machine that Thomas Jefferson absolutely loved. As for Williams, as the years went by, he became, well, almost well off, bought a brick house, and even married Peale’s cook Maria. So you see, she finally decided to sit with him after all.
Laura-Michal Balderson: So we don't have much information to go on here, but we know that Rembrandt Peale writes that a few years after Moses Williams became free, he purchased a two-story brick house, and eventually married the Peale's white cook. And Rembrandt says during Moses Williams's bondage, this white cook would not permit him to eat at the same table with her. Now that's not much to go on, but we do know that in many cases, poor white people, there was a sense that their whiteness was the only thing that made them better than enslaved people. And this is a conscious effort on the behalf of wealthy white landowners and slave owners that they intentionally helped to build up this racial identity of whiteness in order to keep poor black people and poor white people from bonding together along economic lines.
Ashley Hollinshead: [00:14:16] I think this incident really illustrates the racial tensions at this time and these emerging ideas of race and racial hierarchies and this false idea of white supremacy. And it's in a setting such as this, where white women who are dominated by the patriarchy they're able to assert their dominance over enslaved women, enslaved men.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:14:46] Yeah, And so I wonder if she's not just trying to assert her place in this hierarchy that she sees around her. And then once Moses Williams is a free man and is making a living and has a two-story brick house to offer, if she then doesn't see this as an opportunity for her to have a stable life there, outside of her work as a cook. Now that's not to say that there wasn't any real affection between them. We just don't know those details. But from other cases, we can sort of sketch in what, what might have been happening here to have such a drastic change in their relationship.
7. The Social Glass
Charles Morrill: I'd like to leave the story there, but that's not what happened. Like all fads, the craze for silhouettes came to an end, just like hula hoops and pet rocks and cabbage patch dolls. Then photography came along not too much later. And well, that was that. Williams seems to have taken it pretty hard. 50 years after Williams had died, a Philadelphia newspaper columnist remembered moses Williams said he was brought up in the family of the elder Mr. Peale, quote, "he was, as many old folks may recollect, a pleasant witty as well as an expert fellow in his vocation. But as his employment gradually declined, even so did Moses. And his finale hastened by two liberal use of his social glass." He probably means alcohol.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:16:08] I think we see in the lives of a number of free people of color that even when they are able to achieve career success and financial stability, the systems that we think of within a community that support people are often unavailable to them in many ways.
Williams has chosen to live as a free man of color, sometimes passing as a white man in a predominantly white neighborhood and that means that there's not going to be robust structures of social support-- the supports that are available to people who, quite honestly, fit more neatly into one of the boxes that society has decided people fit in at this time period. He's crafting a life for himself that in many ways does not fit into what the, the surrounding social norms would have expected him to do.
Ashley Hollinshead: [00:17:11] There are a lot of parallels between Moses Williams and James Hemings. James Hemings was the older brother of Sally Hemings. And he was taken to France by Thomas Jefferson during Jefferson's ambassadorship. And was trained by top chefs in Paris, how to create very elaborate French foods a skill that he then brings back to the United States and helps introduce food in America like macaroni and cheese, French fries, and vanilla ice cream. And he used that skill to negotiate for his freedom from Thomas Jefferson.
And so here, we see two highly skilled men, who have gained freedom. They are still practicing this craftsmanship-- James Hemings as a chef Williams as an artist. And yet they're being limited in terms of what they can achieve because of the, the color of their skin. James Hemings dies in the early 1800s from an act that people suspect may have been suicide. And Moses Williams, I mean, we see the, the end of his life seems to be quite tragic as well. Their lives are really illustrating how issues of racism have been embedded in the United States of America since America was founded.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:18:47] Despite this idea of republicanism that I talked about earlier, that silhouettes kind of evoke this, this sense of equality, the lives of these two men really powerfully demonstrate this myth of the American meritocracy. These are men who are highly skilled, very trained, clearly hard workers, clearly savvy in their decision-making. And, and yet both come to tragic ends.
8. A Postage Stamp
Charles Morrill: [00:19:18] Much of this story is due to the research of Dr. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. And there's one more thing. There's a silhouette of Williams discovered not too long ago at the Library Company of Philadelphia. There he is-- one of the country's first great commercial artists. Dr. Shaw believes he probably did the artwork himself, a self-portrait in black and white. " Moses Williams cutter of profiles," i t says on the front. "Moses Williams, the cutter of profiles," it says on the back. I'd like to humbly suggest that a better subject for a US postal stamp there never was. It would be a fitting tribute for a man who brought himself up from slavery 8 cents at a time. And somehow, never seems to have lost a sense of humor.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:20:10] A postage stamp seems like a great way to commemorate him because it is such a natural. We'll use of that silhouette shape and I just think that it's really fitting that what he did was he helped America see itself one person at a time.
Ashley Hollinshead: [00:20:23] I think Moses William's story is kind of a deep dive into what America looked like at its founding. And I think having individual stories, like Moses Williams, helps us to better understand that it wasn't just this far away historical time period but that there were actual people who faced challenges that people still face today.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:20:51] Well, I'd like to thank Charles for all of his research on Moses Williams. It is really his personal interest that that has helped to bring this to the attention of many others here at Monticello.
Ashley Hollinshead: [00:21:05] And Laura Michal, of course a huge thank you to you as well for this conversation about Moses Williams and his life. And thank you to everyone who has tuned into this podcast.
Laura-Michal Balderson: [00:21:16] Thank you. This was super fun.
Thoughts to share about this podcast? Suggestions for other episodes? Send us an email!
Narrated by Charles Morrill
Hosted by Laura-Michal Balderson and Ashley Hollinshead
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn
This podcast was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.