This post is a part of the 2020 Selected Papers of the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era, which were edited and compiled by members of the CRE’s board alongside editors at Age of Revolutions.
In the summer of 1768, Charles Willson Peale painted a portrait of William Pitt, first Earl of Chatham, then serving as Britain’s prime minister. A native Marylander educated in England and living in London as a gentleman of leisure, Edmund Jenings commissioned Peale to honor Pitt for his vigorous defense of American rights against the Stamp Act in the House of Commons on January 14, 1766. Jenings sent the completed portrait to the statesman Richard Henry Lee, leader of the Westmoreland Association of Patriots, a group of Whig gentlemen in Virginia which provided private donations for the commemorative project. In November 1768, Jenings wrote Lee that “the Honest Cause of America hath been supported by the true Liberallity [sic] of that great man, Lord Chatham. I could wish that his Merits were not forgot.” Jenings added that the painter was “a young man of merit and modesty” whom he hoped would “meet with every encouragement on his return to America.” Peale was then an art student from Maryland learning his trade in the London studio of Pennsylvanian painter Benjamin West, and he had previously worked on miniatures. The Pitt portrait was Peale’s first full-size painting and his first major commission.
The obscure young artist was determined to make the most of this professional opportunity as a showpiece for the start of his career in the American colonies. Peale followed up the first oil painting of Pitt with an improved, slightly larger version, which he submitted to meet the terms of Jenings’s original commission. He later gave the first version to Maryland’s legislative assembly. He also engraved a mezzotint plate of the second version for mass distribution as a print, which he titled Worthy of Liberty, Mr. Pitt scorns to invade the Liberties of other People. Peale hoped his representation of William Pitt—highly popular among American colonists—would also prove highly popular among American purchasers of art.He expected his paintings and mezzotint to resonate with his fellow colonists, sell well, and advertise his professional capabilities. In addition to his economic motives, Peale harbored the ideological motive for his first great work to serve as a vehicle for his own political convictions.
Rather than using the portrait simply to convey America’s gratitude to William Pitt for his pivotal role in the Stamp Act Crisis, Peale—a staunch supporter of the Sons of Liberty—pressed the popular leader’s image into the service of a radical Whig agenda. Rather than obeying convention by painting Pitt as a contemporary politician, he instead represented Pitt as a universalized symbol of heroic resistance to tyranny. Peale adopted the symbolic language of Renaissance emblemology to make a political argument visually rather than verbally, turning a portrait of the sitting prime minister into an allegory of the timeless human struggle between liberty and arbitrary power. At eight feet high and five feet wide, the painting’s sheer size imposes on the viewer a sense of the epic scale of its allegorical theme, much bigger than the likeness of one man. Portraying Pitt as heir to seventeenth-century Britain’s regicidal republicans, the painting affirms not only the justice of civil disobedience to the Stamp Act in the past but also the justice of armed resistance to Britain’s king and Parliament in the future, if they failed to relent in oppression of the colonies. Arguing for the right of resistance with symbolic images rather than words, Peale’s William Pitt should be considered a boldly radical political text as surely as the great political pamphlets understood by historians as key to the cultural origins of the American Revolution.
Pitt aimed for allegory rather than verisimilitude with this project, and a review of the painting’s contents elucidates the political message of its symbolic imagery. Peale positioned the statesman in this portrait standing slightly off center, his face the focal point for the work. Pitt’s graying hair is short, loose, and unwigged, and his clothing as well as his hair fits the style of an ancient Roman patrician. Unable to paint the statesman from life, Peale copied his likeness from Joseph Wilton’s 1768 bust of Pitt dressed like a Roman senator. Peale’s Pitt wears an off-white, golden tinged tunic with the hemline above the knee. Draping from his shoulders to the ground and pinned with a golden brooch is a bright red cape of the kind known as the paludamentum, reserved for generals and consuls of the ancient Roman republic. He wears the style of sandals—bound with thongs up to mid-shin—called calcei patricii, reserved for ancient Rome’s patrician aristocracy. Pitt stands next to a stone pedestal, located in the bottom left of the portrait. Decorated with two small male heads carved at two corners, the pedestal is an altar featuring a perpetual flame. Lying atop the pedestal next to the flame, a crown of oak leaves seems to be waiting for Pitt’s grasp. (See Figure 1 below.)
While these classical images occupy the foreground of the portrait, the background is allusive to the modern world. Behind Pitt is a massive Doric column and cypress trees, and behind that, the corner of an architectural structure, recognizable to Peale’s viewers as the Banqueting House of Whitehall Palace as it appeared in mid-eighteenth-century London. In the background on the painting’s left is a plinth topped with a statue of a woman in a full-length toga, holding a staff topped with a cap. At her foot, on the top of the plinth, lies a discarded document with the visible title, “Congress at New-York.” On a side of the plinth is carved a bas-relief depicting a seated male Native American warrior. Sporting a quiver on his back, the brave has a bow in one hand and his other hand caresses his hunting dog. (See Figures 2 and 3 below.) Standing at the altar, Pitt has clenched in his left hand a rolled document with the title “Magna Charta.” With his right hand, he gestures dramatically to the statue behind him, where the statue steps on the discarded document, representing the resolutions passed by the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and submitted as a petition to Parliament. Pitt’s face is stern, his mouth firmly set, conveying the gravity of the situation and his moral resolution in confronting it. Facing the viewer, Pitt gravely directs the viewer’s attention to the statue in the background.
Through this strange mix of classical and modern forms and settings, Peale indicated to viewers that his painting is not meant to be a conventional portrait of a contemporary politician but rather a work of allegory, applying the Renaissance rhetoric of emblemology. The emblematic tradition centered around an allusive language of symbolic images, derived from classical Greco-Roman art and medieval heraldry and codified in Renaissance Italy by Andrea Alciati in his 1531 book Emblematum Liber and Cesare Ripa’s 1645 book Iconologia. English artists and writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries imported the emblematic tradition from Italy for their own uses. Before learning the anglicized emblematic tradition from Benjamin West during his London apprenticeship, Peale had an earlier acquaintance with it, having used his artistic skills “in making emblematic Ensigns” for a protest by Sons of Liberty against the Stamp Act at Newburyport, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1765. For viewers of his Pitt painting acquainted with the symbolic meaning of these icons, their politically subversive intent was clear enough. For less educated viewers of his mass-produced mezzotint, he explained some of the imagery in the print’s explanatory broadside, titled “A Description of the Picture and Mezzotinto of Mr. Pitt.”
Just as Peale communicated political ideas through “emblematic Ensigns” during the Stamp Act Crisis, so he again employed emblems in his painting to communicate words which might be dangerous to print or speak in London in 1768. The cypress tree was, according to Alciati’s Emblematum Liber, an emblem for the message “that one’s own kind must be treated on equal terms,” which would have reinforced Pitt’s argument in the House of Commons that the colonists held the same constitutional rights as free-born Englishmen. Ripa’s Iconologia offered the column as an emblem of “constancy” and “stedfast [sic] Resolution,” explaining that “neither Fire nor Sword can terrify Courage arm’d with Constancy.” Peale indicated that he meant to use the Doric column behind Pitt in precisely this way. In an unsigned advertisement for the mezzotint, he explained, “The Pillar at the Back of Mr. Pitt signifies Stability in the Patriot and his Principles.” While Ripa personified America as a standing female Native American warrior holding a bow aggressively with a skull at her feet, Peale’s Indian brave carved on the plinth is seated and patting his hunting dog with his left hand. (See Figure 3 below.) Ripa included, in his icon for “fidelity,” the image of a dog as “the most faithful Animal in the World, and beloved by Men.” Peale’s Indian brave has his bow available in his right hand, though, and the quiver on his back is loaded with arrows, so the threat of armed retaliation remains. In his “Description,” the painter noted that the Indian brave personifies “the natural Faithfulness and Firmness of AMERICA.” He describes America as loyal but “erect,” “attentive,” “watchful”—and armed.
Just as Britain depended upon the trade and loyalty of the American colonies for its own wealth and power, so in Peale’s artwork a statue representing “British liberty” stands upon the plinth representing America. As the emblem for “Potesta” (translated as the “Government of a Common-Wealth”), Ripa’s Iconologia used an image of the helmeted Roman goddess Minerva holding a spear in one hand and an olive branch in the other, with an oval shield sitting beside her. In the 1709 English translation of Iconologia, featuring drawings by Isaac Fuller the Younger, the seated Minerva’s shield bears Britain’s Union Jack. Ripa’s emblem for “Potesta” has been anglicized by Fuller as Britannia, the classical personification of Britain. For the statue in his allegorical painting, Peale adopted the classical Roman personification of liberty as Libertas, a goddess (without Minerva’s helmet, armor, or shield) in a toga holding a staff (hasta) topped with a pileus, the felt cap given to manumitted slaves in ancient Rome as a symbol of their liberation from bondage. (See again Figure 2 above.) In the mezzotint version of the portrait, Peale emphasized the Britishness of his Libertas by placing the woman’s right hand on an oval shield bearing the Union Jack, like Britannia in Fuller’s edition of Iconologia. He thereby indicated visually what he explained verbally in the broadside—that the statue of the woman was supposed to be not Potestas, Libertas, or Britannia but specifically “British Liberty.”
Peale meant his portrait of William Pitt not only to honor the prime minister for upholding American rights but to indict Parliament for invading them. His “Description” observed that Pitt is wearing “a Consular Habit” while “speaking in Defence of the Claims of the AMERICAN Colonies, on the Principles of the BRITISH Constitution.” In the main action of the painting, Pitt points to “the Statue of BRITISH Liberty, trampling under Foot the Petition” of the Stamp-Act Congress in New York. Peale meant to capture the statesman’s “sarcastic” observation in his speech that the colonists’ assertion of British liberty as their birthright was “rejected by the House of Commons, the Guardians, the Genius, of that Liberty, languishing as it is.” Apparently responding to criticism of the painting, Peale noted in his explanatory text for the mezzotint run, “Some have thought it not quite proper to represent LIBERTY as guilty of an Action so contrary to her genuine Spirit.” Such thinkers as Montesquieu, the painter wrote, have observed that free societies, like the Roman Republic in ancient times, are inclined to deny freedom to their colonies.
While the actual Pitt defended liberty as a rhetorician and lawmaker, Peale’s allegorical Pitt endorses armed resistance in defense of liberty, even against Britain’s king and Parliament. In addition to the aforementioned classical emblems, the portrait’s imagery offers historic allusions to the violence of the English Civil War. Two corners of the altar, where Pitt has come to the sacred fire of liberty, are decorated with two carved heads recognizable as sculptural portraits of Algernon Sidney and John Hampden. (See Figure 4 below.) A key leader in the House of Commons’ opposition to King Charles I, who preferred prosecution to payment of an unconstitutionally levied tax, Hampden died in the 1643 Battle of Chalgrove Field fighting the king’s army as a militia officer in the Parliamentarian cause. Sidney also served as an officer in Parliament’s civil war with Charles I, defied both the king and Protector Oliver Cromwell as a member of Parliament, advocated republican government after the restoration of monarchy in 1660, and was executed for conspiring to assassinate Charles II and his brother James in the 1683 Rye House Plot. Engraved on the pedestal between the portraits of Hampden and Sidney is the Latin Motto “SANCTUS AMOR PATRIAE DAT ANIMUM”: “sacred love for one’s country inspires.” This too was a historic allusion. After distinguishing himself at the Battle of Marston Moor, Sidney was promoted to command of a cavalry regiment. He had the regimental colors emblazoned with the motto, “Sanctus Amor Patriae Dat Animum,” and thereafter used it as a personal motto. In case viewers did not recognize the portraits of two politician-soldiers who died in opposition to Stuart kings, Peale added their last names under each head in the mezzotint version of the portrait, so there was no risk of the political lesson being lost.
Eighteenth-century viewers would not have missed the significance of the architectural structure in the background. (See Figure 5 below.) Whitehall’s Banqueting House continued to loom large in British historical imagination on both sides of the Atlantic as the location of the scaffold where Charles I was executed for treason against the people on January 30, 1649. The regicide remained bitterly contested in public memory. In his “Description,” Peale did not obscure the revolutionary implications of this image. He characterized Sidney and Hampden as two Englishmen who, “with undaunted Courage, spoke, wrote, and died in Defence of the true Principles of Liberty, and of those Rights and Blessings which GREAT-BRITAIN now enjoys.” Knowing that he trod on dangerous ground, Peale resorted to blanks in his description of the mezzotint to avoid a sedition charge. Lest there be any confusion in the viewer of his reason to including the Banqueting Hall, he wrote that the “VIEW of W—- H— is introduced in the Back Ground, not merely as an elegant Piece of Architecture, but as it was the Place where ——- suffered, for attempting to invade the Rights of the BRITISH Kingdoms.” Peale added, moreover, that “the Statue and Altar of BRITISH Liberty are erected near the Spot where the great Sacrifice was made, through sad Necessity, to the Honour, Happiness, Virtue, and in one Word, to the Liberty of the BRITISH People.” Britons concurred broadly in the mid-eighteenth century that their national blessings were based upon the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Tories denounced the civil war, regicide, and republic, though, and most Whigs distanced themselves from the turbulence of the 1640s and 1650s. By contrast, the imagery of the painting and mezzotint affirmed not simply the rightfulness of armed resistance to the authority of a previous king of Britain but also of the use of lethal force against that king himself. In defending the execution of Charles I explicitly and the legitimacy of the English Civil War and Commonwealth implicitly, Peale staked out ground on the radical fringe of transatlantic Whiggism.
Marylander and Londoner Edmund Jenings commissioned the portrait from Peale to honor the former prime minister for returning to the House of Commons in opposition of the Stamp Act and pleading the cause of the colonists in his celebrated floor speech of January 14, 1766. Pitt not only denounced the Stamp Act as unconstitutional and contrary to American rights as British subjects but also defended the refusal of colonists to obey the law and their efforts to nullify it. “I rejoice that America has resisted,” Pitt had declaimed, “Three million of people so dead to all feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.” This was the moment Peale’s patron sought to commemorate. In the “Description” of his work, Peale concluded that the purpose of his painting and mezzotint was to communicate “the Gratitude of AMERICA to his Lordship,” the Earl of Chatham, and to commemorate for “Posterity” the great events of the Stamp Act Crisis.
The American painter went much further with his commission, however. Instead of expressing gratitude to Parliament and King George III for seeing the error of the Stamp Act and repealing it, Peale’s artwork implicated Parliament as tyrannical by depicting the statue of British liberty stepping disdainfully on the Stamp Act Congress’s resolutions. And his inclusion of the Banqueting Hall could hardly be taken any other way than as a veiled threat to punish George III the same way Peale’s republican heroes had punished Charles I, if the current king did not turn away from despotic measures like the Townshend Acts of 1767-1768. Peale treated the execution of Charles I as a tragic “Sacrifice” made on the altar of liberty, but it was rendered a “sad Necessity” by the king’s attempt “to invade the rights of the BRITISH Kingdoms.” British patriotism required a British monarch’s execution in 1649, and Peale’s painting argued visually that regicide—or rather, tyrannicide—might also be necessary once more, in the last resort, if the preservation of Anglo-American liberty required it. It was a shocking statement for a British subject to make in 1768 and one which Pitt—rewarded by King George with peerage and prime ministership—would not have endorsed.
While Pitt mobilized rhetorical eloquence to support colonial disobedience of a parliamentary statute, Peale mobilized visual allegory to associate Pitt (and patriotic defense of constitutional rights) with armed resistance to king and Parliament. The portrait related Pitt not simply to traditional English constitutionalism, represented by the scroll of Magna Carta in his hand, but also to regicidal republicanism. Surrounded by symbols alluding to violence against kings, Peale’s Pitt seems to approve, as a virtuous expression of the sacred love for country, the Parliamentarian cause in the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, the replacement of monarchy with the English Commonwealth, and a plot to assassinate King Charles II and his brother, the future King James II. In this painting, Peale co-opted Pitt’s popular image on behalf of the radical Whig cause, in its most seditious, revolutionary form.
The painter employed allegory and emblem to universalize his subject. Rather than depict the prime minister in his robes of state as the first Earl of Chatham, he dressed him as a consul of the Roman Republic, clutching a copy of Magna Carta and honoring heroes of the English Civil War. Peale thereby associated American opposition to the Stamp Act and Townshend Acts not just with Pitt’s advocacy in Parliament but with grand-scale battles against tyrants in other ages: Julius Caesar in ancient Rome and King John in medieval England, as well as Charles I and Charles II in early modern Britain. Peale’s artwork elevated colonial opposition to imperial policy by relating it to an exalted theme: the age-old, often bloody struggle between liberty and arbitrary power. Moreover, his paintings and mezzotint of Pitt argued—emblematically rather than syllogistically—that persistent oppression by Britain would provoke and justify armed resistance, including even the killing of George III.
Peale hoped this fiercely radical statement would resonate with American Whigs in 1768 as consumers of both fine art and political propaganda. In 1774, the Maryland assembly accepted the first version of the painting graciously, paid him one hundred pounds, and displayed it in the assembly chamber in Annapolis, where it still hangs today. Between 1768 and 1775 Peale marketed copies of the mezzotint, but it did not sell as well as he had hoped, despite efforts by Richard Henry Lee and others to distribute it. Receiving the second version of the portrait in April 1769, Lee remarked that it was “very much admired” by the gentlemen of the Westmoreland Association of Patriots. When the painting proved too large to pass the doors of the Westmoreland County courthouse, the Association voted for Lee to display the painting in his Virginia manor house, Chantilly. The first to call for American independence in Congress, Lee was honored by colonists for the eloquence of his legislative oratory as “the American Cicero” just as they hailed Pitt as the British Cicero. Might Lee have found some personal inspiration in the oil painting of a Romanized British patriot striking a heroic pose in oratorical defense of liberty? If not by the general public then at least by future leaders of the American Revolution, Peale’s allegory—and its political message—were well received.
Dr. Patrick Mullins is an American cultural and intellectual historian, with research interests in the relation of religion to political thought and the art and politics of memory. His research specialization is the American Revolution and its colonial and imperial origins. He serves Marquette University as Public History Director and History Internship Coordinator. Volunteering as exhibit research director, Dr. Mullins is helping to create the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum in Waukegan, Illinois.
Title image: Charles Willson Peale’s William Pitt, full size. Published with permission of the Westmoreland County Museum and Library.
 Charles Coleman Sellers, Charles Willson Peale, Vol. 1: Early Life (1741-1790) (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1947), 86-87; Eric Langford, The Allegorical Mr. Pitt: A Bicentennial Biography ([Frome, England: Lawrence-Allen, ), 8, 48-49, 77; Jules David Prown, “Charles Willson Peale in London,” New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale: A 250th Anniversary Celebration, ed. Lillian B. Miller and David C. Ward (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 38-39. For William Pitt’s popularity in America after January 1766, see Joan Coutu, Persuasion and Propaganda: Monuments and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s, 2006), 195-199.
 Charles Coleman Sellers, “Virginia’s Great Allegory of William Pitt,” William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 9, No. 1 (January 1952): 61. Please note that the digital photograph designated as Figure 1, as well as the painting which it represents, namely Charles Willson Peale’s William Pitt, are the property of Westmoreland County, Virginia. The photograph is reproduced here with the express permission of the Westmoreland County Museum in Montross, Virginia. Please also note that the Pitt portrait owned by Westmoreland County is the second version which Peale made for Jenings.
 Sellers, Charles Willson Peale, 66-71; Prown, “Charles Willson Peale in London,” New Perspectives, 39-40; Margaretta M. Lovell, Art in a Season of Revolution: Painters, Artisans, and Patrons in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 15-16; Edgar P. Richardson, Brook Hindle, and Lillian B. Miller, Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982), 29-31; Lillian B. Miller, ed., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, Volume 1: Charles Willson Peale: Artist in Revolutionary America, 1735-1791 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), 77n1. For the seminal scholarship on Peale’s William Pitt, see Charles Henry Hart, “Peale’s Allegory of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 48 (February 1915): 291-303.
 Sidney Hart, “A Graphic Case of Transatlantic Republicanism,” New Perspectives on Charles Willson Peale: A 250th Anniversary Celebration, ed. Lillian B. Miller and David C. Ward (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 73-74; Paul Staiti, Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes (New York and London: Bloomsbury Press, 2016), 12-13, 16-17. For the most important work of history using analysis of pamphlet literature to explain the origins of the American Revolution, see Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992 .
 Kenneth Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1976), 131; Judith Lynn Sebesta and Larissa Bonfante, The World of Roman Costume (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994) 69, 102, 109, 119-120; A. T. Croom, Roman Clothing and Fashion (Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2000), 52, 61.
 Roger B. Stein, “Charles Willson Peale’s Expressive Design: The Artist in His Museum,” Reading American Art, ed. Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 40-49; Hart, “A Graphic Case,” New Perspectives, 73-74. For an introduction to abundant scholarship on the use of emblemology in early modern England, see Rosemary Freeman, English Emblem Books (New York: Octagon, 1978).
 Miller, ed., Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale, 75-76; Caesar Ripa, Iconologia, or Moral Emblems, ed. Pierce Tempest, illus. Isaac Fuller (London: Benjamin Motte, 1709), 30-31, 76-77, 53-54; Charles Francis Adams, Guernsey Jones, and Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Letters and Papers of John Singleton Copley and Henry Pelham, 1739-1776 (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), 104; Andrea Alciati, A Book of Emblems: The Emblematum Liber in Latin and English, ed. John F. Moffitt (London and Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004), 229. For Peale’s authorship of the anonymous advertisement, see Hart, “Peale’s Allegory of William Pitt,” Massachusetts Historical Society, 299.
 Ripa, Iconologia, 80-81; Miller, Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale, 76. For the pileus as a symbol for liberty, see Alciati, A Book of Emblems, 176; see also J. David Harden, “Liberty Caps and Liberty Trees,” Past & Present, No. 146 (February 1995): 66-102; see also Yvonne Korshak, “The Liberty Cap as a Revolutionary Symbol in America and France,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn 1987): 52-69.
 Miller, ed., Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale, 74-76.
 For Algernon Sidney’s motto, see George Wilson Meadley, Memoirs of Algernon Sydney (London: Thomas Davison, 1813), 19-20.
 Miller, ed., Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale, 76. For the influence of English radical Whig Thomas Hollis on Peale’s William Pitt, see Frank H. Sommer III, “Thomas Hollis and the Arts of Dissent,” Prints in and of America to 1850, ed. John D. Morse (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970), 141, 148-155; see also Arthur S. Marks, “The Statue of King George III in New York and the Iconology of Regicide,” American Art Journal, Vo. 13, No. 3 (Summer 1981): 61-82.
 Miller, ed., Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale, 76; Coutu, Persuasion and Propaganda, 194-195.
 Miller, ed., Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale, 75-76. For a key work emphasizing the conservatism and royalism of American colonists in the decades preceding the Revolutionary War, see Brendan McConville, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
 Sellers, “Virginia’s Allegory of William Pitt,” 62-66; Coutu, Persuasion and Propaganda, 196-197; Landford, The Allegorical Mr. Pitt, 8-9.