Ornamental Separator

A School of Thought

When Thomas Jefferson wanted to give his grandson an education, he sent him to live in Charles Willson Peale’s museum

Thomas Jefferson knew there was no place quite like his good friend Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum. The first true museum in the new republic, it was the manifestation of Peale’s Enlightenment ideas, a place that was a fusion of natural history, anthropology and art, including portraits of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, the Marquis de Lafayette, the Marquis de Chastellux and many more painted by Peale himself. Over time, Peale’s museum would grow exponentially and bring into its orbit almost every scientist, politician and celebrity of the day.

The museum had opened in 1786 as an extension to the Peale home on Philadelphia’s Lombard Street. A few years later, in a series of parades, boys and men carried all the exhibits several blocks to the museum’s new home in Philosophical Hall, headquarters of the American Philosophical Society. Peale moved his family into the basement of the building to better manage the ever-growing enterprise.

Soon Philosophical Hall could not hold the thousands of items pouring into the museum every year, and so part of the museum moved to the second floor of the nearby Pennsylvania State House — what we now call Independence Hall — above the rooms where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed, and below where the Liberty Bell rang each day. The balance of the museum, including its most famous inhabitant, a giant mastodon skeleton, remained housed in Philosophical Hall, with the Peale clan still living right below it.

And so it was that in 1807, when President Jefferson was looking for the perfect place to send his 15-year-old grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, for the finest Enlightenment education available, he turned to his friend Charles Willson Peale. Jefferson asked Peale if the young man could board with him and have his educational curriculum guided by all that Peale and his connections had to offer.

What better place to have his grandson, Jefferson reasoned, than living in Peale’s museum — soaking it in, along with all of Philadelphia’s other treasures. It was not without cause, after all, that after visiting the museum once, the Comte de Volney proclaimed it, “the temple of God. Nothing but truth and reason.”

When approaching Peale with the idea, Jefferson made it clear that “the circumstance which has guided us in fixing on the subjects of study for our grandson has been the exclusive possession of Philadelphia of your Museum.” Peale was honored by the request and opened his home — and the museum — to the young man. But, he told Jefferson, his grandson would have to abide by a lengthy list of house rules, advising that “the discipline of my House may be too rigid for a Virginian.... Ten O’clock is the hour of our locking our Doors, unless on some extraordinary occasion, such as a concert or play, an indulgence rarely given.” It was his wish, Jefferson replied, that his grandson “be solely occupied with his studies, not that he should be at all immersed in the society, & still less in the amusements & other abstractions of the place.” Only a few days after Randolph moved in with the Peales, his grandfather wrote to him insisting he “set out from the beginning with the rule to commit to writing every evening the substance of the lectures of the day.... it will fix it in your memory, and enable you to refresh it at any future time.”

Young Randolph’s transfer to Philadelphia was delayed for a combination of logistical reasons, but starting in October 1808 and lasting for 10 months, he lived with the Peales, sharing a room with their 24-year-old son, Rubens, whom Peale called his “right hand man” on museum and family matters.

Peale intended nothing less than providing Randolph with an “abundance of food for the mind.” He used the museum’s collections, which were unrivaled in America at the time, to instruct him in natural history, which included unimpeded access to the most famous skeleton in the country and, arguably, the world. Just one floor above where he and Rubens slept sat the mastodon — a massive beast that Peale and everyone else referred to as the “mammoth.” On the walls behind the behemoth were 92 gilded frames, each containing one page from Rubens’ older brother Rembrandt’s Historical Disquisition on the Mammoth, or, Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal, Whose Fossil Remains Have Been Found in North America. This was just the sort of educational experience Jefferson had in mind when he sent Randolph to Philadelphia.

The mammoth was the most famous exhibit the museum ever housed. And Randolph already knew something of it before he moved to Philadelphia, having been scolded by his grandfather for leaving a model of a mammoth’s head behind at Jefferson’s Monticello. Peale and his sons had excavated the skeleton of the mammoth seven years earlier from a marl pit on John Masten’s farm near Newburgh, New York, in a large-scale paleontological expedition — a research project partly funded by the American Philosophical Society.

The skeleton caused a nationwide stir. There was talk of mammoth squashes, mammoth radishes, mammoth peaches and mammoth loaves of bread. But that was nothing compared with a 1,300-pound mammoth cheese made from milking the cows of the 186 farmers in the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts. The cheese was sent to President Jefferson, who was delighted at what he deemed “an ebullition of the passion of republicanism.”

In the museum’s broadside for the mammoth, Peale wrote: “Of this Animal, it is said the following is a Tradition, as delivered in the very terms of a Shawanee Indian: ‘TEN THOUSAND MOONS AGO, when nought but gloomy forests covered this land of the sleeping Sun, long before the pale men...a race of animals were in being, huge as the frowning Precipice, cruel as the bloody Panther, swift as the descending Eagle, and terrible as the Angel of Night. The Pines crashed beneath their feet; and the Lake shrunk when they slaked their thirst.’” It was this skeleton, and all that was known about it, that Thomas Randolph had at his disposal for study.

Young Randolph’s studies in natural history also incorporated the scores of items at hand from the Lewis and Clark expedition, for Peale’s Philadelphia Museum was the public face of the expedition’s finds. And some of those items also provided Randolph with lessons in anthropology and ethnology.

In addition to all that Randolph learned at the museum, his grandfather had requested the young man receive training in botany at William Hamilton’s botanical garden in West Philadelphia. And Peale saw to that. Randolph also studied chemistry with Dr. Caspar Wistar and attended lectures by James Woodhouse at the University of Pennsylvania. Once Randolph learned of Silvain Godon’s lectures on mineralogy, he requested funds and permission to attend, which were provided.

Randolph also learned a bit of medical science by observing surgical operations at the city hospital and by attending Sir Charles Bell’s lectures on the anatomy of the human body. The young man was inspired enough by what he saw to write his grandfather of his “wish to join the dissecting class if you have no objections, the expense will be 15 or 20$,” which was duly provided.

By all accounts Randolph was an exemplary student. His grandfather wrote him with no small amount of pride that Dr. Benjamin Rush, the leading physician in the country and a central figure among the Philadelphia intelligentsia, “speaks favorably of you.” Still Randolph knew if he had any difficulties with all he was assigned, he could always turn to his grandfather for advice, which he did when he was struggling with how to condense all the information he was being fed. Jefferson responded by recounting his own battles with such things in his early years, writing Randolph that “the difficulty you experience in abridging the lectures is not unexpected. I remember when I began a regular course of study. I determined to abridge in a common place book, every thing of value which I read. At first I could shorten it very little: but after a while I was able to put a page of a book into 2. or 3. sentences, without omitting any portion of the substance.... No stile of writing is so delightful as that which is all pith, which never omits a necessary word, nor uses an unnecessary one. The finest models of this existing are Sallust and Tacitus.”

Jefferson periodically sent Peale funds to cover the costs of his grandson’s education, room and board and implored his friend to see to it that Randolph made use of all the extraordinary opportunities. In response, Peale sent Jefferson updates on his grandson’s studies: “Mr. Randolph is very attentive to his Studies, and I have not a doubt that he will be a valuable member of Society by his skill & disposition to eleviate the miseries that our species are liable to.”

In addition to his education, Jefferson was also concerned with Randolph’s moral development. In a letter to his grandson, now living in one of the biggest cities in the country, he advised that “thrown on a wide world, among entire strangers without a friend or guardian to advise...with so little experience of mankind, your dangers are great...a determination never to do what is wrong, prudence, and good humor, will go far towards securing to you the estimation of the world.” In a return letter, Randolph said he was “aware of the dangers of my situation and of my own inexperience; I have heard much, & seen little of the vices & follies of the world & distrusting my own knowledge of human nature, I have shunned all unnecessary intercourse with persons not previously recommended to my acquaintance.”

Still, Randolph was prone to say what his grandfather wanted to hear, and Jefferson knew it. It was only Peale’s periodic character updates that put his mind at rest: “I do not discover the least turn of extravagance in him,” Peale wrote his friend. “On the contrary he conducts himself in every respect with prudence and respectability, and is daily gaining the love and esteem of his acquaintances.”

After Thomas Randolph returned to Virginia in June 1809, Jefferson wrote his friend in Philadelphia to say just how pleased he was: “I have now to thank you for all your kindnesses and those of your family to my grandson; and at the same time to convey to you the expressions of his gratitude and affectionate remembrance. He speaks of yourself, Mrs. Peale & the family always as of his own parents & family.... I cannot describe to you the hope & comfort I derive from his good dispositions and understanding.” 

Randolph’s Later Life

Born in 1792 at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Randolph was the eldest son of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha and her husband, Thomas Mann Randolph Jr.

Thomas Jefferson Randolph remained close to his grandfather and went on to manage the Founding Father’s financial affairs, including his Monticello estate. To pay debts left after Jefferson’s death, Randolph managed the sale of goods and property from Monticello, including enslaved people.

He and his family, which included 12 children, lived at a farm called Tufton, which bordered Monticello and served as an important food source to the adjoining plantation. After the sale of Monticello, Randolph moved his family to Edgehill, his parents’ Albemarle County plantation.

A six-term member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Randolph proposed in 1832 an emancipation plan for the enslaved in Virginia. The debate over slavery came to a head in Virginia’s General Assembly after enslaved preacher Nat Turner led a disorganized rebellion in 1831 in which at least 55 whites died. Randolph saw the Turner rebellion as an indicator of events to come, and he proposed a gradually imposed plan as a way to escape the economic impacts of eliminating slavery. His plan was ultimately defeated.

Randolph published the first collection of his grandfather’s writings in 1829 and also served as rector for the University of Virginia, the school that was Thomas Jefferson’s vision for higher education. He died in 1875 at the age of 83.

Lee Dugatkin
is an evolutionary biologist and historian of science in the Department of Biology at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. His newest book, Behind the Crimson Curtain: The Rise and Fall of Peale’s Museum, was published in September. Dugatkin has also written extensively on Jefferson and natural history in Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America.

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