Elijah Boardman, by Ralph Earl (Metropolitan Museum Favorites, 22)

Elijah Boardman (1760-1823)

In 1790, when Elijah was thirty years old, John Ramage painted his two-inch high portrait on ivory. From it, you’d probably recognize Elijah if you met him on the street.

John Ramage, miniature on ivory of Elijah Boardman, 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of H. Bradford Smith, in memory of his mother, Lillie Wright Smith, and her sisters, Catharine Wright and Mary Wright Godcharles, and in honor of his aunt, Cornelia Wright Aldridge, 1989. Image: MetMuseum.org

But … Ralph Earl’s portrait of Elijah, painted a year earlier, tells you much more about him.

Ralph Earl, Elijah Boardman, 1789. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Susan W. Tyler, 1979. Image: MetMuseum.org

Thirty years later Elijah Boardman became a United States senator from Connecticut, but when Earl painted his portrait in 1789, he was a prosperous merchant in his home town of New Milford – and Earl painted him in his shop. In the room at the left are shelves filled with bolts of fabric. Elijah is a walking advertisement for the quality of his goods: frock coat of plain cloth but fine weave, waistcoat of glossy silk. The books on the desk behind him (in expensive, made-to-match leather bindings) testify to his education and culture: Shakespeare’s plays, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, the Lex Mercatoria (merchants’ law), and the London Magazine.

I was about to comment on the stovepipe-like appearance of Elijah’s arms and the lack of definition in his calves … but I just looked at works by Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, and Gilbert Stuart, and it seems to be common at this period to be more interested in the wrinkles on a sleeve than on the muscles beneath.

Ralph Earl (1751-1801)

During the early years of the Revolutionary War, Ralph Earl (1751-1801) painted four pictures that were engraved by Amos Doolittle and used for pro-American propaganda. Earl also painted patriots such as Roger Sherman, who signed the Declaration of Independence. But in 1778 Earl declared that he was a loyalist and fled to England. There he studied with Pennsylvania-born Benjamin West, and became an accomplished portraitist in the latest British style.

Returning to America after the War ended, he found there wasn’t much of a market for aristocratic portraits. In 1786, he was imprisoned in New York for failing to repay a small loan. Alexander Hamilton and the other members of the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors encouraged Earl to earn money to pay off his debts by painting portraits of the Society’s friends and family. If (like me) you’re a fan of Hamilton: An American Musical, you’ve probably seen Earl’s portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton. It was painted in 1787, two years before the Boardman portrait, while Earl was still in debtors’ prison.

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, 1787. Museum of the City of New York. Image: Wikipedia

After Earl was released in 1788, he adapted his style to suite the “republican virtues and pious values” (Kornhauser, American National Biography) of his New England sitters, and continued to paint for another two decades. One of his latest paintings is Landscape View of Old Bennington, 1798 (or here), which includes a self-portrait of Earl drawing a portrait of a boy who might be his son.

… and Thomas Jefferson

In Connecticut, Elijah Boardman was a Republican in a sea of Federalists. On March 1, 1801 – a few days before Jefferson was inaugurated as third president of the United States – Boardman sent him a letter regarding the intermingling of religion and state. I am sorry to admit that I have no idea what particular measure from the Adams administration Boardman is referring to here, but I am always pleased (and relieved) to see civil discourse on such matters. Note that Boardman even acknowledges that although Jefferson might be an atheist (as others, including Alexander Hamilton, claimed), that  doesn’t mean Jefferson is wrong about everything. I’ve left the charmingly erratic spelling unchanged.

In the course of the last year it was found that some desining men in New England had conceived and were attempting to bring forth a new machine of terror for the more effectually to subjugate and govern the people of the United States—namely that Religion and State policy Should be connected and by that coalition, together with the encreased power and patronage of the President would enable the Executive branch of our government to bear down all oposition—I call this new because as a system in this Country it is so—altho in Europe it is old, and its fatal effects on civil liberty hath long been felt in that quarter of the globe—

Feeling as I did that if a measure of this kind should be adopted it would eventually prove fatal to the Civil & Religious liberties of my country, and expressing these ideas to a Clergiman living in the Town to which I belong, it was found that he entertained ideas similar to my own, and in October last he delivd a discourse a copy of which his friends requested for the Press and, Sir, I have taken the liberty of Sending to Your Excellency one of those Sermons.

—I am sensible this may appear improper not having the honor of any acquaintance with you and to the people in New England (if known) would appear still more improper to Send for parusal, a Sermon, to a person who, as many of them have attempted to insenuate, is totally destitute of any Religion, and hath treated (in certain conversation) contumusly the very author of our Religion—

But Sir, be your ideas what they may respecting an other moad of existance—they are doubtless correct, respecting the State of existance, of which we are Sure—And give me leave farther to observe that about half the people in New England congratulate each other on the issue of the interesting, and all important event, of the late election of President of the United States and that a great proportion of the other half will embrace simelar ideas should they be convinced that the measures of the Executive are conformable to, and in support of, the Constitution of the United States, and real Republicanism and more espetially if his actions are dictated by the council of his own mind—

Boardman learned from a friend that Jefferson did not receive the letter, and on June 18, he sent it again. (“Purloining Letters from the Post offices is one of the evils of violent party Spirit—which hath unfortunately got to a great height in our country.”) Jefferson replied on July 3, 1801, in the third person:

[Th. Jefferson] supposes that the respectable & able author [of the sermon], finding himself supported by the good sense of his countrymen as far as he has gone, will see that he may safely, in this part also, go the whole length of sound principle; that he will consequently retract the admission that the utterance of an opinion is an overt act, and, if evidently immoral, may be punished by law; of which evidence too conscience is made the umpire. he will reflect that in practice it is the conscience of the judge, & not of the speaker, which will be the umpire. the conscience of the judge then becomes the standard of morality, & the law is to punish what squares not with that standard. the line is to be drawn by that; it will vary with the varying consciences of the same or of different judges, & will totally prostrate the rights of conscience in others.

But we have nothing to fear from the demoralizing reasonings of some, if others are left free to demonstrate their errors. and especially when the law stands ready to punish the first criminal actproduced by the false reasoning. these are safer correctives than the conscience of a judge.

This issues raised by Jefferson are particularly interesting to me because I just had occasion to reread Ayn Rand’s “Censorship: Local and Express” (on the Supreme Court’s obscenity ruling in 1973) and the sequel, “Thought Control” (which seems to be available only in The Ayn Rand Letter, September-October 1973).


  • More than 180 portraits have been identified as Earl’s work: many are illustrated on this Wikimedia page. The Metropolitan Museum owns five other Earls.
  • For more on Earl, see the American National Biography article by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Kornhauser’s “‘By Your Inimitable Hand’: Elijah Boardman’s Patronage of Ralph Earl,” American Art Journal 23:1 (1991), pp. 4-20 (available on JSTOR).
  • Jill Lepore’s article “I.O.U.” in the New Yorker (2009) is an absolutely fascinating survey on bankruptcy and debtors’ prisons, starting in the mid-18th century. Earl is mentioned.
  • Another painting of a man in his working element: Henry Alexander’s In the Lab, ca. 1885-1887, also at the Metropolitan Museum.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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