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CW Journal : Winter 2011 : What’s Wrong With This Picture?

“Congress at the Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1776.” Trumbull painted a scene that never took place in The Declaration of Independence, and he omitted mention of any date.

Library of Congress

“Congress at the Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1776.” Trumbull painted a scene that never took place in The Declaration of Independence, and he omitted mention of any date.

Explore the painting

The Declaration, like the roster in Trumbull’s painting, was signed by men who voted against it or were not present.

Library of Congress

The Declaration, like the roster in Trumbull’s painting, was signed by men who voted against it or were not present.

A poster of portraits and autographs of signers was produced for the centennial of the Declaration and of independence. John Hancock’s “John Hancock” had dwindled in size by then.

Library of Congress

A poster of portraits and autographs of signers was produced for the centennial of the Declaration and of independence. John Hancock’s “John Hancock” had dwindled in size by then.

Zoom in on poster

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

“Congress at the Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1776”

by Gil Klein

For starters, historians report, it wasn't the Fourth, and no matter the day, no such scene–the drafting committee approaching the chair-happened

Walk through the Rotunda of the national Capitol and the painting smacks you in the eye. Life-size, wise old Benjamin Franklin and short, plump John Adams look on as rangy Thomas Jefferson lays the Declaration of Independence on a table before John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress. Underneath, the sign: “Congress, at the Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1776.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Look again at the painting and see it for what it is: a sometime source of confusions.

Artist John Trumbull titled it The Declaration of Independence. Nothing about July 4. Congress was sitting in Philadelphia all right but at what it called the Pennsylvania State House, and the canvas does not depict what happened there that day anyway. A history-book favorite, the painting invites students of Independence to think Jefferson that Thursday presented a Declaration sprung from his mind, all the delegates voted aye, and they rose as one to sign.

“Why would anyone think something as revolutionary as the Declaration could happen in a day?” said Karie Diethorn, curator of Independence National Historical Park. “But there’s a romance associated with it and a belief that it had to happen that way—that these fifty-six men, like a chemistry experiment, were the catalyst that created America—poof.”

Trumbull—whose Surrender of General Burgoyne, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, and George Washington Resigning His Commission hang nearby—intended something else. He wrote to Jefferson in 1789 that his “most powerful motive” was to commemorate “the great Events of our Country’s Revolution,” and to show “the personal resemblance of those who have been the great actors in these illustrious scenes.”

Born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, of Pilgrim stock, at five Trumbull lost sight in one eye to a fall down a flight of stairs, but early developed an interest in art. His father, later Connecticut’s governor, thought that frivolous and sent him to Harvard to study for the ministry or law. On his way, Trumbull visited Boston artist John Singleton Copley, whose paintings, Trumbull’s autobiography says, “riveted, absorbed my attention, and renewed all my desire to enter upon this pursuit.”

On the eve of the Revolution, however, military arts came first. He read military manuals and formed a small company of students and villagers: “We taught each other to use the musket and to march, and military exercises and studies became the favorite occupation of the day.”

Washington took command of the Continental troops in Boston. Trumbull snaked through tall grass to draw for him a plan of the British position at Boston Neck. Impressed, Washington appointed him an aide-de-camp. In 1777, Trumbull resigned a colonel’s commission over a dispute about its date and his seniority. In 1780, he traveled to London to study painting with Gilbert Stuart, under the tutelage of Benjamin West. But Trumbull’s rebel sympathies earned him eight months in Bridewell for treason before his release and expulsion.

After the war, in January 1784, he returned to London to paint pictures of the Revolution. The next year he met the visiting American minister to France, Jefferson. “He had a taste for the fine arts,” Trumbull wrote, “and highly approved of my intention of preparing myself for the accomplishment of a national work. He encouraged me to persevere in this pursuit, and kindly invited me to come to Paris, to see and study the fine works there, and to make his house my home during my stay.”

Much historical painting focuses on battle scenes, which Trumbull was well on his way to producing. No one had produced a grand historical painting of—let’s face it—a committee meeting. Nevertheless, Jefferson apparently persuaded Trumbull to tackle the Declaration.

They talked about who should and should not be portrayed. Consulting Adams, they decided that signatures should be their guide, even if the signers were absent when the Declaration was approved, and that such opponents of independence as John Dickenson of Pennsylvania should be included for their importance in the debate. Only likenesses—not idealized forms—should be included. Signers who died without leaving behind an image would be excluded.

Jefferson sketched, faultily, the room where Congress met, and Trumbull used the drawing to paint the background, leaving room for individual portraits. Independence Hall does not look like Trumbull’s. Those flags and drum on the wall? Trumbull said he made that up. The fancy furniture? The delegates sat on Windsor and ladder-back chairs.

It was the delegates’ faces that most mattered to Trumbull. Helen A. Cooper, a Trumbull biographer and curator of the Yale University Art Gallery, wrote that he painted Adams and Franklin directly on the canvas in London during the summer of 1787, and returned to Paris for Jefferson.

In 1790, he sailed to New York, where the young Washington administration and the first Congress offered a trove of faces. He traveled the coast collecting portraits. In Boston, he painted Hancock and Samuel Adams. In Charleston, Edward Rutledge. In Williamsburg, George Wythe. Trumbull wrote:

The picture will contain the portraits of at least 47 members. Of the faithful resemblance of 36, I am responsible, as they were done by myself from life, being all who survived in the year 1791. Of the remainder, nine are from pictures done by others. One, Gen. Whipple of New Hampshire, is done from memory. One of Mr. Benjamin Harrison of Virginia is from description aided by memory.

Comparing the faces with the Declaration’s signatures, historian John H. Hazelton found four likenesses of people who had not signed: Robert Livingston, standing behind Jefferson as one of the five drafting committee members, George Clinton, Thomas Willing, and John Dickinson. Nine signers didn’t make the painting: John Morton, James Smith, George Taylor, George Ross, John Penn, Thomas Stone, Thomas Nelson, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Carter Braxton.

Badly damaged in the War of 1812, the Capitol needed rebuilding in 1815, and Congress wanted for the Rotunda large paintings depicting American history. Appealing for the commission, Trumbull wrote, “Future artists may arise with far superior talents, but time has already withdrawn almost all of their models.” Congress awarded Trumbull $8,000 each for the four Revolutionary War scenes.

The last portrait Trumbull added was of Thomas Nelson Jr. in December 1817. A 21 x 31-inch version of the painting—now at Yale—that he began in 1787 was not completed until 1820.

From the beginning, the Declaration of Independence had detractors. Depicting anyone “who was not a member of Congress and present in that body when Independence was declared is . . . ridiculous,” wrote an anonymous critic who signed himself “Detector.” Trumbull said that no record existed of exactly who was present during the vote, and the best he had to go on was the signatures.

Representative John Randolph called the painting a “shin-piece, for surely was there never before such a collection of legs submitted to the eyes of man.”

The confusions? Foremost, the notion that the painting depicts something that happened July 4, 1776. The committee delivered its draft June 28, and it lay on the table while the delegates debated something more important—whether to vote for independence. Declaring the result would come after. Historians say no such scene of the whole committee approaching Hancock to present the draft ever happened. Franklin may not have been present. Livingston, who opposed independence, for sure was not there.

Why would Trumbull depict the presentation and not, say, the signing? “My own opinion is the signing is a fait accompli, it is the end of the story,” Diethorn said. “When the committee submitted the document, we don’t know what the end is going to be. That seems perfectly consistent with Trumbull’s idea that he’s depicting an idea and not an event or not a real place.”

The delegates were not unanimous, nor did they vote as one for independence. When Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee moved June 7 “that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free,” the motion met a storm of criticism and was tabled after a day’s debate.

The day before Lee’s motion came to a vote, only nine colonies appeared ready to say aye. “It was starkly obvious now that to adopt independence on a mere majority would leave these men staring at each other in bewilderment,” historian William Hogeland wrote. “An assertion of independence, binding on all yet dissented by some, augured civil war among the governments represented in the room.”

A substantial portion of the delegates believed America was fighting a defensive war against an overreaching Parliament grasping for power and taxes, Hogeland said. Led by Dickinson, they argued that declaring independence would mean a long, destructive, and bloody offensive war against the greatest power on earth.

Pro-independence delegates, led by Adams, noticed that an English fleet with 30,000 soldiers was sailing toward New York and considered the war already under way. “In the heat of battle they portrayed Dickinson as a weakling and a coward and a pacifist and a traitor to the cause,” Hogeland said. “I think the whole time John Adams knew that wasn’t true.”

Dickinson did not show up for the vote, leaving Pennsylvania with a majority of delegates ready to vote aye. Seriously ill with cancer, Caesar Rodney rode through the night in the rain to tip Delaware’s vote to independence. As the tide turned, opposition from South Carolina changed to support. The tally was twelve colonies for independence, New York abstaining.

Hogeland said, “The rationality of [Trumbull’s] composition looks a little bit funny to me. They certainly look unified at that moment. When they adopted the resolution, they achieved unity but with great strain. Not the serene mood that Trumbull captures.”

More accurately, Trumbull shows that the Declaration was the work of a committee—Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin—and that Jefferson was not the sole author.

Adams later wrote that he persuaded Jefferson, who was eager to return to Williamsburg to help craft the new Virginia government, to write the Declaration.

Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.

Adams biographer David McCullough questions that account. Jefferson records no such conversation—he said the committee unanimously appointed him writer. Diethorn says, “Jefferson is remembered as the author of the Declaration, but it is not true that he wrote it alone. The evidence shows that Adams and Franklin were part of the drafting process all along. Jefferson had the style and the art, Franklin had the wit, the practical publisher printer sense, and Adams had the erudition. The three of them really crafted that document.”

Jefferson, who suffered through the changes Congress made to his work before approving it, published the draft presented in his memoirs. On his tombstone, he had inscribed what he considered his three great accomplishments: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.”

Congress voted for independence July 2, not July 4. True, it approved the Declaration on the fourth. But that was not the main event. The independence vote was separate from the vote to approve the Declaration.

“I wouldn’t go so far to call the Declaration a press release. But it was a release to the world letting it know what had happened and why,” Hogeland said. “The really big day was July 2. That was the climax. So it is funny how the painting rejiggers the climax to appear on July 4.”

Writing to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, John Adams said that from then on “the Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”

More than likely, no one signed the Declaration on July 4. The handwritten parchment tourists line up to see at the National Archives was ready August 2. Then, and only then, did the president of Congress apply his John Hancock, many delegates following suit. Other members were inking it well into October.

Even people who had not voted for it signed. “Robert Morris is my favorite because his signature is so big,” Hogeland said. “He had opposed independence down the line, and he stayed home on July 2 when it passed. When he signed it, he put his name very big at the top of the Pennsylvania delegation as though he was leading the charge for independence.”

Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician, was not elected to Congress until after July 4. That did not stop him from signing—and earning a spot in Trumbull’s painting.

“A clear way for a new congressman to pronounce his commitment was to step up to the table and sign the Declaration,” Diethorn said. “For a Pennsylvania delegate, it would be important to say, ‘I am for the Declaration.’”

By the way, the Rotunda sign aside, the Pennsylvania State House would not be called Independence Hall until just before the Marquis de Lafayette toured the United States in 1824, Diethorn said.

So how long has that sign been misleading people? At least since the 1960s, said Eva Malecki, communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol. All of the signs under the rotunda’s paintings are under review and are to be updated. When that happens, a new sign will say the painting depicts the presentation of the Declaration to Congress on June 28, 1776.

One last thing. A story pops up repeatedly that Jefferson paid Trumbull to paint Jefferson’s foot on top of Adams’s foot to show that Jefferson dominated Adams. Not true, Malecki said. In the nearly two centuries it has hung in the rotunda, the painting has been exposed to smoke, dirt, humidity, and the elements. Before modern art preservation, overpainting repaired marred areas. “That changed the shape and appearance of the foot,” she said. “It does not depict Jefferson standing on Adams’s foot.”

Virginia-based journalist Gilbert Klein was a national correspondent in Media General News Service’s Washington bureau, is a past president of the National Press Club, and is an American University teacher. He contributed to the winter 2010 journal a story on Fort Monroe.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Helen A. Cooper, John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter (New Haven, CT, 1982).
  • William Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1–July 4, 1776 (New York, 2010).
  • Irma B. Jaffe, John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution (New York, 1975).