Unsullied by Falsehood: No John Trumbull

Unsullied by FalsehoodIn previews last year, the award-winning musical Hamilton included a short song at the top of Act 2 (between Thomas Jefferson's "What'd I Miss?" and "Cabinet Battle #1") that was cut before the musical moved to Broadway. The number was called "No John Trumbull", and antagonist/narrator Aaron Burr sang the following lines:

You ever see a painting by John Trumbull?
Founding Fathers in a line, looking all humble
Patiently waiting to sign a declaration, to start a nation
No sign of disagreement, not one grumble
The reality is messier and richer, kids
The reality is not a pretty picture, kids
Every cabinet meeting is a full-on rumble
What you 'bout to see is no John Trumbull

- Hamilton: An American Musical, Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda


Trumbull's Declaration of Independence

The founding of the United States of America was certainly not the "pretty picture" John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence leads the viewer to believe. More specifically, the events surrounding the Declaration of Independence had very little resemblance to this now famous painting.

A note to start things off: it is often assumed that Declaration of Independence depicts the signing of the Declaration of Independence (an event which began on August 2nd, but continued for months as delegates arrived in or returned to Philadelphia). It could also be assumed that the painting depicts July 4th, Independence Day. In actuality, it is meant to depict the events of June 28th, 1776, when the Committee of Five (L-R: John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin) presented their draft of the Declaration of Independence to President John Hancock and Congress.

Preliminary Sketch of Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull and Thomas Jefferson

Trumbull began work on Declaration of Independence while in Paris a decade after the events surrounding the Declaration of Independence. His painting was based in part on conversations with his friend Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris as U.S. Minister to France. Yale University Art Gallery has Jefferson and Trumbull's initial sketches of the Assembly room, though Jefferson misremembered certain details.

But Trumbull also took creative license based on the likenesses available to him. Declaration of Independence includes 42 of the 56 signers, as well as several men who did not sign, for a total of 48 portraits. 36 of these portraits were taken from life, and the others were copied from existing portraits or from relatives (see Benjamin Harrison, below). Though Trumbull worked on the painting for years in hopes of including all of the signers, the lesser-known delegates and the ones who died in the decades just after the Declaration of Independence was signed didn't make the cut. Both Jefferson and Adams apparently advised Trumbull that, in cases where no portraits could be found to copy, the delegates should be left out rather than poorly represented. After decades of work, Trumbull was commissioned to produce a monumental version of his Declaration of Independence for the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. He completed the painting by 1818, and it was installed in the Rotunda with his other monumental works in 1826.

So, who was actually present in Congress on June 28th, 1776? In his Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, published in 1921, Edmund C. Burnett listed the attendance dates of delegates, based on clues in correspondence as well as the Journals of the Continental Congress. Based on his work, the following men were more than likely in Independence Hall on June 28th, 1776:

  • President John Hancock
  • Secretary Charles Thomson
  • New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple
  • Massachusetts: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, Robert Treat Paine
  • Rhode Island: William Ellery, Stephen Hopkins
  • Connecticut: Samuel Huntington, Roger Sherman
  • New York: John Alsop, George Clinton, William Floyd, Francis Lewis, Robert R. Livingston, Henry Wisner
  • New Jersey: Francis Hopkinson
  • Pennsylvania: John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Humphreys, Robert Morris, John Morton, Thomas Willing, James Wilson
  • Delaware: Thomas McKean, George Read
  • Maryland: William Paca, John Rogers, Thomas Stone
  • Virginia: Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Thomas Nelson, Jr.
  • North Carolina: Joseph Hewes, John Penn
  • South Carolina: Thomas Heyward, Jr.,Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge
  • Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall

45 men. Excluding Secretary Thomson, only 36 of the men who were present on June 28th, when the Declaration of Independence was presented to Congress, would subsequently sign the engrossed parchment on or after August 2nd. Of the 45 men present on June 28th, only 32 made it into Trumbull's painting. Here is a more accurate version of Declaration of Independence, with only those who were actually in attendance on June 28th, 1776:

Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, Historically Accurate Version

Supplemental images of delegates not included by Trumbull courtesy of New York Public Library's Digital Collections. L-R: Morton, Stone, Nelson, FL Lee, Braxton, Penn, Gwinnett, Hall, Alsop. We have followed Adams' and Jefferson's advice and excluded three delegates rather than including poor representations of them. Click here for a key to all of the figures in Trumbull's Declaration of Independence.

Take a closer look at the historical inaccuracies and intriguing stories behind this iconic painting.
 

Detail, William WhippleWilliam Whipple (New Hampshire)
Present on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence

According to a letter Trumbull wrote to Jefferson in 1817, he painted Whipple from memory. Whipple is in another famous Trumbull painting, The Surrender of General Burgoyne (Brigadier General Whipple is the fifth figure from the right).

 




Detail, Samuel AdamsSamuel Adams (Massachusetts)
Present on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence

In 1819, after seeing Trumbull's Declaration of Independence in Boston, Benjamin Waterhouse wrote to Thomas Jefferson that "The picture has not given that general satisfaction the intimate friends of the painter probably anticipated." Waterhouse specifically pointed out Trumbull's treatment of Samuel Adams, one of the most recognizable patriots then and now, seated next to and almost entirely obscured by Richard Henry Lee: "Elbridge Gerry for example, has a very conspicuous position, while Samuel Adams is scarcely discoverable in the crowd of ordinary members."

 

Detail, Jefferson and AdamsJohn Adams (Massachusetts) and Thomas Jefferson (Virginia)
Present on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence

Some viewers believe that Jefferson is standing on Adams' foot, but this is just an optical illusion (though their feet more clearly overlap in engravings based on the painting). A more interesting note is that, though Jefferson is the star of the painting, due to his height, his red vest, and his hands on the Declaration of Independence, Adams is at the exact center of the painting. Adams' stockinged legs (along with a few other men's legs) are also front and center; in 1828, after the monumental painting had been installed in the Capitol Rotunda, John Randolph called it "the Shin-piece, for surely never was there before such a collection of legs submitted to the eyes of man."


 

Detail, Williams and WolcottWilliam Williams and Oliver Wolcott (Connecticut)
Absent on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence

Williams was elected to replace Wolcott, who was seriously ill, but there is no record of Williams' attendance in Congress prior to the Declaration of Independence. Meanwhile, Wolcott likely left Philadelphia on June 28th, because he arrived in New York on July 1st. Williams arrived in Philadelphia in late July, while Wolcott returned on October 1st, and both men were able to sign the Declaration.


 

Detail, Stephen HopkinsStephen Hopkins (Rhode Island)
Present on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence

Hopkins is distinguishable as the only delegate wearing a hat. His hand trembled as he signed the Declaration of Independence (though his heart, famously, did not), and his poor health caused him to resign from Congress in September.

 


 

Detail, George ClintonJohn Alsop, George Clinton, and Henry Wisner (New York)
Present on June 28th
Did not sign Declaration of Independence
Pictured: Clinton; Not Pictured: Alsop, Wisner

These three delegates were present for the debates and vote for independence, but abstained from voting (see below). Clinton, who would later serve as Vice President under Jefferson (post-Burr) and Madison, left shortly after July 4th. He was recalled to the New York headquarters of the Continental Army by General George Washington. Alsop resigned on June 16th, and Wisner left Congress about the same time, taking his seat in the New York Assembly on June 23rd.

 

Detail, Robert R. LivingstonRobert R. Livingston (New York)
Present on June 28th
Did not sign Declaration of Independence

Consider the fact that one of the five men responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence did not actually sign it. Livingston was a member of the Committee of Five, and was present for the debates and the vote for independence, though he and the other delegates from New York abstained from the vote based on instructions from their constituents. Livingston returned to New York later in July and never actually signed the Declaration of Independence, though his cousin Philip Livingston did (see below). Actually, Robert R. Livingston was not a signer of any of the founding documents, but he did assume a prestigious role in 1789: as Chancellor of New York, he administered the first presidential oath of office to George Washington in New York City, then-capital of the United States.

 

Detail, Philip LivingstonPhilip Livingston (New York)
Absent on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence

In the months before and after the Declaration of Independence, several states were working on their own constitutions, including New York. On June 26th, this Livingston petitioned the New York Assembly so that he could leave the state convention and rejoin Congress in Philadelphia. According to John Witherspoon, he arrived on or before July 3rd. 
 




Detail, Abraham ClarkDetail, Francis HopkinsonDetail, Richard StocktonDetail, John WitherspoonAbraham Clark, John Hart, Francis Hopkinson, Richard Stockton, and John Witherspoon (New Jersey)
Clark, Hart, Stockton, Witherspoon: Absent on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Hopkinson: Likely present on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Pictured: Clark, Hopkinson, Stockton, Witherspoon; Not Pictured: John Hart

New Jersey elected all new delegates on June 22nd. Hopkinson arrived in Philadelphia on June 28th, and was likely in Congress on that day. According to John Adams, Clark, Stockton, and Witherspoon all arrived on July 1st. Hart arrived sometime later in July. All five new delegates signed the Declaration of Independence for New Jersey.


 

Detail, John DickinsonDetail, Thomas WillingDetail, Robert MorrisJohn Dickinson, Charles Humphreys, Thomas Willing, and Robert Morris (Pennsylvania)
Dickinson, Humphreys, Willing: Present on June 28th; Did not sign Declaration of Independence
Morris: Present on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Pictured: Dickinson, Willing, Morris; Not Pictured: Charles Humphreys

AKA the Pennsylvania nay-sayers. Between June 28th and July 1st, Pennsylvania had seven delegates: two (Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson) in favor of independence, four (Dickinson, Humphreys, Willing, and Morris) against, and one (John Morton, see below) undecided. On July 2nd, Morris and Dickinson abstained from voting, and the Pennsylvania delegation was able to vote in favor of independence. It is doubtful that Dickinson, Humphreys, or Willing returned to Congress after July 4th (though Dickinson was later elected as a delegate from Delaware), but Morris did. Even though he voted against it, he later signed the Declaration of Independence.

 

John Morton (Pennsylvania)
Present on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence
Not Pictured

Morton was uncommitted on July 1st, and swayed in favor of independence on July 2nd. He was present on June 28th and had a critical vote for independence, and yet he is absent from this iconic scene.

 

Detail, George ClymerDetail, Benjamin RushGeorge Clymer, George Ross, Benjamin Rush, James Smith, and George Taylor (Pennsylvania)
Not yet elected on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence
Pictured: Clymer, Rush; Not Pictured: Ross, Smith, Taylor

AKA the Pennsylvania recruits. Pennsylvania voted for independence, but only by way of dissenters not showing up to the vote. To avoid such situations in the future, on July 20th, the Pennsylvania Assembly sent five new, staunchly patriotic delegates to Congress. A few arrived on the day they were elected (the convenience of Congress meeting in Philadelphia). There is no written evidence of Taylor ever attending a session of Congress, but since his signature is on the Declaration of Independence, he must have, on or after August 2nd. The other four men signed as well, even though they were all elected weeks after the vote for independence.

 

Detail, Samuel ChaseDetail, Charles Carroll of CarrolltonSamuel Chase, John Rogers, Matthew Tilghman, Thomas Stone, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton (Maryland)
Chase: Absent on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Rogers: Present on June 28th; Did not sign Declaration of Independence
Tilghman: Absent on June 28th; Did not sign Declaration of Independence
Stone: Present on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Carroll: Not yet elected on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Pictured: Chase, Carroll; Not Pictured: Rogers, Tilghman, Stone

As with New York, Maryland was at work on a state constitution and some of Maryland's delegates to the Continental Congress were also delegates to the state assembly at Annapolis. On June 21st, the Maryland Convention instructed its delegates to Congress to ask permission to return to Annapolis, but insisted that they "not leave the Congress without such permission, and with out first having obtained an order that the consideration of the questions of Independence, foreign alliance, and a further Confederation of the Colonies, shall be postponed until Deputies from this Province can attend Congress." But several delegates were already home or on their way. Chase and Tilghman left on June 14th; Chase returned on July 21st, and signed the Declaration of Independence with his colleagues on August 2nd, but Tilghman did not return to Congress until late 1776 and did not sign the Declaration. Paca, Rogers, and Stone remained in Philadelphia to represent Maryland on June 28th. Rogers was likely in attendance on July 4th, but there is no record, and he left Congress soon after, if not before, the vote for independence. Carroll arrived on July 17th, and although he wasn't even elected as a delegate to Congress until July 4th, he signed the Declaration (and died in 1832 as the last living signer).

 

Detail, Richard Henry LeeDetail, George WytheRichard Henry Lee and George Wythe (Virginia)
Absent on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence

Wythe is perhaps best known as Thomas Jefferson's mentor, and Lee presented the initial resolution "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States..." back on June 7th. Both delegates left Philadelphia on June 13th; Lee returned in late August, Wythe in September. Despite missing the debates and the vote for independence, both men signed the Declaration of Independence upon their returns to Congress. In fact, if you look at the order of the signatures of the Virginians, it appears as though Thomas Jefferson intentionally left room above his name for these two elder statesmen. Both men also received drafts of the Declaration of Independence from Jefferson, annotated so that they could distinguish between the original text and the text as debated and amended by Congress. After receiving his copy, Lee wrote to Jefferson that "the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palates of Freemen."

 

Detail, Benjamin HarrisonBenjamin Harrison (Virginia)
Present on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence

Since there was no existing portrait of Benjamin Harrison, Trumbull painted his son, Benjamin Harrison VI, who apparently resembled him more than Harrison's other son, future (short-lived) President of the United States William Henry Harrison. Harrison was Chairman of the Committee of the Whole, which explains his prominent position in the painting and his note-taking.
 


 

Carter Braxton, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and Thomas Nelson, Jr. (Virginia)
Present on June 28th
Signed Declaration of Independence
Not Pictured

Two delegates from Virginia who were absent on June 28th are included in this painting (Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe, see above), while three delegates who were present were left out. Braxton was one of a handful of delegates (including the nay-sayers from Pennsylvania) who believed the Declaration of Independence was too premature.

 

Detail, William HooperWilliam Hooper and John Penn (North Carolina)
Hooper: Absent on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Penn: Present on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Pictured: Hooper; Not Pictured: Penn

North Carolina was another state forming its constitution in the summer of 1776, and Hooper was in North Carolina when the vote for independence took place. Hooper and Penn had both left Philadelphia back in March, though Penn returned earlier, around June 20th. Hooper returned later in July, and was able to sign the Declaration of Independence. It is fascinating that Trumbull depicted Hooper (who was absent on June 28th) and not Penn (who was present).

 

Detail, George WaltonButton Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, and George Walton (Georgia)
Gwinnett, Hall: Present on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Walton: Likely absent on June 28th; Signed Declaration of Independence
Pictured: Walton; Not Pictured: Gwinnett, Hall

Gwinnett and Hall were present on June 28th and signed the Declaration on August 2nd, but they were not depicted by Trumbull. The Journals of the Continental Congress do not mention George Walton until July 17th, but it is likely that he was in attendance as early as June 29th, when he delivered a letter to John Adams. So, the one Georgia delegate Trumbull included was the only one (most likely) not in the room on June 28th.

 

Trumbull's Declaration of Independence can also be found on the back of the $2 bill. But this engraved version includes even fewer Founding Fathers: five figures on the left (Wythe, Whipple, Bartlett, Lynch, and Walton) and two figures on the right (McKean and Philip Livingston) are cut off, and two unidentified figures were added.

So yes, "the reality is messier and richer, kids". Or, as Samuel Adams Wells (grandson of Sam Adams) wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "The painting executed by Col. Trumbull, representing the Congress at the declaration of independence will, I fear, have a tendency to obscure the history of the event which it is designed to commemorate."


More on Trumbull's Declaration of Independence:

Update, November 2016: "No John Trumbull" has been recorded by The Roots and released as the first track on the Hamilton Mixtape.

By Emily Sneff


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