Benjamin Franklin

Presenting the Facts: 1776

Presenting the FactsIn this edition of "Presenting the Facts", we explore the 1972 movie adaptation of the musical 1776. The concept, music, and lyrics were by Sherman Edwards, and the book was written by Peter Stone. The musical opened on March 16, 1969 and closed on February 13, 1972. The movie, which was directed by Peter H. Hunt and produced by Jack L. Warner, was released in November of that year.

With the current success of Hamilton: An American Musical, the concept of a musical based on the founding generation makes complete sense. But when 1776 first opened on Broadway, it was (pardon the pun) revolutionary. Sherman Edwards was a former history teacher who merged his knowledge of early American history with his talent for songwriting to create a musical focused on the Continental Congress in the months leading up to July 4, 1776.

The libretto for 1776 includes a Historical Note by the Authors, which begins as follows: "The first question we are asked by those who have seen—or read—1776 is invariably: 'Is it true? Did it really happen that way?' The answer is: Yes." Edwards and Stone list "those elements of [the] play that have been taken, unchanged and unadorned, from documented fact," followed by dramatic changes that fall into one of five categories: "things altered, things surmised, things added, things deleted, and things rearranged." We use Edwards' descriptions of facts and fictions as our guide, adding commentary and corrections along the way. So, sit down, open up a window, and learn about what's fact and what's fiction in 1776.

Delegate Discussions: Common Sense

Delegate DiscussionsTHIS day was published, and is now selling by Robert Bell, in Third-street (price two shillings) COMMON SENSE addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting SUBJECTS.
I. Of the origin and design of government in general, with concise Remarks on the English constitution.
II. Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession.
III. Thoughts on the present state of American affairs.
IV. Of the present ability of America, with some miscellaneous reflections.

The Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the above advertisement on January 9, 1776. This pamphlet written by Thomas Paine (though the world didn't know that yet) spread like wildfire through the American colonies, with Paine claiming in his later work Rights of Man that over 100,000 copies of Common Sense had been sold. Paine and Bell's timing could not have been better — in that same issue of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, on the same page as the advertisement for Common Sense in fact, was the text of a speech King George III delivered in Parliament on October 27, 1775. A speech that expanded on the King's earlier Proclamation of Rebellion and included inflammatory remarks such as "When the happy and deluded multitude... shall become sensible of their error, I shall be ready to receive the misled with tenderness and mercy!" Enter Paine's pamphlet, which argued that "the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth" and "the last cord is now broken".

Title page of Common SenseSince it was first printed in Philadelphia, some of the first readers of Common Sense were the delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Some were thrilled by Common Sense, while others appreciated the section on American independence and dismissed the rest of it. As Steven Pincus explains in The Heart of the Declaration, "perhaps no single piece of writing did more to articulate the importance of unmaking the British Empire than Thomas Paine's Common Sense," but the plan of government described in the pamphlet "was a far cry from that envisioned by most Patriots." One delegate in particular "dreaded the Effect so popular a pamphlet might have, among the People" (any guesses who?). Find out what these soon-to-be signers of the Declaration of Independence thought about Common Sense, which signer took credit for giving the pamphlet its name, and how John Adams responded to the "Disastrous Meteor", Thomas Paine.

Presenting the Facts: National Treasure

Presenting the FactsIn this edition of "Presenting the Facts", we explore the 2004 blockbuster National Treasure. The story was written by Jim Kouf, Oren Aviv, and Charles Segars, and the screenplay was by Jim Kouf, Cormac Wibberley, and Marianne Wibberley. It was directed by Jon Turtletaub and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who is known for other action films based in historical details, including Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down. To quote the Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, where the movie has a 44% rating, "National Treasure is no treasure, but it's a fun ride for those who can forgive its highly improbable plot." 

A brief note on names: Nicolas Cage's character, Ben Gates, has the full name Benjamin Franklin Gates, as revealed in the opening scene with his grandfather. In fact, Ben's father's full name is Patrick Henry Gates (played by Jon Voight), and his grandfather's full name is John Adams Gates (played by Christopher Plummer). But the allusion to the founders doesn't stop with the Gates family. Diane Kruger's character is named Abigail Chase, a combination of Abigail Adams and Samuel Chase. Sean Bean's character is called Ian Howe (though it is revealed that this may be an alias), and General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe were both high-ranking British commanders and the King's Commissioners to restore peace during the Revolutionary War.

To get this out of the way, we'll start with the most obvious piece of fiction.

Fiction: There is a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, leading to the treasure of the Knights Templar.



Back of the Declaration of Independence
 

December Highlight: Founding Fathers?

Research HighlightsFounding Fathers. Founders. Fathers. Founding Mothers. Signers. Framers. Patriots. The list of terms to describe the individuals who "founded" the United States of America can go on and on. This month, we examine the etymology and accuracy of these terms, and find where the signers of the Declaration of Independence fit in.

Merriam-Webster
founding father (n): 1. an originator of an institution or movement; 2. often capitalized both Fs: a leading figure in the founding of the United States; specifically a member of the American Constitutional Convention of 1787

Oxford English Dictionary
founding (adj): Associated with or marking the establishment of (something specified); that originated or created. Spec. founding father (freq. with capital initials), an American statesman of the Revolutionary period, esp. a member of the American Constitutional Convention of 1787

Safire's Political Dictionary (1968, 2008)
Founding Fathers: A group of revolutionaries who took their changes on treason to pursue the course of independency, who are today viewed reverently as sage signers of the documents of U.S. freedom.

 

Unsullied by Falsehood: Ben Franklin and the Turkey

Unsullied by FalsehoodOne of the most popular Thanksgiving-related myths in American history is the notion that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey as the national symbol of the United States, over the bald eagle. This story gained popularity in November 1962, when the New Yorker featured a cover illustration by Anatole Kovarsky of the Great Seal of the United States with a turkey in the place of the bald eagle. That same decade, the musical 1776 premiered on Broadway, and featured a song called "The Egg", where Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams compare the birth of a new nation through the Declaration of Independence to an egg hatching. This launches a debate over which bird should symbolize America: John Adams calls for the eagle, Jefferson for the dove, and Franklin (of course) for the turkey. How did we come to associate the symbolism of the turkey with Benjamin Franklin, and is there any truth to it?

Cover illustration by Anatole Kovarsky, The New Yorker

November Highlight: Election Connections

Research HighlightsJohn Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the only signers of the Declaration of Independence to become President of the United States, but they certainly weren't the only signers elected to public office in the new federal government. In fact, seven signers were part of the 1st United States Congress (1789-1791), eight including President of the Congress, John Adams. This month, with Election Day fast approaching, we highlight the signers of the Declaration of Independence who became congressmen, vice presidents, and presidents in the new United States.

Reproduction of Engraving by Charles Willson Peale
A fun fact to start: The first and second sessions of the 1st US Congress were held in Federal Hall in New York City. From December 1790 through May 1800, Congress met in Congress Hall, adjacent to Independence Hall (then known as the State House), where the Declaration of Independence was signed. In this reproduction of an engraving by Charles Willson Peale, Congress Hall is the building just to the right of the clock on Independence Hall.

 


 

Presenting the Facts: John Adams Miniseries

Presenting the FactsIn this edition of "Presenting the Facts", we explore John Adams, the 2008 HBO miniseries. The miniseries was based on the book of the same name by David McCullough; the screenplay was by Kirk Ellis, and it was directed by Tom Hooper. With one exception, we focused on the second half of Part 2: Independence (starting at 45:13). This episode is so richly detailed, we had to limit our analysis to just the events related to the Lee Resolution and the Declaration of Independence (sorry, Abigail!). 

 

September Highlight: Extravagant and Inadmissible Claim of Independency

Research HighlightsOn July 11, 1976, in commemoration of the bicentennial, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the Old State House in Boston. The Queen remarked, "If Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and other patriots could have known that one day a British monarch would stand beneath the balcony of the Old State House from which the Declaration of Independence was first read to the people of Boston and be greeted by the mayor and others in such kind and generous wordsI think that they would have been extremely surprised. But perhaps they would also have been pleased..."

It is likely that King George III would have been extremely surprised as well. At least about the British monarch visiting and not ruling America. It took news of the Declaration of Independence about five weeks to reach England, with the first newspaper printings of the text published in mid-August. Previous petitions of the Continental Congress had been addressed to the King — specifically, "Most Gracious Sovereign". Though King George III is the subject of the Declaration of Independence, it is not addressed to him. Rather, it is addressed to "a candid world". 

So, how did the King learn about the Declaration of Independence? And, how did he respond?

Portrait of King George III, Johann Zoffany, 1771

Delegate Discussions: Benjamin Rush's Characters

Delegate DiscussionsIn February 1790, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote a letter to John Adams, disparaging the histories of the American Revolution that had been written thus far: "Had I leisure, I would endeavor to rescue those characters from Oblivion, and give them the first place in the temple of liberty. What trash may we not suppose has been handed down to us from Antiquity, when we detect such errors, and prejudices in the history of events of which we have been eye witnesses, & in which we have been actors?" John Adams felt much the same, lamenting in his response written in April, "The History of our Revolution will be one continued Lye from one End to the other. The Essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklins electrical Rod, Smote the Earth and out Spring General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his Rod--and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy Negotiations Legislation and War. These underscored Lines contain the whole Fable Plot and Catastrophy."

Benjamin Rush, by Charles Willson PealeIn the context of this conversation, Rush informed Adams that he had written "characters of the members of Congress who subscribed the declaration of independence." These characters are a part of Rush's autobiography, Travels Through Life or Sundry Incidents in the Life of Dr. Benjamin Rush, which was completed around 1800. The autobiography was intended for Rush's children and was later published, but in 1790, Rush offered Adams a glimpse.

August Highlight: A Tale of Two Declarations

Research Highlights"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us..."

The opening lines of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities have a universal quality -- relevant to their original subject, the French Revolution; relevant to the earlier American Revolution; relevant in Dickens' time; relevant today. Let's focus on the American Revolution, and more specifically on two characters: Benjamin Franklin and Lord Howe. 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia. On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted in favor of a resolution for independence first presented in June. On July 4th, they approved the document we call the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin helped to craft the Declaration as a member of the Committee of Five, and signed the engrossed parchment in August.

HMS Eagle, off the coast of New England. On June 20th, Vice Admiral Lord Howe issued a declaration as one of the King's Commissioners for Restoring Peace. The trouble was, he didn't make it to New York Harbor to deliver his declaration until July 12th.

Howe believed that, if he had arrived a few days sooner, his message from the King could have prevented the Declaration of Independence. In actuality, his declaration galvanized the patriots' position. This month, we examine these two declarations through the words of two friends and leaders on opposite sides of the American Revolution.

 

Arrival of British Troops in New York

Unsullied by Falsehood: The Signing

Unsullied by FalsehoodLast month, we debunked John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence. Often assumed to depict the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Trumbull actually chose to immortalize the moment when the Committee of Five presented their draft of the Declaration to John Hancock and the Continental Congress. 

So, when was the Declaration of Independence signed?

Spoiler: NOT ON JULY 4TH.*

*Most likely

Here is everything we know about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the signatures, and why those signatures matter.

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.