The engrossed parchment of the Declaration of Independence was formally enshrined in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. on December 15, 1952, where it resides to this day. From its creation in the summer of 1776 to this final move, the Declaration of Independence travelled more than might be assumed. This month, we trace the engrossed parchment's physical locations and custodians through the first 100 years of its existence, starting and ending with Independence Hall. Stay tuned for part two (1877-today) in February!
1776 Continental Congress Philadelphia
On July 19, 1776, the Continental Congress resolved, "That the Declaration passed on the 4th, be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress." Timothy Matlack likely took on this task, and on August 2nd, in the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, the engrossed parchment was signed by the majority of the 56 delegates.
1776-1789 Continental Congress/Congress of the Confederation Philadelphia -> Baltimore -> Philadelphia -> Lancaster -> York -> Philadelphia -> Princeton -> Annapolis -> Trenton -> New York City
It is assumed that, at this point, the engrossed parchment was entrusted to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress (Image at right courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections). Thomson had been unanimously chosen as Secretary of the First Continental Congress on September 5, 1774. When the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, Thomson was once again chosen as its Secretary. He stayed with the Congress as it transitioned into the Congress of the Confederation (under the Articles of Confederation), serving as secretary to the Congress for nearly 15 years, and counting among his responsibilities the care of the papers of the Congress (including the Declaration of Independence).
If the Declaration stayed with Thomson, then it is likely that it moved with the Congress, as he did. The first move came in December 1776, when the Congress evacuated Philadelphia and reconvened at the Henry Fite House in Baltimore, Maryland later that month. In January 1777, the engrossed parchment -- at least the signatures at the bottom -- likely served as a resource for Mary Katharine Goddard as she created her "authentic copy" of the Declaration. In March 1777, the Continental Congress returned to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, but only for a few months. In September 1777, Congress met for a day at the court house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania before moving further west to the court house in York, Pennsylvania. In July 1778, Congress returned to Independence Hall, this time for a few years. In June 1783, the Congress of the Confederation fled the Pennsylvania Mutiny and relocated to Nassau Hall in Princeton, New Jersey. A few months later, in November 1783, the Congress reconvened at the State House in Annapolis, Maryland. In November 1784, the Congress met at the French Arms Tavern in Trenton, New Jersey for a month before adjourning and moving to New York. From January 11, 1785 through 1789, the Congress of the Confederation met in New York City, at City Hall (which later became Federal Hall) and at Fraunces Tavern.
Over the course of these thirteen years in the care of Charles Thomson, the engrossed parchment (assuming it stayed with the Congress through each of these moves) found a home in four different states, and spent a total of about six years at its first home, Independence Hall. The transition of custody that came with the establishment of the Federal Government would bring the Declaration back to Philadelphia and, ironically, back under the care of the man who drafted those engrossed words.
On December 20, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend James Madison. Living in Paris as United States Minister Plenipotentiary to France, Jefferson did not participate in the Constitutional Convention.
About a page and a half in to the letter, Jefferson remarked: "The season admitting only of operations in the Cabinet, and these being in a great measure secret, I have little to fill a letter. I will therefore make up the deficiency by adding a few words on the Constitution proposed by our Convention."
After a short list of the things Jefferson liked about the new Constitution, his "few words" continued with the list of things he did not like, beginning with the lack of a bill of rights. In honor of the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights (December 15, 1791), let's examine the words of Jefferson, James Wilson, and other signers of the Declaration of Independence who fell on both sides of the argument over whether a bill of rights should be included in the U.S. Constitution.Read more about Delegate Discussions: Bill of Rights
Founding 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 chances on treason to pursue the course of independency, who are today viewed reverently as sage signers of the documents of U.S. freedom.
One 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?
John 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.
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.
In 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!).
This month, the Declaration Resources Project is launching a new opportunity for teachers. We are asking How Do You Teach the Declaration of Independence? and incorporating teachers' responses into a new resources page on our website. One of the most popular ways to teach the Declaration of Independence is to introduce students to contextual materials, ranging from the works of Enlightenment thinkers to Thomas Jefferson's rough draft to What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? This is not a new trend; in fact, there is a tradition of printing the Declaration of Independence with other texts that dates back just about to July 4th. Sometimes these texts inform reading of the Declaration, and sometimes the Declaration informs reading of these other texts. In this research highlight, we present a sampling of the contextual print tradition of the Declaration of Independence. Read more about October Highlight: "With the Declaration of Independence"
Luke Mayville is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science in 2014 from Yale University, with a dissertation entitled "The Oligarchic Mind: Wealth and Power in the Political Thought of John Adams." His book John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy will be published by Princeton University Press in October (pre-order here). Mayville talked to Emily Sneff about John Adams' fears, "the few" versus "the 1%", and varied definitions of "natural aristocracy".Read more about A Conversation with Luke Mayville
In 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."
Steven Pincus is the Bradford Durfee Professor of History at Yale University, and co-director of the Center for Historical Enquiry and the Social Sciences at Yale. He is the author of Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy, 1650-1668, England's Glorious Revolution 1688-89, and 1688: The First Modern Revolution. His newest book, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders' Case for an Activist Government, will be published by Yale University Press this fall. Pincus talked to Emily Sneff about the inspiration for his new book, the global context of the Declaration of Independence, and common misconceptions about the Declaration.
Last 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.
The Journals of the Continental Congress provide very few details about the events in late June and early July 1776. Thomas Jefferson kept notes on the proceedings, but for the rest of their lives he and other delegates tried (often in vain) to remember exactly what happened in those days. Our best glimpse into Independence Hall, and especially into the minds and emotions of the delegates to Continental Congress, is through the letters they sent to family, friends, and colleagues. Here is a glimpse, spanning from June 28th through July 9th, of what the delegates were writing while in Philadelphia, and what they were feeling as they answered the "Great Question" of American independence. For the full-length letters, see the Library of Congress' digital transcriptions of Letters of Delegates to Congress.Read more about Delegate Discussions: Answering the Great Question
There is no singular authoritative version of the Declaration of Independence. Most Americans and many historians consider "the" Declaration of Independence to be the engrossed and signed parchment, on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The image that comes to mind when most people think of the Declaration of Independence is actually the William J. Stone engraving of the engrossed and signed parchment. Read more about Which Version is This, and Why Does it Matter?
In 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
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.Read more about Unsullied by Falsehood: No John Trumbull