John Adams

Delegate Discussions: Common Sense

THIS 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.

Title page of Common SenseThe 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".

Since 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.

January Highlight: Superintending Independence, Part 1

Engrossed and Signed ParchmentThe 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

Charles ThomsonIt 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.

December Highlight: Founding Fathers?

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.

Unsullied by Falsehood: Ben Franklin and the Turkey

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?

Cover illustration by Anatole Kovarsky, The New Yorker

November Highlight: Election Connections

Reproduction of Engraving by Charles Willson PealeJohn 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.

 

Presenting the Facts: John Adams Miniseries

Facts LogoIn 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!). 

A Conversation with Luke Mayville

Luke MayvilleLuke 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".

September Highlight: Extravagant and Inadmissible Claim of Independency

Portrait of King George III, Johann Zoffany, 1771On 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 words--I 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?

Delegate Discussions: Benjamin Rush's Characters

Benjamin Rush, by Charles Willson PealeIn 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."

In 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

"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. We have taken the liberty of bolding particularly powerful passages in their correspondence.

Arrival of British Troops in New York

Unsullied by Falsehood: The Signing

Engrossed and Signed ParchmentLast 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.

July Highlight: George Rejected and Liberty Protected

It took a full month for news of the Declaration of Independence to spread throughout the 13 colonies-turned-United States. That means that almost every day for a month, new communities were learning about the Declaration and celebrating accordingly. In this month's research highlight, we take a glimpse into local proclamations and celebrations of independence in the summer of 1776, and how those initial festivities still influence our Fourth of July festivities today.

1890s Caricature of America Kicking Out the British

Delegate Discussions: Answering the Great Question

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.

Unsullied by Falsehood: No John Trumbull

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


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.

June Highlight: Atlas of Independence

Portrait of John Adams by Mather Brown, 1788

Let Fame to the world sound America's voice;
No intrigues can her sons from their government sever;
Her pride is her Adams; Her laws are his choice,
And shall flourish, till Liberty slumbers for ever.

- "Adams and Liberty", lyrics by Robert Treat Paine, Jr., 1798, to the tune of "To Anacreon in Heaven"
 


In an 1821 letter to John Adams, Richard Stockton, Jr. wrote of his late father and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Stockton: "I well remember that on his first return from Congress in the Summer of 1776 after the 4th. of July he was immediately surrounded by his anxious political Friends--who were eager for minute information in respect of the great event which had just taken place--Being then a Boy of some observation and retentive memory I remember these words addressed to his Friends--'The man to whom the Country is most indebted for the great measure of Independence is Mr John Adams of Boston'--'I call him the Atlas of American Independence'--'He it was who sustained the Debate, and by the force of his reasoning demonstrated not only the justice but the expediency of the measure.' This I have often spoken of to others and distinctly remember the very language which he used."

Though Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams played a major role in the push toward independence and in the Committee of Five. Over time, Adams' name became almost completely disassociated with the Declaration, while Jefferson's name became nearly synonymous, as we explored in our May Highlight. This month, read about the defense and recognition of Adams' role in the creation and legacy of the Declaration of Independence in early 19th century newspapers.

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