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!).
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."
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
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
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.Read more about June Highlight: Atlas of Independence