Benjamin Rush

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.

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".

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.

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.

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.