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.
In 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.
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.
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