Matthew Thornton

Presenting the Facts: National Treasure

Presenting the FactsIn 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.



Back of the Declaration of Independence
 

Delegate Discussions: Benjamin Rush's Characters

Delegate DiscussionsIn 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."

Benjamin Rush, by Charles Willson PealeIn 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.

April Highlight: Missing McKean

Research Highlights56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. Signing began on August 2, 1776, but not every delegate signed at that time. Virginia delegates George Wythe and Richard Henry Lee signed later in the fall. Elbridge Gerry and Oliver Wolcott signed later, as well. Matthew Thornton was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress long after July 4th, and petitioned to add his signature when he joined Congress in November. But one delegate in particular signed so much later than his peers that his name was left off the Goddard Broadside and the first editions of the Journals of the Continental Congress for 1776. Printers from 1777 through the beginning of the 19th century – particularly frequent printer of the Declaration, John Dunlap – had a will-they-won't-they relationship with McKean's name. Take a look at this complicated print legacy, surprising for a name so dedicated to the cause of independence.


Stone Facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, List of Signers

March Highlight: Mary Katherine Goddard

Research Highlights LogoThe Declaration of Independence was an act of treason. The men that signed the parchment Declaration of Independence, now in the National Archives, were literally pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. They knew that their support of an act of independence would come back to haunt them if the British defeated George Washington and the Continental Army. If you take a closer look at a broadside printed in January 1777 by order of the Continental Congress, you'll notice another name committed to the cause. Not a signer, but a printer. Not a man, but a woman. Meet Mary Katherine Goddard, printer and postmaster to the Second Continental Congress in Baltimore.