Course of Human Events

May Highlight: In the Printing Office

Research HighlightsWhen you see a printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, do you consider the manner in which it was produced? What the printer's shop may have looked like, how the printing press functioned, what color the paper and ink would have been when the page was freshly-printed? For this month’s research highlight, we took a field trip to The Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston’s North End. We learned the nitty-gritty details of printing an 18th century broadside of the Declaration of Independence from Gary Gregory, Executive Director and Print Master of the Printing Office.



Gary Gregory, Executive Director and Print Master of the Printing Office of Edes and Gill

Read more about May Highlight: In the Printing Office

April Highlight: The Massachusetts Spy as a Case Study

Research HighlightsOne of our biggest projects in development is the creation of a database containing all known print and manuscript editions of the Declaration of Independence, from the first printings in 1776 through the 1820s. Why assemble this database? Because there is a rich and diverse textual tradition in the print and manuscript history of the Declaration. Punctuation, capitalization, and spelling differ in almost every edition, and anomalies (added, deleted, or changed words) enter the tradition at various points. Even the word count of the text of the Declaration differs from one edition to the next. For more, see our Which Version is This, and Why Does It Matter? resource.

In this month's Research Highlight, we present a case study on the diverse textual tradition. Using the Massachusetts Spy newspaper printing of July 17, 1776, let's dive into the process of analyzing each edition of the Declaration of Independence.

Read more about April Highlight: The Massachusetts Spy as a Case Study

Presenting the Facts: 1776

Presenting the FactsIn this edition of "Presenting the Facts", we explore the 1972 movie adaptation of the musical 1776. The concept, music, and lyrics were by Sherman Edwards, and the book was written by Peter Stone. The musical opened on March 16, 1969 and closed on February 13, 1972. The movie, which was directed by Peter H. Hunt and produced by Jack L. Warner, was released in November of that year.

With the current success of Hamilton: An American Musical, the concept of a musical based on the founding generation makes complete sense. But when 1776 first opened on Broadway, it was (pardon the pun) revolutionary. Sherman Edwards was a former history teacher who merged his knowledge of early American history with his talent for songwriting to create a musical focused on the Continental Congress in the months leading up to July 4, 1776.

The libretto for 1776 includes a Historical Note by the Authors, which begins as follows: "The first question we are asked by those who have seen—or read—1776 is invariably: 'Is it true? Did it really happen that way?' The answer is: Yes." Edwards and Stone list "those elements of [the] play that have been taken, unchanged and unadorned, from documented fact," followed by dramatic changes that fall into one of five categories: "things altered, things surmised, things added, things deleted, and things rearranged." We use Edwards' descriptions of facts and fictions as our guide, adding commentary and corrections along the way. So, sit down, open up a window, and learn about what's fact and what's fiction in 1776.

Read more about Presenting the Facts: 1776

March Highlight: Remembering the Ladies

Research HighlightsOn March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams implored her husband John to "Remember the Ladies" when it came time to create a set of laws for an independent United States. Last March, we profiled Mary Katherine Goddard, the postmaster and printer of Baltimore whose broadside of the Declaration of Independence made known the names of the signers. This month, we highlight just a handful of the remarkable ladies whose stories are connected to our research on the Declaration of Independence.

 

Abigail Adams

Portrait of Abigail Adams, 17661744 - 1818
Married to John Adams from 1764-1818 (her death)
Connection to Declaration of Independence: Her husband, John, was a member of the Committee of Five and a signer.

"I Really think it A Great tryal of patience and philosophy to be so Long seperated from the Companion of Your Heart and from the Father of your Little Flock. But the High Enthusiasm of a truly patriotic Lady will Cary Her through Every Difficulty, and Lead Her to Every Exertion. Patience, Fortitude, Public Spirit, Magnanimity and self Denial are the Virtues she Boasts." - Letter from Mercy Otis Warren to Abigail Adams, 15 October 1776

Abigail made no secret of her feelings in her letters to John, particularly in 1776. She was overwhelmed by caring for their four children and their home and desperately missing her husband. But, living just outside of Boston, she was also acutely aware of the war, and the necessity of John's efforts in Philadelphia to push the colonies towards unanimous support of independence. She also frequently and eloquently spoke her mind on issues related to independence and a new government. Abigail's famous quote, cited above, begins, "I long to hear that you have declared an independency". Her letter of March 31st continues, "in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to forment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."… Read more about March Highlight: Remembering the Ladies

February Highlight: Superintending Independence, Part 2

Research HighlightsThe 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. In part one, we traced the engrossed parchment's physical locations and custodians through the first 100 years of its existence, starting and ending with Independence Hall. This month, we examine the last 140 years of the Declaration's physical history, from the turn of the century through World War II and the establishment of the National Archives.

1876-1921
Department of State
Washington, D.C.

"The rapid fading of the text of the original Declaration of Independence and the deterioration of the parchment upon which it is engrossed, from exposure to light and lapse of time, render it impracticable for the Department longer to exhibit it or to handle it. For the secure preservation of its present condition, so far as may be possible, it has been carefully wrapped and placed flat in a steel case."
- Department of State, 1894

State, War, and Navy Building, 1898
State, War, and Navy Building, Washington, 1898 photochrom by the Detroit Photographic Co., courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Digital ID ppmsca 18015)

In April 1876, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish moved the Declaration of Independence into the Department's new fireproof building, which it shared once again with the War and Navy Departments. This building is now the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (formerly the Old Executive Office Building, or OEOB). When the Declaration returned to Washington, D.C. after the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, it was displayed in a cabinet on the east side of the State Department's library in this building. This move proved providential — the Patent Office, where the Declaration had previously been displayed, was destroyed by fire.

Read more about February Highlight: Superintending Independence, Part 2

Delegate Discussions: Common Sense

Delegate DiscussionsTHIS 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.

The 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".

Title page of Common SenseSince 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.

Read more about Delegate Discussions: Common Sense

January Highlight: Superintending Independence, Part 1

Research HighlightsThe 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!

 

Engrossed and Signed Parchment

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.

Read more about January Highlight: Superintending Independence, Part 1

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
 

Read more about Presenting the Facts: National Treasure

Delegate Discussions: Bill of Rights

Delegate DiscussionsOn December 20, 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend James Madison. Living in Paris as United States Minister Plenipotentiary to France, Jefferson did not participate in the Constitutional Convention. 

About a page and a half in to the letter, Jefferson remarked: "The season admitting only of operations in the Cabinet, and these being in a great measure secret, I have little to fill a letter. I will therefore make up the deficiency by adding a few words on the Constitution proposed by our Convention." 

Letter from Jefferson to Madison, 20 December 1787

After a short list of the things Jefferson liked about the new Constitution, his "few words" continued with the list of things he did not like, beginning with the lack of a bill of rights. In honor of the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights (December 15, 1791), let's examine the words of Jefferson, James Wilson, and other signers of the Declaration of Independence who fell on both sides of the argument over whether a bill of rights should be included in the U.S. Constitution.Read more about Delegate Discussions: Bill of Rights

December Highlight: Founding Fathers?

Research HighlightsFounding 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 changes on treason to pursue the course of independency, who are today viewed reverently as sage signers of the documents of U.S. freedom.

 

Read more about December Highlight: Founding Fathers?