Charles Thomson. He was the first and only Secretary of the Continental Congress. His name is on the first printing of the Declaration of Independence. The manuscript Journals of the Continental Congress are in his hand. He created the final, approved design for the Great Seal of the United States, still in use today. He was the “Sam. Adams of Phyladelphia.” And yet, his name carries a fraction of the recognition of Washington, Hancock, Jefferson, or Adams (neither John nor the original “Sam. Adams”). Thomson’s obscured legacy was partly his own doing, as he apparently destroyed the bulk of his papers concerning the American Revolution, and party because he spent the last third of his life removed from the political sphere. For this month’s Research Highlight, we selected ten interesting aspects of Thomson’s life and character.
In First Family: Abigail and John Adams, Joseph Ellis claims, “there were other prominent couples in the revolutionary era... But no other couple left a documentary record of their mutual thoughts and feelings even remotely comparable to Abigail and John’s.” The correspondence of Abigail and John Adams is fascinating and detailed, particularly during the two years when John was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. John writes candid impressions of major events, including the vote for independence, to his wife. Abigail in turn reports on not just the health and wellbeing of their children, but on major events in the Boston area, including the Battle of Bunker Hill and Boston’s first reading of the Declaration of Independence.
From late April 1775 through November 1777, Abigail and John spent upwards of 27 months apart, and their extensive correspondence is preserved at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In previous blog posts, we have highlighted letters between John and Abigail from 1776 – “Remember the Ladies...”“Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light...” and others. For this month’s Research Highlight, we asked the editors of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society to share a few significant letters between John and Abigail Adams from 1775 and 1777. Hobson Woodward, Series Editor of the Adams Family Correspondence at the Adams Papers, picked the following four letters and shared the details that make these letters stand out among this couple’s vast correspondence.
Portraits of Abigail and John Adams by Benjamin Blyth, 1766
“Everyone who holds office in the Federal Government or in the government of one of our States takes an oath to support the Constitution of the United States. I have taken such an oath many times, including two times when I took the special oath required of the President of the United States. This oath we take has a deep significance. Its simple words compress a lot of our history and a lot of our philosophy of government into one small space. In many countries men swear to be loyal to their king, or to their nation. Here we promise to uphold and defend a great document. This is because the document sets forth our idea of government. And beyond this, with the Declaration of Independence, it expresses our idea of man. We believe that man should be free. And these documents establish a system under which man can be free and set up a framework to protect and expand that freedom.”
For the majority of the history of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been invoked in this way. But what about the physical connections between the Declaration and the Constitution? September 17, 2017 marks the 230th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution, an event both similar to and quite different from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In this month’s research highlight, we examine the preparation and signing of these two foundational documents, and the individuals involved in both.... Read more about September Highlight: The Declaration and the Constitution
On July 11th, 1776, John Quincy Adams turned 9 years old. On July 12th, he was inoculated for smallpox along with his mother Abigail and his siblings. And on July 13th, Abigail received her husband John’s letters with news of the Declaration of Independence. From this young age through his death in 1848, John Quincy Adams was deeply tied to the Declaration of Independence. He wasn’t just the son of John Adams, a member of the committee tasked with drafting the document and a signer. He was also a politician clearly inspired by the Declaration, and frequently tasked with discussing its importance. In this month’s Research Highlight, we belatedly celebrate John Quincy Adams’ 250th birthday with a look at the many connections between this Adams and the Declaration.... Read more about August Highlight: Son of a Signer
Holidays and anniversaries can often sneak up on people. That seems to be the case in Philadelphia on the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1777.
In the defense of the Continental Congress, they were a bit busy. In that first year of independence, they had made what would be the first of several evacuations, meeting in Baltimore for several months while the British occupied Philadelphia. During their time in Baltimore, the Congress had commissioned the first printing of the Declaration of Independence to include the names of (nearly) all the signers.
A few of John Adams' cousins are well-known; his first cousin Samuel, for example, or his wife Abigail (a third cousin). But did you know Adams discovered another cousin through a copy of the Declaration of Independence? On May 16, 1818, Benjamin Owen Tyler sent “an elegant copy of the Declaration of American Independence” to, among others, John Adams. On May 24th, Adams responded. It wasn’t the elegant penmanship that caught his eye, or an appreciation of Tyler producing an affordable copy of that text to which he had affixed his name forty two years earlier. It was the name “Benjamin Owen Tyler”. In this month’s Research Highlight, we explore the odd story of the familial connection brought to light by Tyler’s Declaration of Independence.
In 1818, after several years of work, 28-year-old Benjamin Owen Tyler produced the first engraving of the Declaration of Independence to include facsimiles of the 56 signatures. Tyler’s subscription book is in the Albert H. Small Declaration of Independence Collection at the University of Virginia Library, and it includes a slew of recognizable names among more than 1000 subscribers: James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John Marshall, Henry Clay, and Thomas Jefferson, “Patron of the Arts, the firm supporter of American Independence, and the Rights of Man,” to whom Tyler’s engraving is dedicated. Even though 82-year-old signer John Adams didn’t subscribe, Tyler sent him a copy of his engraving (according to William P. Gardner, he sent two, one on parchment and one on paper).
When 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.
One 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.