Elbridge Gerry

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?

November Highlight: Election Connections

Research HighlightsJohn Adams and Thomas Jefferson were the only signers of the Declaration of Independence to become President of the United States, but they certainly weren't the only signers elected to public office in the new federal government. In fact, seven signers were part of the 1st United States Congress (1789-1791), eight including President of the Congress, John Adams. This month, with Election Day fast approaching, we highlight the signers of the Declaration of Independence who became congressmen, vice presidents, and presidents in the new United States.

Reproduction of Engraving by Charles Willson Peale
A fun fact to start: The first and second sessions of the 1st US Congress were held in Federal Hall in New York City. From December 1790 through May 1800, Congress met in Congress Hall, adjacent to Independence Hall (then known as the State House), where the Declaration of Independence was signed. In this reproduction of an engraving by Charles Willson Peale, Congress Hall is the building just to the right of the clock on Independence Hall.

 


 

Read more about November Highlight: Election Connections

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. Read more about Delegate Discussions: Benjamin Rush's Characters

August Highlight: A Tale of Two Declarations

Research Highlights"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us..."

The opening lines of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities have a universal quality -- relevant to their original subject, the French Revolution; relevant to the earlier American Revolution; relevant in Dickens' time; relevant today. Let's focus on the American Revolution, and more specifically on two characters: Benjamin Franklin and Lord Howe. 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia. On July 2nd, the Continental Congress voted in favor of a resolution for independence first presented in June. On July 4th, they approved the document we call the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin helped to craft the Declaration as a member of the Committee of Five, and signed the engrossed parchment in August.

HMS Eagle, off the coast of New England. On June 20th, Vice Admiral Lord Howe issued a declaration as one of the King's Commissioners for Restoring Peace. The trouble was, he didn't make it to New York Harbor to deliver his declaration until July 12th.

Howe believed that, if he had arrived a few days sooner, his message from the King could have prevented the Declaration of Independence. In actuality, his declaration galvanized the patriots' position. This month, we examine these two declarations through the words of two friends and leaders on opposite sides of the American Revolution.

 

Arrival of British Troops in New York

Read more about August Highlight: A Tale of Two Declarations

Unsullied by Falsehood: The Signing

Unsullied by FalsehoodLast 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.

Read more about Unsullied by Falsehood: The Signing

Delegate Discussions: Answering the Great Question

Delegate DiscussionsThe Journals of the Continental Congress provide very few details about the events in late June and early July 1776. Thomas Jefferson kept notes on the proceedings, but for the rest of their lives he and other delegates tried (often in vain) to remember exactly what happened in those days. Our best glimpse into Independence Hall, and especially into the minds and emotions of the delegates to Continental Congress, is through the letters they sent to family, friends, and colleagues. Here is a glimpse, spanning from June 28th through July 9th, of what the delegates were writing while in Philadelphia, and what they were feeling as they answered the "Great Question" of American independence. For the full-length letters, see the Library of Congress' digital transcriptions of Letters of Delegates to Congress. Read more about Delegate Discussions: Answering the Great Question

Unsullied by Falsehood: No John Trumbull

Unsullied by FalsehoodIn 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. Read more about Unsullied by Falsehood: No John Trumbull

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

Read more about April Highlight: Missing McKean