Thomas Jefferson

Unsullied by Falsehood: Ben Franklin and the Turkey

Unsullied by FalsehoodOne of the most popular Thanksgiving-related myths in American history is the notion that Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey as the national symbol of the United States, over the bald eagle. This story gained popularity in November 1962, when the New Yorker featured a cover illustration by Anatole Kovarsky of the Great Seal of the United States with a turkey in the place of the bald eagle. That same decade, the musical 1776 premiered on Broadway, and featured a song called "The Egg", where Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams compare the birth of a new nation through the Declaration of Independence to an egg hatching. This launches a debate over which bird should symbolize America: John Adams calls for the eagle, Jefferson for the dove, and Franklin (of course) for the turkey. How did we come to associate the symbolism of the turkey with Benjamin Franklin, and is there any truth to it?

Cover illustration by Anatole Kovarsky, The New Yorker

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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.



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Presenting the Facts: John Adams Miniseries

Presenting the FactsIn this edition of "Presenting the Facts", we explore John Adams, the 2008 HBO miniseries. The miniseries was based on the book of the same name by David McCullough; the screenplay was by Kirk Ellis, and it was directed by Tom Hooper. With one exception, we focused on the second half of Part 2: Independence (starting at 45:13). This episode is so richly detailed, we had to limit our analysis to just the events related to the Lee Resolution and the Declaration of Independence (sorry, Abigail!). 


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October Highlight: "With the Declaration of Independence"

Research HighlightsThis month, the Declaration Resources Project is launching a new opportunity for teachers. We are asking How Do You Teach the Declaration of Independence? and incorporating teachers' responses into a new resources page on our website. One of the most popular ways to teach the Declaration of Independence is to introduce students to contextual materials, ranging from the works of Enlightenment thinkers to Thomas Jefferson's rough draft to What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? This is not a new trend; in fact, there is a tradition of printing the Declaration of Independence with other texts that dates back just about to July 4th. Sometimes these texts inform reading of the Declaration, and sometimes the Declaration informs reading of these other texts. In this research highlight, we present a sampling of the contextual print tradition of the Declaration of Independence.

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A Conversation with Luke Mayville

ConversationsLuke MayvilleLuke Mayville is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for American Studies at Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science in 2014 from Yale University, with a dissertation entitled "The Oligarchic Mind: Wealth and Power in the Political Thought of John Adams." His book John Adams and the Fear of American Oligarchy will be published by Princeton University Press in October (pre-order here). Mayville talked to Emily Sneff about John Adams' fears, "the few" versus "the 1%", and varied definitions of "natural aristocracy".... Read more about A Conversation with Luke Mayville

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

A Conversation with Steven Pincus

ConversationsSteven PincusSteven Pincus is the Bradford Durfee Professor of History at Yale University, and co-director of the Center for Historical Enquiry and the Social Sciences at Yale. He is the author of Protestantism and Patriotism: Ideologies and the Making of English Foreign Policy, 1650-1668, England's Glorious Revolution 1688-89, and 1688: The First Modern Revolution. His newest book, The Heart of the Declaration: The Founders' Case for an Activist Government, will be published by Yale University Press this fall. Pincus talked to Emily Sneff about the inspiration for his new book, the global context of the Declaration of Independence, and common misconceptions about the Declaration.

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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.

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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

Which Version is This, and Why Does it Matter?

Last Updated: January 2018

There is no singular authoritative version of the Declaration of Independence. Most Americans and many historians consider "the" Declaration of Independence to be the engrossed and signed parchment, on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The image that comes to mind when most people think of the Declaration of Independence is actually the William J. Stone engraving of the engrossed and signed parchment. Every few years, when the story...

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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

Delegate Discussions: The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence

Delegate DiscussionsThis is the first blog post in a new series called "Delegate Discussions", highlighting correspondence between delegates to the Continental Congress on issues related to the Declaration of Independence.

In 1819, a document was widely published for the first time. It caused cries of plagiarism to ring out through the country. It caused John Adams to call Thomas Paine's Common Sense a "crapulous mass". It caused Thomas Jefferson to profess unbelief in such an "apocryphal gospel".

The document was the Mecklenburg Declaration, issued on May 20, 1775 and strikingly similar to the United States Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, but from a full year earlier. The legitimacy of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence is still contested today. In this blog, we leave aside the question of its authenticity to focus on Jefferson and Adams' reactions to the revelation of this document. Enjoy a thoroughly entertaining conversation between two Founding Fathers in their twilight years (76 and 84, respectively), confounded and disgruntled by a document from North Carolina.... Read more about Delegate Discussions: The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence

June Highlight: Atlas of Independence

Research HighlightsPortrait of John Adams by Mather Brown, 1788

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 Friendswho were eager for minute information in respect of the great event which had just taken placeBeing 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

May Highlight: An Instrument which will Perpetuate the Fame of its Author

Research HighlightsPortrait of Jefferson by Kosciuszko

"Devoted to his country's cause, The rights of Man and equal laws, 
His hallow'd pen was given;
And now those rights and laws to save, From sinking to an early grave, 
He comes, employ'd by Heaven.
- "The People's Friend", Lyrics by Rembrandt Peale, music by John Isaac Hawkings, 1801



Why was Thomas Jefferson elected President of the United States? Leaving aside the complicated procedures of the actual election, what caused people to vote for Jefferson? Neither Jefferson nor Adams publicly campaigned, or had a particular platform. Instead, voters were influenced purely by propaganda in partisan newspapers. Based on the pro-Jefferson propaganda, if Jefferson did run on a platform in the election of 1800, it would have been the accomplishment that was printed and glorified above any other: his authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

Yes, the other members of the Committee of Five (including his future opponent, John Adams) edited Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration. And yes, there were outspoken individuals in this period that defended John Adams’ role in the drafting process and diminished Jefferson’s. Fear not -- they will be featured in next month’s blog. This month, read a sampling of the grandiose passages praising Jefferson and, more importantly, the Declaration of Independence, during the election of 1800.

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