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
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).
Do you remember how you first learned about the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence? Perhaps in the classroom, or on a visit to a historic site. Or, perhaps, through a book. Jean Fritz, who recently passed away, authored Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? and Can't You Make Them Behave, King George?, among many others. Illustrator Sam Fink put his own spin on the text of the Declaration to make it more readable (and entertaining) than the engrossed and signed parchment, remarking, "The words that made America can now be shared with people of all ages; and they can help us understand what the Founding Fathers created for all of us who have followed."
Emily Sneff talked to three authors of recent children’s/young adult books related to the story of the Declaration of Independence to discover their inspirations, their approaches, and their views on the importance of young readers learning about early American history.
In 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.
On 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.
1744 - 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
THIS 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".
Since 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.
The 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!
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
It 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.
Founding 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.
One 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?