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.
“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
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.
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.
On 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."
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
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.
John 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.
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.
In 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!).
On July 11, 1976, in commemoration of the bicentennial, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the Old State House in Boston. The Queen remarked, "If Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and other patriots could have known that one day a British monarch would stand beneath the balcony of the Old State House from which the Declaration of Independence was first read to the people of Boston and be greeted by the mayor and others in such kind and generous words—I think that they would have been extremely surprised. But perhaps they would also have been pleased..."
It is likely that King George III would have been extremely surprised as well. At least about the British monarch visiting and not ruling America. It took news of the Declaration of Independence about five weeks to reach England, with the first newspaper printings of the text published in mid-August. Previous petitions of the Continental Congress had been addressed to theKing — specifically, "Most Gracious Sovereign". Though King George III is the subject of the Declaration of Independence, it is not addressed to him. Rather, it is addressed to "a candid world".
So, how did the King learn about the Declaration of Independence? And, how did he respond?
In 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."
Last 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.