Artistic Interpretations of the Creation of the Declaration of Independence
Artists who create historical paintings, like historians, want to leave memories of past events and persons for future generations. But painters often engage in “artistic license”—one might say “historical license” to shape how we today remember those persons and events from the past. This calls for interpretation and raises some interesting questions in the minds of viewers, especially for those who have studied the history of the American Founding. In this section we consider three portrayals of the Second Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence and invite viewers to consider the question, “How do these artists want us to remember the American Founding?”
John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence, 1826
John Trumbull was born in 1756 in Lebanon, Connecticut, and graduated from Harvard College in 1773. He served with the Connecticut First Regiment in the early months of the American Revolution. Trumbull began his painting career in 1777 as the war continued, and went to England to study briefly with the renowned artist Benjamin West in 1780. During this time, he was arrested and imprisoned in London for seven months in retaliation for the hanging of British agent Major John Andre by American forces. While visiting Thomas Jefferson in France in 1786, he began composition of his most famous painting, “The Declaration of Independence.” In 1817 he received a commission for four large history paintings for the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington. Trumbull created the enlarged painting for the Rotunda between August 1817 and September 1818. On October 5, 1818, the painting was revealed to the public and finally installed in the Rotunda in 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
This painting depicts the moment on June 28, 1776, when the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to the Second Continental Congress for debate. In the central group in the painting, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, is shown placing the document before John Hancock, president of the Congress. With him stand the other members of the committee that created the draft of the Declaration of Independence: John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin. This is not the moment of Congress’ approval of the Declaration of Independence but, rather, the moment that begins debate and discussion on that document.
Contrary to popular belief, this painting does not depict the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Congress (that event would take place on August 2 of 1776). Rather, Trumbull chose to portray a critical moment in the debates—between the introduction of Richard Henry Lee’s motion on June 7, 1776 “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states,” and the formal vote for independence on July 2 and approval of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. By portraying this moment of June 28, Trumbull calls forth in the minds of future viewers the importance and the seriousness of the debates surrounding the question of independence and the ultimate agreement of delegates in Congress to the words and ideas of the Declaration of Independence. In so doing, Trumbull reminds Americans that the act of declaring independence was indeed an act of serious reflection and deliberate choice.
As an artist, Trumbull exercised his “historical license” to shape our memories of this event. He had intentionally decided not to attempt a wholly historically accurate portrayal of the scene as early as 1786. For example, some architectural features of the room (such as doors and windows) are based on an inaccurate sketch that Thomas Jefferson produced from memory during their meeting in Paris.
Perhaps the most interesting questions have to do with which delegates are included and not included in the painting. 42 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence are included, and five non-signers are included. What influenced Trumbull’s decision on who to include or exclude? Part of the answer is that Trumbull only included delegates for whom an “authoritative” image could be found. For example, Caesar Rodney of Delaware, who played such an important role in the vote on independence, is not included in the painting. Moreover, Trumbull includes signer George Clymer of Pennsylvania even though he was not a delegate to Congress until August of 1776, but does not include signer John Morton of Pennsylvania, who was the important tie-breaking vote in the Pennsylvania delegation in favor of independence. (James Smith and George Taylor of Pennsylvania were not delegates in July and are also not in the painting).
Trumbull also includes five persons in the painting who did not sign the Declaration of Independence, one being secretary Charles Thomson, who was not a delegate and had no vote. George Clinton of New York and Robert Livingston of Pennsylvania had both participated in the debates and supported independence but had been called away from Congress before July 2. Trumbull also included two delegates from Pennsylvania—John Dickinson and Thomas Willing—who opposed independence. Trumbull also included two delegates from Pennsylvania—John Dickinson and Thomas Willing—who opposed independence, but not James Wilson, who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution. Why does Trumbull choose to include some delegates who were not signers of the Declaration of Independence? One possibility is that he wanted emphasize the spirit of debate that informed the act of declaring independence and the creation of the Declaration, and therefore wants us to remember delegates like Livingston and Dickinson who played important roles in those deliberations.
(The National Gallery of Art and Architect of the Capitol websites are sources for some of the preceding text.)
Robert Edge Pine and Edward Savage, Congress Voting Independence, 1788-1817 (Unfinished)
The earliest known painting of the Second Continental Congress debating the Declaration of Independence was started by Robert Edge Pine in 1784. Pine was born around 1730 in England, but was sympathetic to the American colonies’ struggle for independence. Pine came to America in 1784 with the object of depicting the events of the Revolution. He started work on this painting, “Congress Voting Independence,” in his work space in the Pennsylvania State House, now known popularly as Independence Hall.
Though Pine indulges in some artistic interpretation, some scholars believe that this painting is more historically accurate than Trumbull’s in terms of the room in which the debates took place. Like Trumbull, Pine seems to capture the moment that the draft of Declaration of Independence is presented to Congress for deliberation. Unlike Trumbull’s portrayal, the delegates seem more lively and are engaged in discussions with each other, either one-on-one or in small groups. Of the 32 delegates in the painting, only a few are readily identifiable (in part because Pine died in 1788, likely before the painting was completed. The two seated figures in front on the left have been identified as Samuel Adams (left) and Robert Morris (Right). The standing figures in the middle, from left to right, are John Adams, Roger Sherman, James Wilson (who was not on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence), and Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin sits in contemplation in the middle. President John Hancock sits in a red jacket in the back right corner of the painting, Charles Carroll of Carrollton sits in the front right engaged in discussion with Stephen Hopkins in the black hat (standing front right).
Pine’s original painting was destroyed by fire in 1803, but artist Edward Savage attempted to finish the painting and produce an engraving for print from Pine’s painting. These were also left unfinished when Savage died in 1817.
Barry Faulkner, The Declaration, 1936
Artist Barry Faulkner was selected to create two large murals as part of the “Charters of Freedom” exhibition: one titled “The Declaration,” and the other “The Constitution” (which can be viewed here in the Constitutional Convention chapter). Both murals are now housed in the National Archives.
Like Trumbull, Faulkner exercises a great deal of artistic license in his painting. He has chosen to have the delegates in an outdoor scene—rather than indoors at the Pennsylvania State House—next to a stone building with massive Greek columns. According to the National Archives, “Faulkner uses costuming and props to provide a glimpse of the professional and personal lives of some of the delegates. Hancock, dressed in elegant clothing, came from the elite of Boston society. … McKean was a judge and is portrayed with a Pennsylvania court judicial gown draped over his arm. Wythe, wearing a black robe, was America’s first law professor. Witherspoon, also in black robes, was the president of the College of New Jersey. John Adams, Hopkins, and William Floyd of New York are portrayed with walking sticks, a symbol of authority and wealth. Hopkins, considered an early true patriot, and Joseph Hewes of North Carolina are portrayed with hats and clothing reflecting their Quaker backgrounds. … Bartlett is brandishing a sword symbolic of his having been a commander in the New Hampshire militia.”
In total, 28 delegates are portrayed in Faulkner’s painting:
1. Robert Morris, Pennsylvania
2. Samuel Chase, Maryland
3. Charles Carroll, Maryland
4. Stephen Hopkins, Rhode Island
5. Samuel Adams, Massachusetts
6. Thomas McKean, Delaware
7. John Dickinson, Pennsylvania
8. Abraham Clark, New Jersey
9. William Ellery, Rhode Island
10. John Witherspoon, New Jersey
11. John Hancock, Massachusetts
12. Benjamin Harrison, Virginia
13. Samuel Huntington, Connecticut
14. Thomas Jefferson, Virginia
15. Roger Sherman, Connecticut
16. John Adams, Massachusetts
17. Robert R. Livingston, New York
18. Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania
19. Richard Henry Lee, Virginia
20. Thomas Nelson, Jr., Virginia
21. Joseph Hewes, North Carolina
22. Edward Rutledge, South Carolina
23. Lyman Hall, Georgia
24. Josiah Bartlett, New Hampshire
25. Thomas Stone, Maryland
26. Francis Hopkinson, New Jersey
27. George Wythe, Virginia
28. William Floyd, New York
How did Faulkner select these 28 delegates out of the 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, and why did he include two delegates who did not sign—John Dickinson and Robert Livingston? Faulkner’s intent was to not only portray the formal act of declaring independence, but to capture the sense of great activity in Congress from June to August of 1776: the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the creation of the Articles of Confederation, and the work of several committees to manage the war effort. Faulkner portrays this by including delegates who played prominent roles in these activities or on important committees.
To the right of the painting, Thomas Jefferson presents the draft of the Declaration of Independence to President John Hancock. Jefferson is grouped with the other four members of the drafting committee: John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York. Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, who served as chairman of the Committee of the Whole in Congress, is next to Hancock. Richard Henry Lee, who made the motion in Congress for independence, stands just to the right of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Just left of center is a group of four delegates, each known within their states as leaders of the revolutionary movement: Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Thomas McKean of Delaware, and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Dickinson stands slightly apart from the other three delegates, perhaps indicating his decision to abstain from voting for independence on July 2.
Three delegates are grouped together at the far left of the painting—Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Samuel Chase, both of Maryland, and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania—who worked behind the scenes, so to speak, on “secret committees” to further the cause of independence. Carroll and Chase served on the Committee of Correspondence to negotiate an alliance with Canada, and Morris served on the Committee of Secret Correspondence and the Secret Committee of Trade to provide for procuring munitions and arms. Carroll was not appointed as a delegate to Congress until July 5 and did not take his seat until July 18, but Faulkner’s inclusion of Carroll reminds us of his important work in the cause of winning and maintaining American independence (in fact, Charles Carroll of Carrollton is included in all three paintings—Trumbull’s, Pine’s, and Faulkner’s—even though he was not a delegate in Congress on July 4).
Finally, the committee appointed to draft the Articles of Confederation is represented by the inclusion of Dickinson (chairman), John Adams, Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire, William Ellery of Rhode Island, Hancock, Samuel Huntington of Connecticut, Lee, Robert Morris, Thomas McKean of Delaware, Roger Sherman, and John Witherspoon of New Jersey.
Faulkner’s painting, therefore, calls to mind not just the momentous decision of July 2, 1776, but reminds us of the other challenges that Congress faced in as they moved toward declaring American independence, successfully prosecuting the war, and framing a new federal government for the Union.
Edited by Chris Burkett.