The Practical Idealist

Two Shadows on the Floor

Trumbull's Presentation of the Declaration 72 dpi

Two Shadows on the Floor: Trumbull’s iconic Declaration by the numbers,

by Neil C. Olsen.

Col. John Trumbull’s famous painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Committee of the Whole on June 28, 1776 is a large 12-by-18-foot oil-on-canvas painting. It may be found today in the United States Capitol Rotunda. It is iconic, impressive, and historically important, but it is not historically accurate. The picture was painted between 1817 and 1819 after the artist consulted with Thomas Jefferson: it is based on a rather bad sketch Jefferson made. It presents the now conventional historical wisdom that the Declaration was the work of Jefferson. He is the most prominent of the five men of the “Committee of Five” standing in front of the Document. He is in front of the shorter Dr. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. They are still more prominent than Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston, both of whom were dead by the time it was painted, as was Franklin, and could hardly protest.

The painting was a crucial element in the elevation of the Declaration of Independence from press release to American Scripture. The “leaders” of America hardly thought of the document at all after 1776; some even misquoted it. But around 1800, as reflected in newspapers, public toasts, and fourth of July celebrations, the “people” began to venerate it. The painting, commissioned in 1817, purchased in 1819, and placed in the Capital’s rotunda in 1826, is an emblem of this shift, as well as a historical marker for the rise in Jefferson’s reputation.

A second elevation of the “the signers” to near demigod status occurred as well. Some speculate this was the result of signature hunters attempting to collect the signatures of all 56 signers in the nineteenth century.

The painting reflects the choices of one painter, but its influence is undeniable. It was part of Jefferson’s brilliant marketing campaign to take credit as the author of the Declaration, even though he considered the final version inferior to his own first draft – an opinion not shared by anyone else. Jefferson leaked his original draft in the early 1800s, presumably thinking everyone would see how superior it was to the final committee edited draft, as well as show the core ideas if not the words were his. However, Federalist editor Harry Croswell had some trouble crediting Jefferson, Croswell’s political foe and persecutor, as author of the document. He acerbically if wittily wrote in his Hudson, New York newspaper The Balance and Columbian Repository on Tuesday, September 9, 1806 that,

“I have not yet read the original draft of the Declaration of Independence said to be made by Mr. Jefferson, further than to see that it is not the same which was reported by the committee and adopted by congress. I am surprised the [Jeffersonians] ever published it. I have known a school-master frequently employed to draw wills, deeds, &c.”.

You can see why Jefferson tried to have Croswell convicted of seditious libel in 1803. It turned out that Croswell was at least half-right: only one-third to one-half of the final document’s words are from Jefferson’s original draft (for more on this see The End of Theocracy in America.)

Many think Trumbull intended to show the 56 men who signed the engrossed copy of the Declaration on July 4, 1776. The paper being handed over by Jefferson is not the final Declaration, but the “presentation” draft reported out of the “Committee of Five” to the Congress on June 28, 1776, at the start of the five-day long  debate on the Lee Resolution calling for separation from Great Britain.  It wasn’t until August 2, that the famous engrossed copy was signed by most of the men known to history as “the signers”.

Trumbull painted only 42 of the 56 signers. Trumbull also depicted 4 additional delegates who did not sign, but who had actually attended the event depicted in the painting. Call them “the debaters” instead of “the voters”, as not everyone at the presentation event stayed until July 2-4 to edit and vote on the Declaration. This suggests that Trumbull was intending to depict any delegate who either attended the debate or signed the document. The painting also includes Secretary Charles Thomson, whose name is on the Declaration even though he wasn’t a delegate and didn’t technically debate or vote on it. However Thomson, essentially the COO of the Congress, was the most durable and persistent attendee of the Congress and certainly deserves his place in history. And, after all, he was there.

This is a total of 63 men. But the painting portrays only 47. What happened?  For an interactive key to the signers, click here or see below.

Trumbull's Presenation 640px-KeyTrumbullsDeclarationofIndependence1

Fifty-six men signed the Declaration. Fourteen of these signers do not appear in the painting: Matthew Thornton, John Hart, John Morton, James Smith, George Taylor, George Ross, Caesar Rodney, Thomas Stone, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton, John Penn, Button Gwinnett, and Lyman Hall.

Trumbull also painted four men who did not sign but were present at the debate. He included non-signers or “opposers” John Dickinson and Thomas Willing, who were Patriots but did not think the Colonies should declare independence quite yet. However, he left out the opposer Charles Humphreys who was also present for the debates. Trumbull included pro-independence debaters Robert R. Livingston and George Clinton, who left congress shortly after voting for independence and so did not sign it. He left out John Rogers who debated and voted for the Declaration, but left before signing it due to illness. Trumbull likely would have added the two missing men – Humphrey and Rogers – if he had their portraits.  It seems Trumbull could not find likeness for 14 signers and 2 non-signing debaters, so he simply left them out of the painting.

Signers and others v5

Most of the singers signed it on August 2, 1776. Delegates William Hooper and Oliver Wolcott, George Wythe, and Lewis Morris missed the debate, but signed the document on this date. Their signing the document is fair enough, as they were all among the 100 delegates who contributed to the Continental Congress before July 4, 1776, and thus contributed to the 22-monthlong debate that led to the Declaration. As a sign of respect by the Virginia delegation, a space was left for George Wythe to sign it, which he did on August 27, 1776. Debating delegates Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry, and Oliver Wolcott signed it on September 4, 1776, while debating delegate Thomas McKean signed it much later, possibly in 1781. All of these men were contributors to the Congress before July 4, 1776, and it was reasonable that they sign.

Late joining delegates Charles Carroll, George Clymer, William Williams, and Dr. Benjamin Rush signed the Declaration on August 2, and appear in the painting. Delegate George Taylor signed it on August 2nd, and delegate  Matthew Thornton signed it on November 11, though their portraits are not in the paining. None of these six delegates were members of the Congress before July 4, 1776, or present for the debate.

Dr. Rush, however, was the mentor of Thomas Paine: he suggested that Paine he write the influential pamphlet Common Sense.  He was an important behind-the-scenes lobbyist in the May-July period in congress, and was a leader of the faction that overthrew the laggard Pennsylvania assembly and replaced their delegates. Rush more than earned his signature and his place in history as a Founding Father and a contributor to the Declaration.

George Cylmer was active in Philadelphia before the signing, and in 1775-76 he acted as one of the first two Continental Treasurers, even personally underwriting the war, exchanging all his own money for Continental currency, and leaving his heritage pacific Quaker religion to support the war.  He put his treasure in the service of his country, and changed his religion to support it: though not a contributor to the document, he earned the right to sign it.  George Clymer is shown standing in the painting, a sign of respect, but with his face turned away, possibly because he did not vote on the document.

But Carroll, Williams, Taylor, and Thornton rode to immortality and the name of Founding Father on the scratch of a quill pen alone, while many of the 100 delegates who contributed to the Declaration are unhallowed by history and signature hunters, if not quite forgotten. Of course, all these men were delegates and so contributed to the Congress, and one has to admire Thornton who was excited and prescient enough about the importance of the document that he added himself into it while so many other delegates did not bother.

Looking at the painting you might note that there is room in the Maryland delegation for the missing John Rogers, and in the Pennsylvania delegation for the missing Charles Humphreys, both men who were present at the event.It is fanciful to suggest it, but perhaps those two shadows in the forefront on the floor and carpet, similar to the shadows of the feet of the sitting delegates just above them, suggest the two missing two debaters. Perhaps. And the missing fourteen signers? Perhaps the 14 ceiling molding ornaments on the top of the painting along the ceiling suggests the missing men. Or perhaps not.

Still, those two shadows on the floor must belong to somebody.

Note: The images are from Wikipedia Commons. The first is John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence. The second is, “A key identifying the subjects of John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence in Congress, at the Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4th, 1776″, known as Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence, a well-known work which hangs in the United States Capitol building (purchased from the painter in 1819)” and is taken from “Art of the United States Capitol”, page 133, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978.

One thought on “Two Shadows on the Floor

  1. Shelley Cruz

    Thank you for this wonderful piece! I will share it with the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence who are meeting in New Haven on the weekend of September 20-22!

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