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jeff jacoby

In ‘Declaration of Independence,’ preserving the patriots’ faces

John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence.”
John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence.”

It is the classic American history painting, instantly familiar to millions as the image of that fateful moment in 1776 when history turned on its hinge, and a nation conceived in liberty was born. For nearly two centuries, it has hung in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, an icon of the American founding by an artist who lived through the Revolution and personally met most of the men depicted in his painting. And yet John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776” captures a scene that never occurred.

In the famous picture, the five men appointed to prepare a declaration of independence from Great Britain — John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania — are shown presenting their draft to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. But it was actually on June 28 that the committee’s original draft was reported to the Congress (and only Jefferson, who chaired the drafting committee, would have submitted the document to the presiding officer). The vote in favor of independence came on July 2, after which Congress spent the better part of three days debating and amending the declaration’s words. On the morning of July 4, the delegates agreed to a final text and sent it off to be printed.

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It would be another two weeks before the Declaration was engrossed on parchment — the handwritten charter displayed today at the National Archives in an encasement of titanium and bulletproof glass. Not until August 2 did the business of signing the document get underway. And even then, there was no ceremony or posed formality. Some congressional delegates didn’t affix their signatures for months; some, including Livingston, never had a chance to sign at all.

Trumbull also took liberties with many of the setting’s physical details. Delegates didn’t sit in upholstered mahogany armchairs. The window treatments were simple blinds, not velvet drapes. No battle flags adorned the rear wall. As Hollywood might put it, his painting was “based on” a historical event. It wasn’t meant to be taken as accurate history.

Except in two ways — the two that matter most.

Of the 48 members of the Continental Congress visible in Trumbull’s great work, nearly all were painted from life. Trumbull was a particularly talented miniature portraitist, and he made it his mission to preserve the faces of those patriots of 1776 — the original “greatest generation” — as true-to-life facsimiles. “Declaration of Independence,” which he began painting in 1786, took more than 30 years to complete; he journeyed extensively in order to sketch or paint in person as many of the surviving signers as he could find. Trumbull later recorded some of his travels: “Mr. Adams was painted in London; Mr. Jefferson in Paris; Mr. Hancock and Samuel Adams in Boston; Mr. Edward Rutledge in Charleston, South Carolina; Mr. Wythe at Williamsburg, in Virginia; Mr. Bartlett at Exeter in New Hampshire, &c. &c.”

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As an artist, Trumbull readily took license with chairs and drapes and congressional tableaux. But when it came to the likenesses of men he revered as heroes, authenticity was paramount.

Trumbull knew what the founders had risked for independence. He himself had fought in the Revolutionary War; he had been imprisoned by the British. And he was passionate about recording for succeeding generations of Americans “the personal resemblance of those who have been the great actors” in what he never doubted was “the noblest series of actions which have ever presented themselves in the history of man.”

In “Declaration of Independence” and his other history paintings, Trumbull bore witness to the greatest achievement of his age: the birth of the American nation. His goal, he wrote a friend, was to record “in my language, the history of our country.” So he did, uniting twin passions for painting and for his country’s history to become the indispensable artist/eyewitness of the American Revolution. His pictures are his testimony, as riveting today as it was two centuries ago.

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Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.

Related:

In Congress, July 4, 1776

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Ward Sutton: Celebrate America’s independence

Joseph J. Ellis: The pitfalls of assuming ‘original intent’ of Founders

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