Declaration of Independence...'Declaration of Independence'

Just 30 miles from the place I am writing this post 242 years ago on July 4th the Second Continental Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence. So the July 4th of 2018 marks the 242nd anniversary of the founding of the United States.  It was the major turning point in the world's history still not fully comprehended. 

The leaders of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers that drafted the Declaration, were intellectual giants that lived at the right time in the right place. They structured the democratic government of the United States and developed the guiding national principles with such perfection that:

  • after 242 years from its birth the U.S. is the oldest existing nation with a constitutional government; and
  • the 230 years old U.S. Constitution is the longest surviving constitution in the world where lifespans of national constitutions are on average only mere 17 years.

Here are the signers of the Declaration depicted at the iconic painting by John Trumbull. The painting is on display in the United States Capitol rotunda next to the statue of George Washington. George Washington did not attend this session of the Congress because in July 1776 he was in New York preparing to defend Manhattan against the British.

'Declaration of Independence', United States Capitol rotunda

The painting is as close to a documentary material source as was possible in the pre-photography era. It was created between 1817 and 1819, at that time Trumbull was able to paint many of figures from life, he also visited the Pennsylvania State House and depicted the actual chamber where the Second Continental Congress met. However, as a lot of painters before him, he took a liberty to modify the reality to express his vision - the painting depicts 42 of 56 signers but has some characters that did not sign. There is even a belief that as a way to sign the picture Trumbull painted himself as one of the additional characters. 

Despite the picture name given by Trumbull, 'The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776', the date the painting depicts is not actually the 4th of July, it is June 28th, when a draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress. The five members that presented the draft of the Declaration are John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. 

There is a funny belief associated with the painting - it looks like Thomas Jefferson is portrayed stepping on John Adams’ foot, an action symbolizing the pair as political enemies. Here is an enlarged part of the painting and I’ll let you be the judge. 

IMHO, there are two separate questions to answer regarding this belief: 'Is this action in fact depicted in the painting?' and 'Could it happen in reality?'. My answers are: 'probably not, but could be perceived as such' and 'no'. According to their biographical materials, Adams and Jefferson first met in 1775 and became close friends. Adams personally selected Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. They remained close friends up to 1780s, well after 1776, the year the painting depicts. Their relations started to deteriorate in the 1790s when Jefferson was the secretary of state and Adams the vice president and became even worse later when they run for president against each other. However, they resumed their friendship in 1812. Strangely enough, both men died on the same day, the 4th of July, exactly 50 years after the event in which they were the major contributors. John Adams last words were 'Thomas Jefferson Lives', he did not know that Jefferson had died five hours earlier.

The George Washington iconic sculpture displayed next to the painting is the most recognized and most authentic image of George Washington. 

George Washington, in bronze, by Jean Antoine Houdon (copy cast in 1934).

The sculpture is a bronze copy of the marble original by Jean-Antoine Houdon located at the Virginia state capitol building. The Virginia General Assembly asked Jefferson, the American Minister to France living in Paris at that time, to pick the artist to sculpt Washington. Jefferson commissioned Houdon, the most famous French sculptor of the day. Houdon considered it the lifetime opportunity, in order to accept the commission he even declined an offer of the Empress of Russia. Houdon also insisted to study Washington himself rather than using existing portraits. In order to do so, Houdon traveled seven weeks from Paris to Mount Vernon and spent two weeks there. During his stay at Mount Vernon Houdon made a life face mask of Washington,

George Washington's face mask hologram, Mount Vernon's Education Center

took measuremments of his body and modeled a terra-cotta bust of Washington. He returned back to Paris with copies of the mask, bust and measurements.

George Washington Bust, Mount Vernon

Washington, as humble as he was confident, initially was not willing to participate in such extreme artist activities but was convineced by reasoning that they were necessary for accurate historical records. Also Washington declined the idea to portray him wearing the garments of a hero from ancient Rome which was a standard practice at that time. Instead Houdon presented Washington as a mix of farmer and general, wearing his uniform but holding a civilian walking cane. As a reverence to the classical tradition Houdon placed a farmer’s plowshare behind the general and positioned his left hand on a bundle of thirteen rods, the Roman symbol of civil authority, to represent the unity of the thirteen original colonies. Although, today we perceive the statue as a rather formal image at the time of its creation it was a revolutionary representation, a humble down-to-earth image of the America's greatest hero.