This year’s 4th of July celebrations are over, but the reality behind the idea continues.
In Philadelphia, July 1776, time for talk among the colonial delegates to congress had expired. One by one, in keeping with their tradition, each delegate cast a single vote. At issue was the adoption of a 1,337 word document declaring why the English colonies in North America should sever their ties with England. That act in itself made each delegate guilty of treason.
The familiar scene in the minds of many is captured for all time by artist John Trumbull whose 12’ by 18’ oil-on-canvas painting “Declaration of Independence” hangs in the United States Capitol Rotunda. Commissioned in 1817, the painting depicts 47 delegates gathered for the signing. The painting was placed in the rotunda in 1826 and later depicted on the two-dollar bill. However, this scene, as portrayed by Trumbull, never took place.
There was no formal signing of the declaration. The actual signing began on July 2 and continued as delegates arrived from the colonies. In the painting the room is wrong. The placement of the doors is wrong. There were no heavy drapes over the windows. There were no military decorations about the hall.
The power of Trumbull’s painting lies in its symbolism which is exactly what he chose to emphasize. The noble statement of 1776 was committed to paper. It was not the decree of a king, czar or sultan. It was a declaration of political faith, an explanation of colonial actions and a brave intent freely agreed to by an assembly of English citizens. As such, this statement was something entirely new and unique.
The true accuracy of Trumbull’s painting is captured in the faces of the signers. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were painted from life. Trumbull took years to sketch another 36 faces from life. He wanted us to know exactly who the signers were. They were once as alive as you and me comprising the smallest of all minorities—the individual.
Some who signed the declaration are not shown. Several who did not sign are represented in the painting. Conspicuously absent is George Washington who had departed a year before to take command of the continental army.
If Trumbull’s painting is high-mindedly symbolic, the fate of the signers was starkly real.
The vote of the Continental Congress was literally a death defying act. In New York harbor a British fleet of 120 war ships stood ready to disembark 10,000 troops. Another 15,000 to 20,000 troops were en route. Their objective was to capture New York and cut off the Continental Army as soon as they received word of congress’s vote. Admiral Richard Lord Howe commanded the British fleet; his brother, Major General Sir William Howe, commanded the British army. The five largest British ships had 234 canon between them, far in excess of all the American rebel guns on shore.
Never had any rebellion within the British empire succeeded. Why should these American belligerents, with no organized military force to speak of and no experienced military leadership, believe they could prevail against the greatest colonial power in the world? No wonder many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were visibly shaken as they penned their names to the document that declared the thirteen American colonies free and independent of the British crown. If caught, everyone of them would be hanged. Although victorious in the end, most of the signers suffered immensely.
Signatories of the Declaration of Independence who lived anywhere near a British stronghold were targeted. It’s difficult to entertain noble thoughts of patriotism when your wife is being brutally abused on a prison ship as was the case of New York Delegate Francis Lewis, when your children are taken never to be seen again as was the case of New Jersey Delegate John Hart, when your merchant fleet is destroyed as was the case of Pennsylvania Delegate Robert Morris, or when your home and crops are destroyed as was the case of Rhode Island Delegate William Ellery. This is a short list of those who suffered privation in exchange for their defiance. The struggle would continue until the surrender of Major General Charles Cornwallis October 19, 1781.
Could we as a people, or at least a third of us as in the case of the colonists, rise to the occasion as did our forefathers should the need arise? A worthy question.