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Reader Response: America in the Making

Posted on July 3, 2017 at 8:12 PM by Jami Milne

America in the Making: Thomas Jefferson, 1938/1939 by Newell Convers Wyeth. (American, 1882-1945). Painting. Gift of John Morrell and Company, Ottumwa, Iowa. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. Image copyright information found here.

University Museums is proud to share an email received by R.J. Gardner, with his permission, in response to our July 3 e-newsletter. It is passion and dialogue, just like this, that encourages us to work in and for the arts, every day.


Monday evening, July 3rd, 2017

University Museums
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa


Reading in your latest email about the CBS news request for permission to use the Wyeth "America in the Making: Thomas Jefferson" painting image, it brought to mind this quickly writ comment of mine upon that mighty matter, merely to amuse myself and any others similarly interested. I can provide more details later, but probably being after The Fourth, who'd want to know?! Labor Day is next!


It is generally agreed by historians that the very popular 1817 painting by John Trumbull of all the Signers of The Declaration of Independence, as gathered into one room for the final signing, is not an accurate representation of the overall event. And that, the Document was never signed by all the Members of the Continental (Colonial) Congress at one time. Further, less known is that there is more than one version of The Declaration published during those same days.


The Congress never spoke of it as "the Declaration of Independence," only essentially and originally as "the Declaration" or more fully, "A Declaration by the Representatives of the united States of America." (Note the use of Capitalization as well as non-caps, i.e., "united"). Over the course of several days at least, and during regular committee work, it was eventually agreed to during the ordinary course of the Congressional "business" with no special emphasis placed upon its event. (The Congress then had only Representatives from the 13 Colonies, with no Senators). Eventually, the caption above the text would change three times, the text remaining the same.


The "intent" of the Declaration was approved by the Congress on July 2nd, and ordered to be presented for a vote. On July 4th, New York's abstaining caused the Declaration to be one vote short of a unanimous vote in favor, but "A Declaration..." was signed by John Hancock, as president of the Congress (in his famous huge signature and equally famous comment on making it easier for the King to read it!), witnessed by Charles Thompson, Secretary. Then a printed document of that Declaration was ordered, being the second version. It was printed, published, and distributed to the State government representatives as proof of the event.


During August, another hand writ version was sent by a special and secret courier to the Signers to personally sign their assent. As this third version was carried across the colonies, each signature was individually gathered. It was not done in one day, but over a few weeks’ time. However, the abstaining New York representative soon signed the Document, making it "The unanimous Declaration...."


As politics happens, there was an election among many of the States for representatives to the Congress. Several of the original Representatives actually Voting for the Declaration were not returned to Office, so their successors would sign it as representatives of the people of those States. Another printed version of this fully representative hand writ Declaration was ordered published, a fourth version, revealing the names of all the Signers (but not always those who only voted for It). This "Declaration," along with the hand-signed version, is most popularly known today.


While seen forever as a grand step forward for a representative government of mankind, upon this printing and its subsequent widely publicly lauded event, it was obvious the Signers themselves dared not assemble into one room for anything, in fear of arrest by the King's officers. True to their sworn declaration, many of these men would soon enough lose their Lives, as many lose their Fortunes, but none ever lost their Sacred Honor.


So in fact there are two different dates for the signing of The Declaration, and four different versions of The Declaration: a hand writ one, a printed one, then another hand writ, and another printed one; and, three different captions labeling the Document. From a hair-splitting legalist view, let the techies quibble over which Declaration is the definitive and "binding document"? Maybe CBS knows.


So I just decided to spend some time running this off my fingertips while lightly considering my sources. It lacks a few more details, but it's close enough for now. Thanks for reading it.


R.J. Gardner


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