In this past Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, in anticipation of the 4th of July, David McCullough writes about John Trumbull’s revered history painting The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. McCullough’s article, An Icon’s Secrets, looks at the mixture of fact and fiction in the work.
So, according to McCullough how historically accurate is Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776?
The common understanding, of course, is that the painting portrays the birth of the nation at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, on July 4, 1776. And certainly the official title would seem to confirm that. But the common understanding is wrong. The signing of the document (which was indeed dated July 4) did not begin until August 2, and even then not all delegates to the Continental Congress were present. Those who were absent did not sign until weeks, even months later. One man did not add his signature until 1777.
What the scene appears to depict is the moment on June 28 when a committee of five named to draw up a declaration of American independence-John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin-presented Jefferson’s unedited first draft. But again no such ceremonial moment with all present took place. And besides, nearly everything about the setting is quite inaccurate.
The idea for the painting was hatched by Jefferson and Trumbull in Paris 10 years after the fact, in 1786, while Trumbull was a guest at Jefferson’s mansion on the Champs. In the course of a conversation in Jefferson’s library, Jefferson drew a floor plan of the Assembly Room of the Pennsylvania State House as he remembered it, and on the opposite side of the same sheet of paper Trumbull made a tiny rough sketch remarkably close to what would turn out to be the final composition.
As it turns out, with the exception of the faces of the delegates, which Trumbull painstakingly recreated, almost everything else pictured is fictional. McCullough writes, “Whether it was from Jefferson’s faulty recollections or Trumbull’s artistic liberties, or both, the resulting scene bears little resemblance to how it really was.”
By taking the historical inaccuracies at face value, McCullough really misses the boat on this one. I challenge you to name one significant history painting that accurately portrays a historical event. History paintings have nothing to do with recording the facts. Instead, they serve as cultural icons (as McCullough accidentally stumbles upon in his title) and even social and political propaganda. They are intended to inspire and persuade. The nearly three million people who march past The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776each year in the nation’s capitol building don’t scrutinize why Trumbull only included 48 of the 56 delegates who signed the Declaration; they marvel at the greatness of the men depicted and the wonderful nation that they built.