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Remembering the Founders in the 19th century: John Trumbull’s Painting The Declaration of Independence

[A]n Olympian gathering of wise and virtuous men who stood splendidly above all faction, ignored petty self-interest, and concerned themselves only with the freedom and well-being of their fellow-countrymen.

Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, “The Founding Fathers”

[A] staid group of white men, frozen in time.

Richard B. Bernstein, The Founding Fathers Reconsidered

When discussing the iconography of the Founding Fathers, one has to turn once again to the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. and to the rotunda, where crucial scenes from US foundational mythology are exhibited. Whereas George Washington appears in the rotunda in the Trumbull painting General George Washington Resigning His Commission (1824) as commander-in-chief, the focus here will be on the representation of the group of founders in The Declaration of Independence (1818), also by Trumbull, who painted a series of four rotunda paintings. The painting titled The Declaration of Independence is one of the most canonical renderings of the foundational moment of the ‘exceptional union’ called the United States; its title does not reference the founders’ names but their performative act of declaring independence as well as the document confirming that act. it is one among several iconic renderings of foundational moments in US history displayed in the rotunda today, including Howard Chandler Christy’s The Signing of the Constitution (1940) as well as Barry Faulkner’s murals The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States (1936, exhibited in the National Archives Building).

John Trumbull, who is referred to by Irma B. Jaffe as the “patriot-artist of the American Revolution” (cf. John Trumbull), was well acquainted with Thomas Jefferson (who he also painted), and regularly met with him in Paris in 1786. Clearly, the scene in Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence depicts not the July 4 meeting of the founders, but an earlier one - probably the June 28 meeting at which the committee appointed to present a draft of the document offered it up for consideration by the US Congress (cf. Cooper, John Trumbull 76). At the center of the composition, Jefferson submits the parchment to John Hancock, then-President of the Continental Congress and the first signer of the Declaration. Jefferson is surrounded by the other members of the drafting committee, some of which are more readily considered Founding Fathers than others: John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Benjamin Franklin. In the background, 48 congressmen are clustered in groups of varying size, most of them with their heads turned attentively to the committee. Contemporaneous criticism of this painting held that it was static and repetitive, unoriginal, lacking in refinement, and historically inaccurate. Regardless of these critical responses, the painting has forcefully impacted the way the political founding of the US has been viewed and remembered, even if the Founding Fathers discourse has shifted to include George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay and to exclude Sherman, Livingston, and Hancock, who are less prominent today.

Illustration 1: Signing the Declaration of Independence

John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence (1818).

And for all the criticism of Trumbull’s image, art scholar Irma B. Jaffe has reminded us that there was no precedent for a painting such as the Declaration of Independence at the time:

[H]ow was one to show a large group of ordinary-looking men, dressed not in the glamorous costumes of European courts or the crimson robes of English lords, but in everyday American garb; placed in a room undistinguished by any architectural elegance; seated not on crimson and gold but plain wood Windsor chairs; leaning not on marble and ormolu tables but desks covered with dull green baize; watching not the collapse of a national leader but a committee presenting a report to the president of their body. How was one to take these elements and make a painting that would speak to a nation’s people as long as that nation survived? (John Trumbull 108-109)

Thus, we need to take into account that Trumbull (who had previously painted mostly religious scenes and battle scenes) tried to work out an iconography (and hagiography) of American democracy by focusing on what he considered to be the central aspects of its foundation: the Founding Fathers and the foundational document in a situation of rational contemplation and ceremonial order (cf. Christadler, “Geschichte” 321).

In 1818, Trumbull’s iconic painting (still on the back of the US two-dollar bill today), which was recognized to be of “enormous national interest and historical significance” (Cooper, John Trumbull 78), was displayed in New York in the American Academy of the Fine Arts, where some 8.000 people came to see it in only one month; it then toured Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore before it arrived in Washington in December 1819 and was presented to Congress. “The tour was a tremendous success” and “the high point of Trumbull’s career” (ibid.).

That this image, which attempts to balance the “silence and solemnity of the scene” with the wish for a “picturesque and agreeable composition,” as Trumbull himself phrased it in the catalogue of an early exhibition (qtd. in Cooper, John Trumbull 76), is highly stylized appears to be obvious. Many scholars have emphasized the chaotic state of affairs and the uncertainty of the outcome of any political action at the time. Furthermore, there was a lack of protocol in the constitutional sessions that often led to a less orderly conduct than is portrayed in the Trumbull painting. Here, “the impression prevails that Congress united faces the central group, intent on what is occurring” (Jaffe, John Trumbull 105). Asked whether to exclude those delegates from the painting who did not sign the declaration and argued harshly against it, both Jefferson and Adams advised Trumbull not to do so for reasons of accuracy and authenticity. The result is a piece of art that was supposed to start “a great national artistic tradition” (Burns and Davis, American Art 102).

Trumbull’s iconic image is an example of affirmative 19th-century memorial culture in regard to the US foundational narrative. Even if Trumbull’s painting does not visualize all the dimensions of the Founding Fathers myth, it does serve as a classic commemoration of the founding and, in many ways, is an instance of cultural nationalism in a state-dominated memory system (cf. Bodnar, Public Memory 251); in what follows, it will serve as a backdrop against which different representations of and perspectives on the Founding Fathers will be discussed. For now, we will take it as a point of departure for discussing questions of legitimacy and authority connected to the foundational moment so powerfully portrayed in this image.

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