Tag Archives: Philadelphia

The Housekeeper Did It

Good news from Philadelphia: A stolen 18th-century bust of Benjamin Franklin was recovered yesterday by the FBI. I wrote about its theft in a previous post. In a caper straight out of a game of Clue, the alleged thief is a housekeeper who reportedly stole the bust from its owner.What the perp was thinking, God only knows. Where do you fence a hot Houdon? The bust is a true likeness as well as a true work of art, so I rejoice in it return.  See the link above for details.

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September 25, 2012 · 8:54 pm

Struggling for Independence: Some Reflections on a Coincidence

At first glance, the article seems to be an exercise in the history of coincidences, even a gimmick to display the irony of common people sharing the names of uncommon men. The New York Times feature “Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism” has presented the portraits of individuals who share the names of American presidents. The results are somewhat predictable: A retired Atlantic City firefighter who was the butt of jokes because his name is Richard Nixon, or the story of Ronald Reagan of Syracuse, New York, who loves the name his son hates. (In a spirit of bipartisanship, it should be noted a man named after John F. Kennedy concedes his name didn’t help his reputation with the ladies.)

However, one photo of a presidential namesake from the December 1 edition captures more than ironies although many are obvious. Thomas Jefferson, a combat veteran crippled by a stroke and troubled by his past substance abuse, appears in his wheelchair posed in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. As you will recall, this was the home of the Continental Congress and the room famously portrayed in the beautiful (though highly stylized and very inaccurate) Jonathan Trumbull portrait showing the presentation of the Declaration of Independence. The contemporary Mr. Jefferson, who is black, looks at the camera calmly, surrounded by the tables covered by green baize where his namesake presented the words “all men are created equal.”  In my opinion, the photo is electrifying.

Visual poetry, to be sure, full of things that are the staff of life at the Times: The contradictions of American democracy, the sufferings of various minorities, and the image of great places humbled by the presence of ordinary Americans. However, I suggest the photo captures an additional idea. The Declaration brought black Americans into that room in 1776, into the very presence of those who forged the identity of the United States and made it a nation. The escape from slavery would not be found in the U.S. Constitution, a document of compromise that would not even grant full humanity to slaves (witness the famous Federal Ratio), or in the Bill of Rights (where slaves, as chattel property, belonged to their masters with the full force of Amendment 5 and its promise that Americans would not be deprived of their property without due process or just compensation). It is no accident that the abolition movement quickly turned to the Declaration for its inspiration.

Much has been said and written about the Jefferson’s Rough Draught and its original anti-slavery clause that was struck from the final version of the Declaration by a vote of the men in that room. That, too, was another compromise in the name of colonial unity and state-making. In it, Jefferson spared no criticism of the institution in which he participated as he laid blame for the slave trade at the feet of George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Congress struck that section. Yet, it is too easy to speak of the contradictions and hypocrisy of that decision. They are there – but so is another section that exists in the Declaration’s final form.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Frederick Douglass

That is the section containing the political powder keg: “All men are created equal.” Jefferson and the Congress wrote that God gave humanity equal political rights. Arguments regarding what the Founder’s concept of “men” in the language of the 18th century and the political ideology of liberty abound, but the men in that room were intelligent individuals capable of understanding the door that they would open with that phrase. People outside of the room certainly understood the meaning. For example, as the nation moved forward both the Jeffersonians and the apologists for Jacksonian Democracy argued that they were the guardians of American liberty, which include the expansion of political rights. Abolitionists black and white seized the same ideas and ran toward the logical conclusion that America’s founding statement applied to all people in the United States. (Women, too, would argue for their political emancipation through suffrage and equal right using the rationale of the Declaration.) No wonder Frederick Douglass once wrote, “Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration … With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression.”

I wish the contemporary Mr. Jefferson nothing but peace, hope, and a long life. I am glad that the other Mr. Jefferson gave us a road map that gives his namesake (and all of us) a fighting chance to find those things in the United States.

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The Dog Days of the Declaration: Just When Was It Signed?

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Detail of a copy of the John Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Most Americans consider July 4 the day when all the action took place that made the Declaration what it was: A statement of liberty and freedom, a proclamation of independent nationhood, and even a manifesto defining what American patriots had been fighting for during a war that had been waging for 16 bloody months. The Continental Congress voted, declared, and signed all in one earth-shattering climax of patriotic energy. Charming popular depictions of the history of the Declaration reinforce this misconception. As a high school student enthralled with the bicentennial celebration of the nation in 1976, I saw the musical 1776 repeatedly, awed by its closing scene of the Congress’ delegates signing the Declaration as a bell tolled once for each of the 13 states. It was dramatic, heady stuff for a sophomore who already knew that he was in love with this nation’s history.

            The truth is just as dramatic – but more complex. August is a significant month in the history of the Declaration for many reasons, including the fact it’s probably when the majority of the delegates actually signed the document. Contrary to the popular tradition established late in the 18th century and fostered to this day, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776. We have good records of the proceedings in the Continental Congress, including the Journals of the Continental Congress that were kept from 1774 to 1789. The entry for July 4, 1776, contains a copy of the Declaration in its adopted form and the words, “Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President.”  There is no list of additional signatures. A later entry (July 19) clearly states an order that the Declaration passed on July 4 be “fairly engrossed,” defined in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language as “written in large fair characters.” No doubt, this order created an official copy of Declaration – but again, there is no record of additional signers. However, the order also included a directive that the Declaration “when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.” On August 2, the journal notes “The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.” Thus, the best documentary evidence indicates that on July 4 the only founder who signed the Declaration was John Hancock, whose iconic and bold five-inch-long signature

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

John Hancock's signature from the Declaration of Independence

prompted the birth of the phrase synonymous with placing one’s name on something: “He put his John Hancock on it.” Eventually, 56 delegates signed. Eight did not, some because they actually opposed independence. A few might have even signed as late as September or October 1776 because they were absent on other business.

            Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin all stated more than decade later that the Declaration had been signed on July 4. How could these titans of the American Revolution get such a basic fact wrong? Memories fade, and their idea of what “signing” meant could simply mean that when Hancock signed the Declaration as the president of Congress he was validating the document in the name of all the delegates.  It is clear that some delegates were not even present in Congress on July 4, a fact substantiated by multiple sources. One thing is certain: When the majority of delegates gathered to sign the Declaration in August, they had to be prepared to do more than fight the heat, flies, and thunderstorms of a Philadelphia summer. They now had to fight for their lives. Certainly, the men who signed the Declaration knew they had signed their death warrants. George III had promised the Patriot leaders “condign punishment,” 18th-century regal cant for swinging by the neck on a British rope as a traitor until the offender was dead.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, a delegate from Pennsylvannia, left an account of the mood in the room when he and the delegates present at the time took their turns signing the Declaration several weeks after Congress approved it. In an 1810 letter to John Adams, he wrote:

“Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many to be our own death warrants? The silence and gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, by Colonel Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’ This speech procured a transient smile, but it was succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.”

These were men who had truly pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.” They knew what they had done, but they could not look back across 233 years of national history to put their minds at ease regarding the outcome of their actions. Many of them were people who in the world of 18th-century America had the most to lose. The members of the Continental Congress were lawyers, men of property and commercial success, local politicians, a world-famous scientist and writer, Virginia aristocrats and New York millionaires who risked everything they had on a revolution that challenged the most powerful nation on earth. Few of us have faced risks like that when we signed a document. Their signatures, and the country they created to the blessing of us all, are more than just ink on parchment.

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