Tag Archives: U.S. Capitol

The Burning of Washington, D.C.

It’s hard to imagine today, but on this day in 1814 British troops torched the White House, a fire that left the Executive Mansion a charred sandstone shell . The War of 1812 has been called the Second War of American Independence, but if it not been for the quick thinking of First Lady Dolly Madison relics of the first revolution including the original copy of the Declaration of Independence would have been burned to ashes. Here’s a great article on the event from the White House Historical Society. Also, one of my earlier posts gives additional details.

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Magna Carta Charts A Great Comeback at the National Archives

The nation’s only copy of Magna Carta — the seminal charter in medieval English history that limited the power of government over the governed and declared that not even a king is above the law — has a new lease on life.

The Washington Post reports a $13.5 million conservation effort to protect the 715-year old copy of the document will allow the National Archives to place it on display by February 17.  It is the only copy of Magna Carta in the United States.

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Alexander Hamilton are among the most notable members of the Founding Generation who quoted Magna Carta or referred to it in their writings about American liberty. It was often seen as the first statement of rule of law, even part of a tradition that justifies revolution if a free people face a government that does not recognize their rights. 

Jefferson in particular had a high opinion of Magna Carta.  In 1786 during his only trip to London, he took time off from haunting bookstores and attending theaters to view Magna Carta at the British Museum.  He knew that it contained a clause stating the right of subjects to contradict the king’s will if they are endangered by a monarch’s lawlessness. In fact, much of Jefferson’s arguments for revolution align with an idea throughout Magna Carta: Englishmen cannot be alienated from their rights. As Jefferson argues in the Declaration of Independence, the colonists are simply declaring their right to rights they already possess.

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The Books That Made America

Jefferson's "book room," where he kept his personal library at Monticello.

On this day in 1815, President James Madison signed a bill appropriating $23,950 — about $282,000 in today’s dollars — to purchase Thomas Jefferson’s library. The collection of 6,500 books became the nucleus of The Library of Congress, one of the premier research libraries in the world. Although established in 1800, Jefferson’s books rebuilt the collection which had been burned to ashes by invading British troops in 1814 during one of the more ignominious events of the War of 1812.  The hostilities were part of this nation’s first declared war and it is often called “the Second War of American Nationalism” by historians who study the event.

The sale was painful one. Jefferson, always in deep financial trouble because of poor personal spending habits and inescapable debt, needed the money. The fact that his dear friend Madison was the president almost certainly helped seal the deal. But Jefferson, a confirmed bibliophile, once said “I cannot live without books.”

The story of Jefferson’s collection, his cataloging system, and the sale of the books to the LOC can found at the on-line exhibit “Treasures of the Library of Congress.” Of course, one of the most valued treasures is Jefferson’s own hand-written draft of the Declaration of Independence.

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Trumbull, Again: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery”

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

 

Courtesy of Alabama Live, news that the Birmingham Museum of Art will host a display of American art including the original 21-by-31-inch painting upon which John Trumbull based his titanic “Declaration of Independence” that hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The article contains a good summary of the painting’s patriotic mythology but also an analysis of  Trumbull’s technique. The smaller original painting pre-dated the 1817 colossus, which many art critics consider inferior to the smaller work. Still, the painting is a familiar icon and stunning achievement as anyone who has seen it at the U.S. Capitol can attest. The article also has a handy identification key so you can know “who’s who” in either painting.  The exhibit, which also includes more than 200 other examples of historic American art from the Yale University Art Gallery, is through January 10, 2010.

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The Day the Declaration Escaped the Flames

A print depicting British forces burning the White House, 1814

A print depicting British forces burning the White House, 1814

It was disaster enough.  On August 24, 1814, British troops under the command of Gen. Robert Ross entered Washington, D.C., bent on revenge and destruction. American forces during the War of 1812 had burned government buildings in Canada earlier that year and the British now engaged in payback. They ransacked the town and torched numerous buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. Only a torrential downpour prevented the complete destruction of most of official Washington.

            It also was a day that the original copy of the Declaration of Independence narrowly escaped being burned to ashes. Most government officials had fled from the invading British Army, terrified because of the drubbing U.S. forces received earlier that day. U.S. soldiers actually retreated in panic through the streets of Washington – part of the so-called “Bladensburg Races” – and the government (including President James Madison) soon followed. What was left in Washington was a handful of federal employees, First Lady Dolley Madison (who was hastily organizing the removal of state papers and historical treasures from the White House), and some of the most cherished documents from the early years of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence.

            Normally, Secretary of State James Monroe would be responsible for gathering archival material to prevent its destruction. But Monroe, a veteran of the American Revolution, was busy in his attempts to organize some kind of defense against the British invasion. Stephen Pleasonton, a

Stephen Pleasonton (1775-1855)

Stephen Pleasonton (1775-1855)

senior clerk in the State Department, had already purchased coarse linen cloth and was hastily sewing bags that he would use to haul away books, documents, and state papers. He ordered the few clerks remaining his office to assist him in the work, which resulted in dozens of bags of documents being transported to the relative safety of a gristmill outside of nearby Georgetown. When the last load had left, Pleasonton took one final look at his empty office to see if anything had been left behind. In frame hanging on a wall in plain view was the engrossed copy of the Declaration – it had been overlooked by everyone. He hastily cut the document out of the frame, grabbed it along with a few remaining books and documents, and hightailed out of Washington just minutes before the British troops arrived to begin their rampage.

            When the British arrived they still found plenty to burn. However, the Declaration was safe, hidden in a private home in Leesburg, Virginia, until after the British withdrew from Washington. In September 1814, government officials returned the Declaration to the national capital where it has remained for the last 195 years with only two exceptions: When in it was placed in Philadelphia during centennial celebrations in 1876 and when it was removed to Fort Knox, Kentucky, during World War II for safekeeping.

            It was a close call. But thanks to a loyal government employee who understood the significance of the document, the Declaration of Independence is safe today as a national treasure, not ashes that would have literally been on their way to the dustbin of history.

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Jonathan Trumbull (1710-1785), RIP: Father of the artist who painted “the class photo.”

  

Jonathan Trumbull, 1710-1785

Jonathan Trumbull, 1710-1785

    Jonathan Trumbull, first governor of the state of Connecticut and Patriot leader, died on this day in 1785. The only royal governor to embrace the Patriot cause, he continued to serve as state governor after independence was declared. His daughter Mary was wife of William Williams, one of the Connecticut signers of the Declaration of Independence. However, Gov. Trumbull’s greatest contribution to the history of the Declaration was allowing a son to pursue a life as a painter: John Trumbull (1756-1843), famous for his heroic portrayal of the document’s introduction to the world.

            The younger Trumbull was a soldier during the Revolution and even served as an aide to Gen. George Washington. As an artist, he was trained by Benjamin West, one of the few American painters of the age who possessed a European reputation. Encouraged and admired by none other than Thomas Jefferson,

John Trumbull, 1756-1843, American artist

John Trumbull, 1756-1843, American artist

Trumbull in the 1780s began the paintings and engravings of significant historical events in United States history that he worked on sporadically for the remainder of his life.  His letters and autobiography make fascinating reading despite their sometime bitter tone when Trumbull bewailed the new nation’s lack of interest in supporting the arts.

            Though considered historically inaccurate in its portrayal, the John Trumbull portrait is by far the most iconic. (Even I yielded to the power of this specific image. A detail from the portrait is the banner of this blog.) The painting features the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration (John Adams, Roger Sherman, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin) standing in front of John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress. The painting also includes portraits of 42 of the 56 signers, some of whom were not even present when the Declaration was presented to the Continental Congress. However, some of the likenesses in the painting are the only portraits available of certain American founders. The huge 12-by-18-foot canvas is one of four Trumbull works hanging in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda that depict important historical events from the American Revolution.  In a smaller form as an engraving the painting appears on the back of the $2 bill.

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

            Some historians have jokingly called this portrait “the class photo” of the 2nd Continental Congress because of its high-toned neo-Classical manner and the artist’s effort to include in the painting nearly everyone who was anyone in the Patriot cause. Still, it is a beautiful work that can be admired simply as an image memorializing a transcendent moment in U.S. history. We should be grateful that the elder Trumbull did not succumb to his feelings about young John’s career choice. As one biographer wrote, “His father wanted him to pursue either the ministry or law, feeling that the manual crafts were beneath the family dignity.” Today, we remember the Trumbull family mostly for the accomplishments of its most gifted son, born of a dignified father who believed in the future of the United States even he if had qualms about art as a career for his child.

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