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Fall 2016

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

Pursuit of a Video GameFor the opener of the story, "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of a Video Game," we used an iconic painting called the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, which hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and is on the back of the two-dollar bill.

We clearly manipulated the art.

As it turns out, we weren't the first — Trumbull himself took liberties with the scene, as Emily Sneff recently explained in a post on Danielle Allen's Declaration Resources Project website. Sneff, the project's research manager, started her piece with the lyrics from a song about Trumbull that were eventually cut from the smash Broadway musical, Hamilton:

You ever see a painting by John Trumbull?
Founding Fathers in a line, looking all
humble
Patiently waiting to sign a declaration, to start a nation
No sign of disagreement, not one grumble
The reality is messier and richer, kids
The reality is not a pretty picture, kids
Every cabinet meeting is a full-on rumble
What you 'bout to see is no John Trumbull

So what's the messy problem? The problem is that what most people see in this "pretty picture" never really happened. The members of the Continental Congress never came together in July to sign the Declaration of Independence with the Committee of Five — Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman — and definitely never presented the document as a group to John Hancock, president of the congress.

As one site about the painting points out, what we see is "wrong, wrong, wrong." No such gathering took place, and it certainly didn't happen on July 4. (The declaration was approved on July 4, but the signing didn't start until a month later and continued piecemeal through the fall.)

And as historians note, when the document was presented, Franklin likely wasn't there, nor was Livingston, who opposed independence and never actually signed the declaration. Sneff writes that the painting, completed in 1818, is somewhat random in terms of who appears: 42 of the 56 signers are in it, plus another six who didn't sign the document at all.

"Though Trumbull worked on the painting for years in hopes of including all of the signers, the lesser-known delegates and the ones who died in the decades just after the Declaration of Independence was signed didn't make the cut," Sneff writes. "Both Jefferson and Adams apparently advised Trumbull that, in cases where no portraits  could be found to copy, the delegates should be left out rather than poorly represented."

It appears that Trumbull also took creative license with the setting, the Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall in Philadelphia. According to Architect of the Capitol, the federal agency in charge of maintaining the Capitol, the number and placement of doors and windows is different, and the furniture in the painting was more elegant than it likely was in real life — artistic decisions based either on a sketch that Jefferson gave to the artist when the two met in Paris years before to discuss the plan or, perhaps, based on Trumbull's whimsy.

In one area, the painting is absolutely authentic and accurate: capturing the faces of some of the founding fathers of the country. As Trumbull wrote in his autobiography, Autobiography, reminiscences and letters of John Trumbull, his greatest gift with this painting was to preserve the likeness of those men "to whom we owe that memorable act and all its glorious consequences."

Read Sneff's blog post, here.