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Making Sense Of The Fourth Of July
The DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE is not what Thomas Jefferson thought it was when he wrote it—and that is why we celebrate it
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
The Federalists responded that Jefferson had not written the Declaration alone. The drafting committee—including John Adams, a Federalist—had also contributed to its creation. And Jefferson’s role as “the scribe who penned the declaration” had not been so distinguished as his followers suggested. Federalists rediscovered similarities between the Declaration and Locke’s Second Treatise of Government that Richard Henry Lee had noticed long before and used them to argue that even the “small part of that memorable instrument” that could be attributed to Jefferson “he stole from Locke’s Essays .” But after the War of 1812, the Federalist party slipped from sight, and with it, efforts to disparage the Declaration of Independence.
When a new party system formed in the late 1820s and 1830s, both Whigs and Jacksonians claimed descent from Jefferson and his party and so accepted the old Republican position on the Declaration and Jefferson’s glorious role in its creation. By then, too, a new generation of Americans ha d come of age and made preservation of the nation’s revolutionary history its particular mission. Its efforts, and its reverential attitude toward the revolutionaries and their works, also helped establish the Declaration of Independence as an important icon of American identity.
The change came suddenly. as late as January 1817 John Adams said that his country had no interest in its past. “I see no disposition to celebrate or remember, or even Curiosity to enquire into the Characters, Actions, or F,vents of the Revolution,” he wrote the artist John Trumbull. But a little more than a month later Congress commissioned Trumbull to produce four large paintings commemorating the Revolution, which were to hang in the rotunda of the new American Capitol. For Trumbull, the most important of the series, and the one to which he first turned, was the Declaration of Independence. He based that work on a smaller painting he had done between 1786 and 1793 that showed the drafting committee presenting its work to Congress. When the new twelve-by-eighteen-foot canvas was completed in 1818, Trumbull exhibited it to large crowds in Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore before delivering it to Washington; indeed, The Declaration of Independence was the most popular of all the paintings Trumbull did for the Capitol.
Soon copies of the document were being published and sold briskly, which perhaps was what inspired Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to have an exact facsimile of the Declaration, the only one ever produced, made in 1823. Congress had it distributed throughout the country. Books also started to appear: the collected biographies of those who signed the Declaration in nine volumes by Joseph M. Sanderson (1823–27) or one volume by Charles A. Goodrich (1831), full biographies of individual revolutionaries that were often written by descendants who used family papers, and collections of revolutionary documents edited by such notable figures as Hezekiah Niles, Jared Sparks, and Peter Force.
Postwar efforts to preserve the memories and records ofthe Revolution were undertaken in a mood of near panic. Many documents remained in private hands, where they were gradually separated from one another and lost. Even worse, many revolutionaries had died, taking with them precious memories that were gone forever. The presence of living remnants of the revolutionary generation seemed so important in preserving its tradition that Americans watched anxiously as their numbers declined. These attitudes first appeared in the decade before 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of independence, but they persisted on into the Civil War. In 1864 the Reverend Elias Brewster Hillard noted that only seven of those who had fought in the Revolutionary War still survived, and he hurried to interview and photograph those “venerable and now sacred men” for the benefit of posterity. “The present is the last generation that will be connected by living link with the great period in which our national independence was achieved,” he wrote in the introduction to his book The Last Men of the Revolution . “Our own are the last eyes that will look on men who looked on Washington; our ears the last that will hear the living voices of those who heard his words. Henceforth the American Revolution will be known among men by the silent record of history alone.”
Most of the men Hillard interviewed had played modest roles in the Revolution. In the early 1820s, however, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were still alive, and as the only surviving members of the committee that had drafted the Declaration of Independence, they attracted an extraordinary outpouring of attention. Pilgrims, invited and uninvited, flocked particularly to Monticello, hoping to catch a glimpse of the author of the Declaration and making nuisances of themselves. One woman, it is said, even smashed a window to get a better view of the old man. As a eulogist noted after the deaths of both Adams and Jefferson on, miraculously, July 4, 1826, the world had not waited for death to “sanctify” their names. Even while they remained alive, their homes became “shrines” to which lovers of liberty and admirers of genius flocked “from every land.”