J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

John Adams Views Trumbull’s Painting of the Congress

In 1818 the Revolutionary War veteran and painter John Trumbull came to Boston to exhibit his depiction of the Continental Congress considering the Declaration of Independence.

Josiah Quincy, son of the Patriot lawyer of the same name, was then between his terms in the U.S. House and his terms as the mayor of Boston. That gave him time on 4 December to accompany Trumbull out to Quincy to dine with John Adams, the figure at the center of that painting.

Quincy’s diary entries, published in his son Edmund’s The Life of Josiah Quincy, described some conversation on that trip:
Trumbull, a gentleman of the old school, greatly delighted at the patronage given by the national Legislature to the series of his paintings commemorating four great national events.

The conversation turned on the character of Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin. Adams said, that the suggestion made against Dr. Franklin, as not being hearty in his support of the Declaration of Independence, was a calumny. To his knowledge, he supported that measure at its earliest period, with energy and perfect devotion.

Adams said, that he was present at the sittings of the Royal Academy of France, when Voltaire and Franklin both attended. As each appeared, the hall rang with acclamations. They approached each other. The cry was, “Let them embrace, let them embrace!” They accordingly began to hug and kiss. The room rang with, “Behold, Sophocles and Solon are embracing each other!”
That meeting occurred on 29 Apr 1778, as recorded in Adams’s diary. Voltaire died one month later.

The next day, Adams made the reverse trip to Boston. Quincy wrote:
President Adams came to town to view the “Declaration of Independence,” by Colonel Trumbull, now exhibiting at Faneuil Hall. President Adams, Trumbull, Prof. Farrar, Wm. S. Shaw, dined with me. Colonel Trumbull said, that every portrait in his picture was taken from a real sitting of the individual, or from some existing picture of him, except that of Benjamin Harrison, which was only from general description, received from his son, the recently distinguished General [William Henry] Harrison.

Adams said, that the portrait bore a general resemblance, but was not sufficiently corpulent. He well remembered, that, when engaged in signing the Declaration of Independence, a side conversation took place between Harrison, who was remarkably corpulent, and Elbridge Gerry, who was remarkably the reverse. “Ah, Gerry,” said Harrison, “I shall have an advantage over you in this act.” “How so?” said Gerry. “Why,” replied Harrison, “when we come to be hung for this treason, I am so heavy, I shall plump down upon the rope and be dead in an instant; but you are so light, that you will be dangling and kicking about for an hour in the air.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush had put this story into a letter to Adams in 1811, as quoted here.

Quincy’s son and biographer Edmund, ten years old in 1818, added:
I well remember being one of the party which accompanied Mr. Adams to see Trumbull’s picture. Faneuil Hall was full of spectators when we arrived, and what impressed the scene upon my boyish memory was the respectful manner in which all the men took off their hats when Mr. Adams entered leaning on my mother’s arm, and remained uncovered while he stayed. Room was made for him by common consent, so that he could see the picture to the best advantage. He seemed carried back to his prime of manhood, and to the most famous scene of his life, and he gave his warm approval to the picture as a correct representation of the Convention. “There is the door,” said he, “through which Washington escaped when I nominated him as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army!”
(I think there’s reason to doubt Adams’s memory on that point, which I’ll write about some day.)
This picture must be always interesting as an authentic collection of portraits, and an accurate representation of the Hall of Independence; and it pretends to be nothing more. At one time a shade of ridicule attached to this painting, because of John Randolph’s splenetic description of it as “a great shin-piece!”—a most groundless sarcasm, as any one may see who will be at the trouble of counting first the heads and then the shins it portrays. That part of the subject is certainly as well managed as possible, if the venerable signers are to be allowed any legs at all.


Charles Bahne said...

By coincidence, Trumbull's painting of Signing the Declaration was also mentioned in today's Boston Sunday Globe, Ideas section, page K6. "Painting a Revolution by Paul Staiti.


Lila Moore said...

Beautiful painting. Great insight to history aspects. Wonderful