Canvassing the Freedom of a Nation The Arts of Diplomacy [I]
“Probably no written instrument has received more consideration in histories or more often filled the thoughts of men than the Declaration of Independence” (Hazleton, 1907), for the immortal document remains deeply rooted in the creation of the United States, posing as legacy of those who had the Revolution in their minds. A legacy not only for American citizens, but for the entire world.
Among the four paintings created by John Trumbull that adorn the walls of the Capitol Rotunda to commemorate the greatest events of the American Revolution, one in particular makes reference to a salient part of the history of the United States, if not even the history of the world. For it depicts the moment on 28th of June, 1776, when the first draft of the Declaration of Independence was submitted for consideration at the Second Continental Congress which was held in the Pennsylvania State House, now the Independence Hall, in Philadelphia. The painting from the Capitol Rotunda was commissioned by the US Congress in 1817 and represents an enlarged version of the original painting the artist started to create back in 1786. Trumbull’s work illustrates 47 delegates, having in the foreground the five members of the committee in charge of drafting the document with Thomas Jefferson, its main author, handing in the first draft to John Hancock, president of the Congress (Architect of Capitol, n.d.). To be fair, if one would judge John Trumbull’s creation for its historical accuracy, then the essence of the painting would be lost in vain. Right from the very beginning, his intention was not to offer an accurate representation of the events from June, 1776, but to immortalize a moment with implications of great importance in the birth of the United States, as legacy for next generations, and to preserve the authentic likenesses of the extraordinary individuals to whom the United States owes “the memorable act and all its glorious consequences” (Trumbull, 1817 cited in Hazleton, 1907), while making sure to include all five members of the committee submitting the draft, rather than Thomas Jefferson alone like in reality (Yale University Art Gallery, n.d.).
Looking back to John Trumbull’s years of youth, a career as a painter was not a realistic view of Trumbull’s future, given the prestigious legacy that ran into his family, having as father a Harvard-educated, former representative to the Connecticut General Assembly who later on became Governor. Instead, the artist-to-be was sent to Harvard College in order to find a more appropriate vocation, either in law or ministry. However, Trumbull strongly believed that his destiny had already been decided long before and thus, in 1773, he graduated from Cambridge and began his career as a portraitist, at the same time being considered one of the few artists in the history of early American art to complete a college education. Nevertheless, Trumbull’s real ambition lay in achieving even greater milestones in his career, not only as someone who paints mere portraits but also larger, glorious historical moments. Little did he know his ambition would soon be fulfilled during his meeting in Paris with none other than Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, who at that time, in 1786, was the Ambassador of the United States to France and a little bit of an artist himself. He convinced Trumbull to concentrate his artistic talents into depicting a scene connected to the Declaration of Independence and as a result, John Trumbull guided by Jefferson’s memory of the events from 1776 and occasional indications, captured into eternity one of the most emblematic moments in the history of the United States (Zygmont, 2016).
Without doubt, the United States’ Declaration of Independence from 1776 is one of the most heavily interpreted and fiercely debated documents in modern history. However, if we put aside its many interpretations, at its core the Declaration could be simply viewed as a plea of help from Great Britain’s enemies, France and Spain, since the United States could not gain independence without their support, given the overwhelming strategic and military advantages of its British adversaries. Unfortunately, in spite of the careful drafting of the Declaration and its effective outcome later on, the immediate response from abroad was a deafening diplomatic silence in most countries across Europe. From all, France’s silent treatment was the most worrying, since it was the central object of most of the diplomatic and public relations initiatives of Congress which were mainly conducted through the Committee of Correspondence. The Committee was established in November 1775 and was used as a central means of communication with colonial agents in Britain and prospective supporters abroad, especially from France. In this regard, Benjamin Franklin, as member of the Committee, played a crucial role in attracting allies from both France and Spain, hinting at the advantages of an alliance with the American revolutionaries once they declared their independence from the Great Britain. Eventually, despite the initial silent treatment given to the Declaration, in 1778 France formally signed an alliance treaty with the United States, thus allowing for its recognition. As for Spain, even though it joined the war against Britain in 1779, it did not recognize the US until the Treaty of Paris from 1783 (Office of the Historian, n.d.; Armitage, 2002).
Certainly, the Declaration’s most important diplomatic effect was to allow for recognition of the United States by foreign governments. Beyond this recognition, however, it is a legacy of those who kept the Revolution deeply rooted in their minds. A legacy which was left not only to the Americans, but to the entire world. Jefferson’s words “all men are created equal” remain deeply rooted in our minds, as he once called the Declaration “an instrument pregnant with...the fate of the world” (Armitage, 1965). And rightfully so, as it remains until today a historical landmark for it contained the first formal collective assertion of the right of people to a just and fair government of their own choice and has inspired revolutionary movements outside of the United States that have swept the world for centuries since 1776 (Britannica, 2021).
Photo source: Architect of the Capitol, Declaration of Independence, oil on canvas by John Trumbull, 1818, in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, 1826, Washington, D.C.
Architect of Capitol, n.d. Declaration of Independence. [online] Available at: https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/declaration-independence [Accessed 8 January, 2022].
Armitage, D., 2002. The Declaration of Independence and the International Law. The William and Mary Quarterly, 59(1), pp. 39–64.
Armitage, D., 1965. The Declaration of Independence, Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, 2021. Declaration of Independence: Causes and Effects. Encyclopedia Britannica [online] Available at https://www.britannica.com/summary/Declaration-of-Independence-Causes-and-Effects [Accessed 9 January, 2022].
Hazleton, J. H., 1907. The Historical Value of Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 31(1), pp. 30–42. [online] Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20085368 [Accessed 8 January, 2022].
Office of the Historian, n.d. Secret Committee of Correspondence/ Committee for Foreign Affairs, 1775–1777. [online] Available at: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1776-1783/secret-committee [Accessed 9 January, 2022].
Yale University Art Gallery, n.d. American paintings and sculpture [online] Available at: https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/69 [Accessed 8 January, 2022].
Zygmont, B., 2016. John Trumbull, The Declaration of Independence. Smart history [online] Available at: https://smarthistory.org/trumbull-declaration/ [Accessed 8 January, 2022].