This rare and untitled lithographic sheet, printed sometime in the early to mid-19th century, depicts portraits and facsimile signatures of some of America’s Founding Fathers. Emphasis is on those who signed the Declaration of Independence, from which most of the signatures are replicated. The portraits are rendered in a light and realist style that strives to capture the air and appearances of the late 18th century.
The signatures are shown in eight columns, each linked to its specific portrait by a number. There are 48 signatures and portraits in total. Of these, only 43 signed the final Declaration of Independence. The last five are nonetheless closely associated with the American Revolution, and their inclusion underscores that this document was meant to capture the patriotism of these figures rather than the presence of their signatures.
We have found no other examples of this fascinating sheet anywhere and very little to help fix its origin and date. There are no apparent listings in OCLC or other institutional databases. Being an untitled sheet not attributed to any specific artist, printer, or place, any systematic search for it is difficult.
We note one similar example on the website of the Journal of the American Revolution. While similar in composition and concept, this is a more developed version or state of this sheet. Not only have two of the signatures been moved below the row of columns, but the imagery has been significantly elaborated to include more detail and likeness in the faces, as well as the outlines of bodies.
The caption for this image informs us that it belongs to the New York Public Library (see https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/08/the-fight-behind-the-declaration/). However, we have yet to identify this sheet in the NYPL database. We do not doubt its existence, however, as the commercial memorabilia company TheHistoryList has the printing rights to reproduce and sell the NYPL sheet (https://store.thehistorylist.com/products/the-signers-of-the-declaration-of-the-independence-and-their-signatures).
Based on the apparent progression between our sheet and the only possible parallel we could find, this may be a preparatory sheet in the design process. Based on the historical contextualization and comparison to other portrait lithographs from the 19th century, we are comfortable tentatively dating this to around 1830. Whether our version was ever published is unclear, but it would explain the lack of parallels or attributions.
Context is Everything
The five figures on this sheet who did not sign the final version of the Declaration of Independence were, nevertheless, Founding Fathers in their own right. Each one played a decisive role in creating an independent and viable United States, and it is clear that the author of this highly patriotic piece of memorabilia felt that they deserved to be included in the lineup. The five additional men – George Clinton (8), Thomas Willing (18), Robert R. Livingston (33), Charles Thomson (42), and John Dickinson (45) – are identified on the sheet by an asterisk in front of their names.
Because the sheet is rare and undated, their inclusion helps us identify the most likely historical setting in which it was created. They were all-important men directly associated with the American Revolution. George Clinton was the fourth vice-president and served until his death in 1812. Thomas Willing was a merchant and slave trader with political interests who served as mayor of Philadelphia. He was also a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress. In 1821, he was the last of the five to die. Robert Robert Livingston was a lawyer and diplomat from New York and a member of the Committee of Five that drafted the wording of the Declaration of Independence (with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Roger Sherman). Livingston also administered the oath of office to George Washington when he assumed the presidency in 1789. Charles Thomson served as Secretary of the Continental Congress throughout its existence and as Chief Executive of the American Government a number of times up until 1789. And finally, John Dickinson was an attorney from Philadelphia known as the “Penman of the Revolution.” Among his most famous writings are Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania and Liberty Song.
While these five men indubitably belong to the pantheon of admired patriots who fought for American independence, their inclusion signets that this sheet was conceived after 1821. Following the victory over the British in the War of 1812 (1812-1815), an inflated sense of nationalism overcame America, which often was expressed in the guise of romantic patriotism. An explosion in both visual and literary printed matter occurred during this period. We believe our elongated sheet is an early example of precisely such a patriotic manifestation, placing its production in the 1820s or 30s.
Indeed, once the trend began to take hold, printed sheets with the signers of the Declaration of Independence started appearing in many different versions and formats. But none of these would ever include people who had not put their names to the final document.