Reverse of 1976 $2 Bill – Signing of the Declaration of Independence a Slight Historical Inaccuracy


Anyone catch the HBO series “John Adams” marathon on the 4th of July (it finished long before the fireworks went off 🙂 )? In the final episode, an aging John Adams (played by Paul Giamatti) reviews the famous John Trumbull painting, “The Declaration of Independence”. The actor playing Trumbull is surprised by Adams’ angry reaction to his work: he believes he has created an amazing portrayal of a seminal moment in American history. Adams strongly disagrees, citing an obvious historical inaccuracy. In fact, there was no formal gathering of all the signers who eventually put their signature on the document. When Trumbull tries to placate an obstinate John Adams, Adams replies that, in reality, the individuals who signed the Declaration were running in and out of Philadelphia, often in secrecy to avoid detection by people favorable to the British government. Indeed, Mr. Trumbull’s depiction is nothing more than historical fantasy.

Any paper money fans who caught this show, or who are familiar with Trumbull’s painting that has hanged in the Capital Rotunda since 1826, will also recognize it as the reverse of the Fr. 1935 1976 $2 Federal Reserve Note, celebrating the bicentennial of the nation.

John Trumbull's "Signing of the Declaration of Independence", adapted for Fr. 1935 1976 $2 Federal Reserve Note
John Trumbull's "Signing of the Declaration of Independence", adapted for Fr. 1935 1976 $2 Federal Reserve Note

There are a couple interesting facts about the original Trumbull painting and the version eventually adapted for use on the 1976 $2 bill. Trumbull originally set out to include all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, but was only able to include 42 (Source: Wikipedia, “Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence”). Additionally, Trumbull included a few individuals that did not sign the document but who were active participants in the debate that led to the drafting of the Declaration.

Signers NOT included in Trumbull’s painting include: Matthew Thornton (New Hampshire), John Hart (New Jersey), John Morton (Pennsylvania), James Smith (Pennsylvania), George Taylor (Pennsylvania), George Ross (Pennsylvania), Caesar Rodney (Delaware), Thomas Stone (Maryland), Thomas Nelson, Jr. (Virginia), Francis Lightfoot Lee (Virginia), Carter Braxton (Virginia), John Penn (North Carolina), Button Gwinnett (Georgia) and Lyman Hall (Georgia).

When the painting was engraved on the 1976 $2 bill, a few more people were slighted but the total count of figures depicted remained at 42. From Wikipedia:

“Trumbull’s painting is the source of the picture on the reverse of the two-dollar bill, which cuts out the farthest four figures on the left (George Wythe, William Whipple, Josiah Bartlett and Thomas Lynch, Jr.); the farthest two figures on the right (Thomas McKean and Philip Livingston); and seated in the left rear, George Walton. The bill features 40 of the 47 figures from Trumbull’s painting. Two other unknown figures are superimposed in the engraving in between Samuel Chase and Lewis Morris and between James Wilson and Francis Hopkinson, bringing the total number of figures on the reverse of the two-dollar bill to 42”

So, as you can see, those that often make history might not be documented for posterity, or painted in historical artwork, either. If you ever sign anything important, make sure you get your picture taken with it! 🙂

When the “John Adams” marathon concluded – just in time for a beer and hamburger – it ended with another amazing AND true historical footnote. BOTH John Adams and political rival and eventual friend, Thomas Jefferson, died together on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the birth of the nation. It seems the often quarrelsome founding fathers were ultimately two stubborn believers in “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, even though they disagreed on the finer points of how this was to be achieved.

Jefferson’s and Adams’ political differences yet ultimately amicable friendship should serve as a lesson for today’s divided and polarized national discourse. We don’t have to agree on everything, we just have to agree to move things forward for the benefit of the country. Their wisdom and good humor should serve as a lasting example of a productive and deliberate American political process.