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  • Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 to become a leading writer, orator, and activist on behalf of the abolition of slavery. He also attended the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 and supported the rights of women. During the 1850s he traveled thousands of miles to give lectures to arouse Americans to oppose slavery. On July 5, 1852, he spoke in Rochester, N.Y., the city where he edited an abolitionist newspaper, the <em>Rochester North Star</em>. In his oration, Douglass challenged his listeners to reconsider the meaning of the nation's Declaration of Independence.

    Evolution of the Declaration: Abolitionist Frederick Douglass' "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro" (1852)

  • Women active in the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century often found their right to speak at meetings or participate in other ways denied on the basis of their sex. In response, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann McClintock, Martha C. Wright , and Jane Hunt proposed a convention to consider the unequal legal, social, and religious status of women. Some 300 delegates, mostly women, gathered at Seneca Falls, N.Y. in July, 1848. Stanton's "Declaration of Sentiments," based on the Declaration of Independence, both claimed female equality with men and listed "injuries and usurpations" that they viewed as grievances. The "Declaration" sparked broad and lasting public debate over the rights of women.

    Evolution of the Declaration: Seneca Falls Declaration (1848)

  •  The right of revolution --the right of the people "to alter or abolish" an oppressive government-- was an established constitutional position assumed by the great majority of free colonists and even the English in Britain. In fact, the current English monarchy, the House of Hanover, depended for its legitimacy on what were called "revolution principles." In the 1690s, the English deposed their hereditary monarch, James II, from the throne, accusing him of supporting Catholicism and violating established laws. In this "Glorious Revolution," the Protestant William and Mary, Prince and Princess of Orange, became the new English monarchs. This document, the Declaration of Right of 1689, made clear the terms on which English rulers and English subjects were bound to one another. Almost a century later, America's declaration assumed its fundamental claim that "the people" can replace a monarch who violates established laws.

    Precusor to the Declaration: the English Declaration of Right, 1689

  • In 1775, the Second Continental Congress met, now with delegates from all 13 continental colonies. They found themselves trying to remain within the British Empire but also managing a war. In April, England's effort to rule Boston with an occupying military had led to an unanticipated outbreak of violence at Lexington and Concord. In June, British and colonial forces fought at Bunker Hill. Congress established an American Army and named the Virginian, George Washington, as its commander-in-chief. Yet even after the outbreak of warfare, conservative colonists were hesitant to declare independence. The Second Continental Congress composed one last petition to King George III, hoping for possible conciliation and listing the colonies' grievances in hopes of redress. In September, the Congress learned that the King would not consider their petition.

    Damping the Conflict: The Olive Branch Petition (1775)

  •  Congress did not have the status of a regular legal body, and it could only recommend actions, such as adoption of the trade boycott, to the colonists. Its power depended on a broad popular recognition of its authority and agreement with its recommendations. Countless towns and localities mobilized in response to the Congress and established committees of inspection or observation in order to adopt and enforce the Association.

    Objections to the Congress: What Think Ye of Congress Now? (1775)

  • A series of crises--especially the destruction of tea in Boston harbor in December 1773, and Parliament's reaction, the Coercive Acts of 1774--escalated the colonial crisis. The Coercive Acts changed the government of Massachusetts and, perhaps most significantly, closed the port of Boston to any trade until the town should repay the owners of the destroyed tea. Many colonists who had disapproved of the destruction of tea reacted with sympathy for Boston, whose people should not all suffer for the act of a single mob, however objectionable. To coordinate a response, twelve colonies sent delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774. (Georgia sent none.) The Congress petitioned the British King to ask for repeal of the Coercive Acts. It also enacted an agreement to suspend trade between the colonies and the mother country until colonial grievances should be met.

    Intercolonial Cooperation: The First Continental Congress Petitions the King

  • Use your mouse to rotate the Jefferson desk by clicking and dragging either right or left.  Click on the + to zoom in and on the - to zoom out.

    Jefferson Desk QTVR

  • What are some of the considerations for displaying the Declaration of Independence desk?

  • The Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 celebrated and memorialized the events of national independence.  Thus, there was high interest in all of the details associated with the Second Continental Congress and the Declaration.  This broadside, printed for the event includes an image and the history of the Ephrata printing press on which the Declaration was printed and the house on 702 Market Street where Jefferson was staying when he wrote the draft.  The backside of the broadside includes the text of the Declaration.

    Remembering the printing of the Declaration: a broadside from the Centennial exhibition

  • When Thomas Jefferson gifted the desk to his grandson-in-law Joseph Coolidge, he attached this note.  Jefferson's words acknowledge the historical significance of the drafting of the Declaration and the place of the lap desk in the historical memory of the nation.  A draft of the note also exists.

    Affidavit of Authenticity: the note Jefferson attached to the writing box

  • When Thomas Jefferson's favorite granddaughter, Eleanor Wayles Randolph, married Joseph Cooldge in 1825 the ship carrying all of her  bridal gifts from Richmond to Boston sank, destroying all its cargo, including the writing desk, crafted by slave John Hemings, that Jefferson gave the couple.  Upon hearing of this mishap, on November 14, 1825 Jefferson wrote to Ellen to say that he was sending his lap desk to Coolidge as a replacement.

    Gift to a Grandson-in-Law: Jefferson's letter to Eleanor Wayles Randolph Coolidge

  • In 1995, preservationists from the National Museum of American History did a detailed examination of the Declaration of Independence desk.  This document discusses the features of the desk and the fragile nature of the materials.

    Preserving the Desk: Conservation Report

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