American Revolution history made tangible in Yale collections

As the nation celebrates Independence Day on July 4, it’s worth noting that not only has Yale been a university longer than the United States has been a country — by a full 75 years — but also that many of its alumni played an integral role in its foundation.

Twenty-five Yalies served as members of the Continental Congress, and five went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. Six Yale men were delegates to the Constitutional Convention, including Oliver Ellsworth (Class of 1766), who later was the first Yale alum to become associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. They also served as soldiers and officers during the American Revolutionary War.

The work of the United States’ earliest artists, writers, philosophers, statesmen, and musicians are preserved today in Yale’s collections. The university houses a treasure trove of visual and material culture related to the fight for independence, from music and paintings to decorative arts and instruments to foundational documents and correspondence between Colonial leaders. 

The Declaration of Independence

An early edition of the Declaration of Independence from Boston, originally printed with a missing “n” in “Hancock.”
An early edition of the Declaration of Independence from Boston, originally printed with a missing “n” in “Hancock.” The “n” was inserted in manuscript.

One holding particularly relevant to the July 4 holiday is the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s first edition of the Declaration of Independence, printed in 1776 by John Dunlap. Another early edition of the Declaration of Independence at the Beinecke — this one printed in Boston — has the distinction of a prominent typo in the name of the president of the Second Continental Congress, John Hancock, spelled “Hacock.” (The missing ‘n’ was later inked in on the printed edition.)

Artist John Trumbull (born in Lebanon, Connecticut) captured the presentation of the Declaration to the Continental Congress in one of the Yale University Art Gallery’s best-known paintings, “The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776,” which is also the image on the reverse of the United States two-dollar bill. The Declaration was approved on July 4, but the actual signing took place in Philadelphia on Aug. 2. Those who were not able to attend the ceremony signed the document over subsequent months, though almost all the delegates are depicted in Trumbull’s composition. Yale signers include Lyman Hall, Class of 1747 (Georgia); Philip Livingston, Class of 1737 (New York); Lewis Morris, Class of 1746 (New York); Oliver Wolcott, Class of 1747 (Connecticut); and Roger Sherman (Connecticut), who was Yale University treasurer 1765–1776.

What is not widely known is that Trumbull first discussed his painting in detail with Thomas Jefferson while visiting the author of the Declaration in Paris in 1786. According to the art gallery’s publication, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” Jefferson provided the artist with a firsthand account of the event and a rough floor plan of the assembly room where Congress had convened. The art gallery houses the collaborative drawing by Jefferson and Trumbull, with Jefferson’s writing and drawing in brown pen and ink and Trumbull’s in graphite.

John Trumbull, “General George Washington at Trenton,” 1792, oil on canvas
John Trumbull, “General George Washington at Trenton,” 1792, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery.

Trumbull’s painting became part of a series of scenes of the American Revolutionary War, including “General George Washington at Trenton” (1792) and “The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781” (1787–ca. 1828). He also painted a number of portrait miniatures of important figures, including John Jay and John Adams. Trumbull and his wife are interred under Street Hall on Yale’s campus.

Rebellious Revere

No history of the American Revolution would be complete without mention of Paul Revere. The Boston silversmith was a key agitator and member of the secret society the Sons of Liberty, which masterminded the Boston Tea Party. One of the art gallery’s most prized pieces of Revolutionary-era decorative arts is a silver salt cellar made by Revere in 1768 to commemorate the members of the Massachusetts General Court, also known as the “Illustrious Ninety-Two,” for refusing to rescind a letter sent throughout the colonies protesting the Townshend Acts, which taxed tea, lead, paper, and other commodities imported from England.

Tensions between the British and the Massachusetts colonists culminated two years later in the Boston Massacre, another event recorded by Paul Revere. The art gallery houses one of his rare hand-colored engravings of “The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King-Street Boston on March 5, 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt,” in which he denounces the British troops as “fierce Barbarians.”

Music and war

Another one of Revere’s engravings appears on the frontispiece of “The New-England psalm-singer,” printed in Boston in 1770 and housed in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale. The image shows a group of men seated around a table, singing a canon (or round). One of the songs included in the book is the patriotic tune “Chester” by William Billings, which became popular during the war. The lyrics in the first stanza read, “Let tyrants shake their iron rod, And slav’ry clank her galling chains, We fear them not, we trust in God, New England’s God forever reigns.”

Yale’s Timothy Dwight (president 1795–1817) made his own musical contribution to the war. According to Judith Ann Schiff, chief research archivist at Sterling Memorial Library, while Dwight served as a chaplain in the Revolutionary army in 1778, he wrote the popular song “Columbia” which is now housed in the library’s Department of Manuscripts and Archives. The song begins and ends with the words: “Columbia, Columbia, to glory rise, The queen of the world, and the child of the skies!”

Yale’s Collection of Musical Instruments holds a number of military instruments by American makers that feature a patriotic theme, including a “Freedom Bell,” designed by Robyna Neilson Ketchum on the occasion of the nation’s bicentennial celebration. The collection also contains several fifes, drums, and bugles. Most recently, it acquired a collection of military snare drumsticks through a gift by Paul A. Munier.

The British perspective

Representing the Redcoat perspective, the Yale Center for British Art contains portraits of leading military figures, including British General Thomas Gage, who served in North America for many years, and even fought alongside George Washington in the French and Indian Wars. From 1763 to 1775 Gage was commander-in-chief of the British forces, and was appointed governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. It was his attempt to seize gunpowder stores and capture rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock that led to the Revolutionary War’s opening salvos at Lexington and Concord.

The center also has a 1791 engraving of the other important “George” in the war for independence — King George III in England, done after a painting by the Saxony-Canadian artist William Berczy. Among the “long train of abuses and usurpations” King George was charged with in the Declaration of Independence was that he “abdicated Government here by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”

Life in the military

Casualties during the American Revolution were low, espcially considering the conflict lasted a little over eight years and there were more than 1,500 military engagements. Around 25,000 patriot Americans died in battle or from disease and accident, with another 25,000 wounded. Almost as many British soldiers died, along with several thousand loyalist Americans.

The art gallery houses a number of items used by soldiers during the conflict, including one of the silver camp cups that General George Washington used in the field. There is also an intricately engraved powder horn that belonged to Colonel Obadiah Johnson, a major in the Third Connecticut Regiment, who served during the siege of Boston and at Bunker Hill.

Patriots, soldiers, and spies

Hand-drawn map by Ezra Stiles showing the British movements during their 1779 invasion of New Haven.
Hand-drawn map by Ezra Stiles showing the British movements during their 1779 invasion of New Haven. (Yale Manuscripts & Archives)

In her “Old Yale” column for the Yale Alumni Magazine, Schiff profiled a number of patriots with Yale and Connecticut ties, including lexicographer Noah Webster (Class of 1778); James Hillhouse (Class of 1773), a classmate of spy Nathan Hale, the state hero of Connecticut and the subject of a statue on Yale’s Old Campus; and Naphtali Daggett (Class of 1748), who was Yale president 1766–1777, and who fought the British during the invasion of New Haven in 1779. During the incursion, President Ezra Stiles hid the college archives so they wouldn’t be destroyed. Edmund Fanning (Class of 1757), a loyalist who served with the British, persuaded the invaders not to burn the city of New Haven, thus saving his alma mater from flames. 

Yale treasurer Roger Sherman was the only man to sign four major documents associated with the birth of the new nation: the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. He was also New Haven’s first mayor and is buried in the Grove Street Cemetery. Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives contain the Roger Sherman papers, including writings and notes on the Constitution. In one letter to Yale President Ezra Stiles in 1784, he introduces Thomas Jefferson as “a Gentleman, of much Philosophical as well as political knowledge” who was en route to Boston and wanted “to gain what acquaintance he can with the country as he passes through.”

Yale’s art museums and libraries are free and open to the public. Visit Discover Yale Digital Content to search the collections for additional material related to the Revolutionary War.

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Media Contact

Amy Athey McDonald: amy.mcdonald@yale.edu,