Thomas Jefferson Papers

John Trumbull to Thomas Jefferson, 26 December 1816

From John Trumbull

New York 26th December 1816


Twenty eight years have elapsed since, under the kind protection of your hospitable roof at Chaillot, I painted your portrait in my picture of the Declaration of Independance, the composition of which had been planned two years before in your library: the long succeeding period of War & Tumult palsied & Suspended my work, and threw me, as you know into other pursuits

Peace is at length restored, and we live to See our Country enjoying a State of public prosperity, & of individual Happiness1 such as no enthusiast of our Revolution could have anticipated.

The Government of the U.S. are restoring to more than their original Splendor the Buildings devoted to national purposes at Washington, which were barbarously sacrificed to the Rage of War.—& I have thought this a proper opportunity to make my first application for public patronage, & to request to be employed in decorating the Walls of those Buildings with the paintings which have employed So many years of my Life.

The Declaration of Independance is finished—Trenton Princeton & York Town are far advanced, in addition to Bunker’s Hill & Quebec which were long since finished & engraved—I shall take them all with me to the Seat of Government, in a few days that I may not merely talk of what I will do, but show what I have done: And I hope it will be thought that the declaration of Independance with portraits of those eminent Patriots & Statesmen who then laid the foundation of our Nation; and the military pictures with portraits of those Heroes who either cemented that foundation with their Blood, or lived to aid in the Superstructure, will be appropriate Ornaments for the Halls of the Senate & the House of Representatives.2

The work has been carried thus far by my own unaided exertion & can be finished only by me:3 future Artists may possess superior talents, but time has already withdrawn almost all their models of that most interesting period:4 and I who was one of the youngest Actors in the early Scenes of the War, have passd the age of Sixty: no time remains therefore for hesitation,5 and I can scarcely hope for what is necessary to complete Such an undertaking.

The memory of your early kindness, and of the interest which you formerly took in the work is too strongly impressed on my mind to Suffer a doubt to intrude of your approbation & powerful protection at this time.

May I request that you will favor me with an Answer addressed to me at the Post Office in Washington.6

With grateful remembrance of your former friendship
I am Sir Your Obedt Servt & friend

Jno Trumbull

RC (DLC: TJ Papers, 163:28630); endorsed by TJ as received 5 Jan. 1817 and so recorded in SJL. RC (DLC); address cover only; with PoC of TJ to James Madison, 8 Feb. 1817, on verso; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson &c &c &c Monticello Virginia”; franked; postmarked New York, 27 Dec. Dft (CtY: Trumbull Papers); endorsed by Trumbull. Tr (ICHi); entirely in Trumbull’s hand; subjoined to Tr of a similar letter from Trumbull to John Adams of 26 Dec. 1816; endorsed by Trumbull: “Drafts of Letters to John Adams and Thomas Jefferson … on the Subject of paintings.”

John Trumbull (1756–1843), artist and diplomat, was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, and graduated from Harvard College (later Harvard University) in 1773. During the American Revolution he served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington in 1775 and as deputy adjutant general of the Continental army’s Northern Department, 1776–77. In 1780 Trumbull sailed to Europe, where he studied painting with Benjamin West in London. He was expelled from England later that year under suspicion of espionage, but he returned to the British capital following the peace and continued to hone his skills under West, 1784–89. Trumbull met TJ in Paris in 1786, was his guest for short periods of time, and executed his life portrait there, 1787–88. He returned in 1789 to the United States and continued his work as an artist. Trumbull accompanied the American diplomat John Jay to Great Britain as his private secretary in 1794, and he spent much of the following twenty years in the British Isles, during which time he served on a commission to settle claims under the Jay Treaty. Following the War of 1812 he returned to America and offered to paint a series of historical pictures for the fire-ravaged United States Capitol. On 6 Feb. 1817 Congress commissioned Trumbull to produce “four paintings commemorative of the most important events of the American Revolution.” In 1824 he completed the twelve-by-eighteen-foot artworks: The Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and The Resignation of General Washington. Trumbull was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1792, served as president of the American Academy of the Fine Arts, 1817–36, and published his autobiography in 1841. He died in New York City (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Sibley’s Harvard Graduates description begins John L. Sibley and others, eds., Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, 1873– , 18 vols. description ends , 18:331–48; Theodore Sizer, ed., The Autobiography of Colonel John Trumbull, Patriot-Artist, 1756–1843 [1953]; Sizer and Caroline Rollins, The Works of Colonel John Trumbull: Artist of the American Revolution [rev. ed., 1967]; Heitman, Continental Army description begins Francis B. Heitman, comp., Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, April, 1775, to December, 1783, rev. ed., 1914 description ends , 550; PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 39 vols. description ends , esp. 9:456, 10:438–41; Bush, Life Portraits description begins Alfred L. Bush, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, rev. ed., 1987 description ends , 5–7; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Minutes, 20 July 1792 [MS in PPAmP]; U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States … 1789 to March 3, 1845, 1845–67, 8 vols. description ends , 3:400; New York Herald, 11 Nov. 1843).

TJ’s primary residence in Paris during the 1780s, the Hôtel de Langeac, was located next to one of the city gates, La Grille de chaillot (Howard C. Rice Jr., Thomas Jefferson’s Paris [1976], 51).

1Reworked in Dft from “of Prosperity & general Happiness.”

2In Dft, next paragraph begins with “<powerful> Several considerations decide me to make my application at the present moment.”

3Preceding seven words underscored in Dft.

4Preceding five words not in Dft.

5Remainder of sentence not in Dft.

6In Dft paragraph reads “May I Hope that my <plan> application will meet your approbation, & <Such> Support, & that you will honor me with an Answer addressed to me at Washington—poste restante.”

Index Entries

  • American Philosophical Society; members of search
  • Bunker Hill, Battle of (1775); J. Trumbull’s painting of search
  • Capitol, U.S.; and War of1812 search
  • Capitol, U.S.; construction and repair of search
  • Capitol, U.S.; J. Trumbull’s paintings for search
  • Congress, U.S.; and paintings for U.S. Capitol search
  • Declaration of Independence; J. Trumbull’s painting of presentation of search
  • House of Representatives, U.S.; chamber of search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; letters of application and recommendation to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Portraits; J. Trumbull’s painting search
  • paintings; by J. Trumbull search
  • patronage; letters of application and recommendation to TJ search
  • Princeton, N.J.; J. Trumbull’s painting of battle of search
  • Quebec; J. Trumbull’s painting of battle of search
  • Revolutionary War; J. Trumbull’s paintings of search
  • Saratoga, N.Y.; J. Trumbull’s painting of British surrender at search
  • Senate, U.S.; chamber of search
  • Trenton, N.J.; J. Trumbull’s painting of battle of search
  • Trumbull, John (artist); friendship with TJ search
  • Trumbull, John (artist); historical paintings of search
  • Trumbull, John (artist); identified search
  • Trumbull, John (artist); letter from search
  • Trumbull, John (artist); portrait of TJ by search
  • War of1812; British destruction in Washington search
  • Washington, D.C.; British destruction in search
  • Washington, George; J. Trumbull’s painting of resignation of search
  • Yorktown, Va.; J. Trumbull’s painting of British surrender at search