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Red dots were used to indicate which of the 47 men in the "Declaration of Independence" painting were slaveholders. (Twitter) Red dots were used to indicate which of the 47 men in the "Declaration of Independence" painting were slaveholders. (Twitter)

Red dots were used to indicate which of the 47 men in the "Declaration of Independence" painting were slaveholders. (Twitter)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher September 10, 2019

Evidence shows most of the 47 men in famous 'Declaration of Independence' painting were slaveholders

As the nation observes the 400th anniversary of slavery, a Chicago documentary filmmaker tweeted about the painting Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

The painting depicts a moment in 1776 showing 47 men, including Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and Ben Franklin, most of whom were signers of the declaration.

"This is one of the most famous paintings in American history: Declaration of Independence," Arlen Parsa wrote above an image of the 1818 oil by John Trumbull. "I decided to put red dots on all the men who held slaves. Next time someone puts them on a pedestal and says we can't question their judgement on guns or whatever, show them this image."

So, Parsa claims that 34 of the 47 founding fathers shown in the painting were slaveholders. 

With the caveat that there is no one definitive source on this question, we also counted 34.

A research challenge

We contacted more than a dozen historians and historical organizations. None knew of a list that identified how many of the men in the painting were slaveholders.

"I would have assumed that it would be easy to find out how many owned slaves, but it is surprisingly elusive," Baylor University history professor Thomas Kidd told us.

Starting with evidence Parsa provided to back up his claim, we did our own research on each of the 47. (This chart identifies all 47.)

Go here to see a spreadsheet detailing the evidence we examined.

"Most of the quantification is best-guess and based on available records," said historian Terry Bouton at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The problem is that property records are pretty spotty for the more obscure founders and even some of the bigger names."

But, using books, historical organizations, research articles and other sources, we found there is strong evidence to back Parsa’s claim. The slaveholders tended to be men of means, including landowners, doctors, lawyers and local government officials. 

Featured Fact-check

Here are the 34 men in the painting we found to be slaveholders, in alphabetical order by last name:

Josiah Bartlett, Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Abraham Clark, George Clinton, John Dickinson, William Floyd, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock,  Benjamin Harrison, Joseph Hewes, Thomas Heyward Jr., William Hooper, Stephen Hopkins, Francis Hopkinson, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee.

And Francis Lewis, Philip Livingston, Robert R. Livingston, Thomas Lynch, Arthur Middleton, Lewis Morris, Robert Morris, William Paca, George Read, Benjamin Rush, Edward Rutledge, Richard Stockton, William Whipple, Thomas Willing, John Witherspoon, Oliver Wolcott and George Wythe.

The men who did not own slaves also tended to be well-to-do. Here are the 13 who apparently did not own slaves:

John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Clymer, William Ellery, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, Robert Treat Paine, Roger Sherman, Charles Thomson, George Walton, William Williams and James Willson.

Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz noted that at least three men in the painting, including Franklin, were or later became abolitionists.

Also, in 1776, slavery was legal in all 13 of the new states and was "condoned by the entire West," including Britain and France, he said.

"As the men who drafted and signed the Declaration were mostly gentlemen of standing and property, it's not at all surprising that this would be the case," Wilentz added.

Brown University emeritus history professor Gordon Wood said Parsa’s claim reveals how prevalent slavery was. 

But, "what's important is that slavery began to be attacked and eliminated from that moment on," Wood said. "The first anti-slave convention in history was held in Philadelphia in 1775. The American Revolution made slavery a problem for the world when it had not been a problem before, having existed for thousands of years without substantial criticism. All this is lost in today’s climate."

Our ruling

Parsa said 34 of the 47 men depicted in the famous "Declaration of Independence" painting were slaveholders.

We found strong evidence to back the claim on the 34, recognizing there is no one definitive source on the question.

We rate the statement True.

Our Sources

Twitter, Arlen Parsa tweet, Sept. 1, 2019

Twitter, Arlen Parsa follow-up tweet, Sept. 1, 2019

Interview, Arlen Parsa, Sept. 4, 2019

Architect of the Capitol, "Declaration of Independence," accessed Sept. 4, 2019

Architect of the Capitol, "Declaration of Independence" chart, accessed Sept. 4, 2019

Encyclopedia Britannica, "The Founding Fathers and Slavery," accessed Sept. 4, 2019

Email, Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence registrar-general Jim Alexander, Sept. 4, 2019

Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, "Charles Carroll of Carrollton," Nov. 30, 2011

Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, "William Whipple," Dec. 11, 2011

Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, "Thomas Heyward Jr.," Dec. 11, 2011

Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, "Abraham Clark," Dec. 11, 2011

Abraham Clark and the quest for equality in the Revolutionary Era, 1774-1794, page 116 

NBC News, "Never too late: Declaration signers being honored (Whipple)," July 3, 2011

Blackpast, "Prince Whipple (1750-1796)" article by historian Valerie Cunningham, July 13, 2007

Email, New Hampshire Historical Society library director Sarah Galligan, (William Whipple and Josiah Bartlett) Sept. 9, 2019

This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity, page 390 (George Clinton)

Southern Studies, page 22-23 (George Clinton)

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 page number unavailable (William Hooper)

The First American Army: The Untold Story of George Washington and the Men Behind America's First Fight for Freedom, page 287 (Josiah Bartlett)

African American Historic Burial Grounds and Gravesites of New England, page 13 (Josiah Bartlett)

New Hampshire Historical Society, "Letter from Mary Bartlett concerning a runaway slave, 1776 February 13," accessed Sept. 9, 2019

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, page 446 (Thomas Lynch)

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, page 442 (Thomas Heyward), article from the author of Into The Briar Patch: A Family Memoir, Feb. 8, 2013

Library of Congress, "Timeline" of William Henry Harrison, accessed Sept. 5, 2019, "Richard Henry Lee," accessed Sept. 5, 2019

Baltimore Sun, "The William Paca house is revising its displays with an eye toward greater authenticity of daily life," April 5, 2006, "William Paca House," accessed Sept. 5, 2019

University of Oxford/Utah Valley University, "George Read," accessed Sept. 9, 2019

Maryland State Archives, Samuel Chase biography, accessed Sept. 5, 2019

William & Mary Quarterly, review of Lewis Morris, 1671-1746: A Study in Early American Politics, January 1983

Riverdale Press, "Slavery wasn’t just a southern phenomenon, Bronxites had slaves," (Lewis Morris) Feb. 26, 2014

Benjamin Franklin Historical Society, "Slavery and the Abolition Society," accessed Sept. 4, 2018

College of William & Mary Law Library Wythepedia, "George Wythe and Slavery," Feb. 22, 2019

Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, (George Wythe) page 79

General William Floyd House, "The Life of a Patriot," accessed Sept. 5, 2019

Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, "Slavery in Oneida County, New York," (William Floyd) July 1, 2003

Heritage Auctions, "Signer Joseph Hewes accounts for his slaves and other property," accessed Sept. 9, 2019

Heritage Auction Galleries, "Manuscripts auction," (George Read) Oct. 17-18, 2008

Ashland University’s, "George Read," accessed Sept. 9, 2019

PBS, "Africans in America  — Arthur Middleton," accessed Sept. 5, 2019

PBS, "Africans in America  — Benjamin Rush," accessed Sept. 5, 2019

University of South Carolina Press, "Beyond the Fields: Slavery at Middleton Place," accessed Sept. 9, 2019, home page, accessed Sept. 5, 2019, "Four Years Prior to Signing the Declaration,

R.I.’s Stephen Hopkins Declares His Slave’s Independence (SOLD)," accessed Sept. 5, 2019

Politico Magazine, "The Memorial Where Slavery Is Real," (Robert Morris) July 4, 2015

Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution, pages 90 and 120

Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, "Thomas Willing of Philadelphia, 1731-1821," 1922

Robert E. Wright Biographical Dictionary of Early Pennsylvania Legislators Project, "Thomas Willing, 1731-1821," accessed Sept. 5, 2019 

Email, Independence National Historical Park special use coordinator Andrew McDougall, Sept. 6, 2019

Historical Society of Pennsylvania, "Francis Hopkinson and the Constitution," Sept. 26, 2012

Email, Maryland Historical Society library director Catherine Mayfield, Sept. 6, 2019

John Dickinson Writings Project, "John Dickinson biography," accessed Sept. 6, 2019 

John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, page 200 

University of North Carolina Greensboro Race and Slavery Petitions Project, "Petition 21383816 Details" (Edward Rutledge) Aug 2, 2006

Columbia University and Slavery, "The Livingstons," accessed Sept. 6, 2012

Atlantic City Press, "Stockton University removes bust of slave owner Richard Stockton," Aug. 27, 2017

Houses of the Founding Fathers, (Richard Stockton) page 113

Princeton University Library, "African American Studies: Slavery at Princeton," (John Witherspoon) 2001

New York Times, "Princeton Digs Deep Into Its Fraught Racial History," (John Witherspoon) Nov. 6, 2017

Wicked Litchfield County, (Oliver Wolcott) page 95

The Litchfield Book of Days, (Oliver Wolcott) page 191

New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth, (Francis Lewis) page 67

Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790, page 63 (Robert) and page 71 (Philip)

The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History, (Philip Livingston) page 335

Email, University of West Georgia history professor emeritus John Ferling, Sept. 4, 2019

Email, Brown University emeritus history professor Gordon Wood, Sept. 4, 2019

Email, University of Maryland, Baltimore County history professor Terry Bouton, Sept. 5, 2019

Email, Baylor University history professor Thomas Kidd, Sept. 5, 2019

Email, Princeton University history professor Robert Sean Wilentz, Sept. 5, 2019

Email, Virginia Museum of History & Culture director of library & research John McClure, Sept. 6, 2019

Email, North Carolina Museum of History curator of political and social history RaeLana Poteat (Joseph Hewes, William Hooper), Sept. 9, 2019

National Historical Park, "Pen and Parchment" teachers guide, 2005, "How many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves? 41," accessed Sept. 5, 2019

Email, University of Virginia Miller Center director of communications and managing editor Howard Witt, Sept. 5, 2019

Email, National Constitution Center communications manager Merissa Blum, Sept. 5, 2019

Email, Delaware Historical Society executive director David Young, Sept. 9, 2019

Email, Georgia State University historian David Sehat, Sept. 5, 2019

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