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Considering Context in Primary Sources: The Art of John Trumbull

by on September 17, 2013


What is a Primary Source?  In the very simplest terms, a “primary source” is described as any record that was created at the time of an event by someone who was there.  In short, an eyewitness account of some kind.  Perhaps it is a photo, map, letter, or other document such as a census record.  However, anything that includes an interpretation is generally considered to be a secondary source, no matter when it was created.  Therefore books, magazine articles, and paintings are generally thought to be secondary sources.

This definition, however, does not consider the context in which you are using the document.  There are instances in which documents, ordinarily thought of as “secondary” might be considered “primary.”

General Washington Resigning his Commission to Congress

General Washington Resigning his Commission to Congress. Annapolis, Maryland December 23d, 1783. Copy of a painting by John Trumbull, 1822-24. From the Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture.This copy of Trumbull’s painting is part of a photograph collection held by the National Archives, Joseph Abel Photographs of Washington, D.C, 1899 – 1932. Joseph Abel was a scientist with the Department of Agriculture Bureau of Animal Industry and an amateur photographer. John Trumbull’s original painting is on display in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

If you were writing about George Washington himself or the Revolutionary War, this painting is absolutely NOT a primary source.  First, a painting is obviously an interpretation and might have been changed in any number of ways.  Second, in this particular case, even though the artist was living during the Revolutionary War and was an aide to General Washington, he has been reported to have been languishing in a London prison at the time of Washington’s resignation; so it is most likely NOT a first-hand account.  To top it off, the painting was made about 1824, long after the event itself.

However, if you were writing a biography of the artist, John Trumbull, this painting could easily be used as a primary source, since the artist painted it himself.  Also, if you were discussing his experience in the Revolutionary War, the paintings would be evidence of his involvement.

In what other ways could we find out how John Trumbull was involved in the Revolutionary War and perhaps even knew George Washington?  Well, in addition to several copies of his paintings, we have a map he created of fortifications around Boston in 1775 in letters from General George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

Sketch of British and American Lines and Fortifications in Boston Area by John Trumbull

Sketch of British and American Lines and Fortifications in Boston Area by John Trumbull, 1775. In Letters from General George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Army. From the Papers of the Continental Congress.

Additionally, a quick search of the name John Trumbull in the Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, National Archives records that were scanned and indexed at www.ancestry.com, produces a “primary source” showing he was on General Washington’s staff in 1775.

John Trumbull on General Washington's staff in 1775

Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, 1800-1900; Connecticut #S14718.

From here it is easy to conclude that John Trumbull was directly acquainted with George Washington.  Any discussion of John Trumbull’s life and experience would of necessity include copies of his artwork, which would then be considered “primary sources.”

More information about what constitutes a primary source can be found from our sister organization, the Library of Congress, on the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog. The UCLA Institute on Primary Sources also provides a comprehensive set of definitions.

Other examples of John Trumbull’s artwork are:

You can teach with these documents on DocsTeach.


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