In the modern age of historiography, Americans have to grapple with the increasingly complicated history of the Founding Fathers. It has long been pointed out the birth of the country was nothing like the peaceful scenes depicted in Jonathan Trumbull's paintings, and the individuals involved were far from paragons of freedom and justice.
With this in mind, the genealogy website Ancestry.com created an advertisement that took one particularly famous John Trumbull painting and turned it on its head. The company used actual descendants of the Founding Fathers to recreate Trumbull’s depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Not only did the ad provide a powerful link between past and present, it also demonstrated the abundant diversity of the United States – the descendants themselves came from a multitude of backgrounds. In paying tribute to Trumbull, Ancestry.com might just have created a far more accurate representation of the real America than the artist ever did.
Ancestry.com is one of the oldest and best-known genealogical websites. The site was interested in creating an untraditional advertisement for the summer of 2018, explaining:
We set out to find actual descendants of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence. Our goal was to reveal the truth of their lineage in a beautiful and uplifting way – and inspire a sense of pride in who we are as a nation.
The ad, created by agency Droga5, took the form of a recreation of a famous John Trumbull painting. The real-life modern descendants of the Founding Fathers took the places of their famous ancestors in the updated portrait, but the result was an entirely different aesthetic than the original.
While the commercial, entitled “Declaration Descendants,” was an advertisement meant to draw traffic to Ancestry.com, it also served as a surprisingly powerful art piece. As the site described it, the search for founders' ancestors resulted in “an ensemble of 29 living descendants of the Declaration’s 56 signers – men, women and children from different ethnicities, life experiences and geographies.”
Thus, while the original depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence featured exclusively white men, the 2018 recreation ended up looking very different – and far more authentic to the true multicultural nature of the country. As one of the participants, Valerie, a descendant of John Adams, said, “America has so much diversity within it. It’s our strength, and we should celebrate it.”
Racism and white supremacy infuse modern American infrastructure and discourse, and while Ancestry.com didn’t set out to make a statement against those things, their ad remains a powerful message to the contrary. As Ancestry.com Chief Marketing Officer Vineet Mehra saw it, “We're all much more similar than you think, and we're using facts and data to prove it. This is not fluffy marketing. These are facts.” Mehra didn’t consider “Declaration Descendants” a political statement, explaining,
I am so against activism marketing. For me, it's not about that. It's just about how do you live above that and just talk about humanity. We're not making statements on anything. All we're saying is look, the facts tell us genetically that we are all very much the same. And we stop there.
In what could be seen as an ironic historical twist, many of the individuals reading out the Declaration of Independence in the advertisement were referring to rights and freedoms that were not actually extended to them in 1776. Among the 2018 participants were women and people of color, but as the minds behind the ad at the Droga5 agency pointed out, that was an intentional dissonance.
As creative directors Paul Meates and Thom Glover said in an interview:
We made the decision that we wanted to re-create a version of the painting that felt relevant today. That gave the sense that these people were re-stating the values of the Declaration of Independence, rather than simply dressing up as their forebears. That led to a lot of questions about what did and didn’t still feel relevant.