John Hancock's Signature

For me, one of the most intriguing mysteries surrounding The Declaration of Independence is John Hancock’s signature. The other 55 signatures are in fairly neat columns in such small script that you really have to look close to make out many of the names. Not Hancock’s! His signature is as remarkable for the beauty of the penmanship as it is for its size.

So why is his signature so large?
U.S Declaration of Independence -
as beautiful as it is concise!

One long-lived story is that he signed so that “King George could read it without his glasses and know whom to hang.”

The actual words vary with the reporting, as you might expect, but I like to believe he said something like that. After all, there could be no doubt that signing the document was akin to signing his own death warrant. Forevermore, Hancock would be a traitor to the crown. (Or at least until the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783.)

But did he really say that? Maybe. Maybe not. 

According to Harlow Giles Unger, author of John Hancock, Merchant King and AmericanPatriot, there is no evidence that he uttered those words. In fact, John Hancock was the only one to actually sign The Declaration on July 4, 1776, and he did so in a nearly empty room. Almost everyone else from the Second Continental Congress had gone home, presumably to convince their constituents that independence was the right course of action.

The only man left was Pennsylvania delegate, Charles Thomson, who served as secretary of the Congress. Of all the things Thomson recorded, Hancock’s words as he penned his name were not among them.

John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence -
depicts a signing ceremony that never happened
So why is his signature so large?

He was the President of the Congress. Perhaps he felt it was right that his signature be large and legible. There might have been a bit of ego involved as well. This was the man the adoring crowds in Boston liked to call King Hancock, and he was known for his flamboyant style.

For me, the bigger question is why are all the other signatures so small? There was plenty of room left over after all 56 signatures had been gathered. Were these men suddenly feeling timid about pledging their lives, fortune and sacred honor? It’s one thing to approve a resolution. It’s quite another to enact it.

Or possibly there was a little lingering animosity toward Hancock. He did have a bit of an ego and he fell in and out of favor with his fellow delegates. Maybe they were trying to take him down a notch. Our founding fathers, great though they were, had their fair share of petty squabbles.

I prefer the second explanation over the first, but both suck a little bit of the life out of the legend. Perhaps that’s why the story of “King George’s Glasses” was born.

No comments:

Post a Comment