Saturday, June 30, 2012

Why did John Hancock sign his name so large?

July 4 approaches. And as we think about what happened on that day in 1776, when the U.S. Declaration of Independence was approved by our Continental Congress, chances are that some of our beliefs are based on popular myths.

In our mind’s eye, we see how it went down – a bunch of patriotic men in one large room, nobly arguing for and ultimately signing a document that is among the most revered in our history. We think, too, of John Hancock, president of that Continental Congress, signing his name largely and boldly at the center of the place in the document for signatures to demonstrate his defiance of the British Crown and to encourage others to sign the document as well. At least that’s how the story goes.

But much of it isn’t accurate. Take Hancock writing his name so large, for example. Analysis of his signature from other documents shows that he always signed his name in that kind of a super-sized style. So the size of it on the Declaration of Independence was typical for him. He wasn’t trying to send a personally defiant message to Britain’s King George, as legend has it. Quotes with that message attributed to him are simply myths.

What about Hancock placing his large signature so boldly at the top center of the space for the delegates to sign? Hancock, as president of the Continental Congress that approved the Declaration, signed it first. Most probably, as head of the body and without guidance from anyone or anything else, he simply put his name where he thought it most appropriate in that role. After all, there was only a huge blank space for signatures, not signature lines and other indicators so common in modern documents.

Also, it wasn’t until August 2, after the Declaration was made available in a final, clearly written version on parchment, that Hancock and other delegates signed it. Most other delegates then added their names, placing them on the document to match the general location of the geographic locations represented, beginning with Georgia on the upper left and ending with New Hampshire on the lower right. A few delegates signed the document after August 2, and a handful never signed it, although they had voted for approval.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Captain Bligh ... villain or hero?

William Bligh, captain of the British ship Bounty in the late 1700s, might be viewed too harshly by today’s popular culture. Although depicted in 20th century movies and fictional narratives as a merciless tyrant, Bligh probably treated the Bounty’s crew no worse than any other 18th century British sea captain would have treated them, and there is some evidence that he treated them better than most. For example, in preparing for the ill-fated voyage of the Bounty to the Pacific island of Tahiti, where the crew mutinied, Bligh hired a fiddler for the trip – based on Bligh’s belief that regular dancing would help improve the health and well-being of the ship’s crew, wrote Caroline Alexander in her 2003 book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. On the other hand, rather than merely providing the opportunity for dancing, Bligh required it, and punished a couple of men who did not participate in the three-hour nightly sessions. So there was a demanding, unforgiving side to Bligh as well, although that characteristic was probably needed to establish and keep control over the type of unruly men who served on British ships of the day.

The Bounty’s mission on this fateful trip was to collect breadfruit plants on Tahiti and take them to the West Indies, in hopes of establishing the plants there as an inexpensive supply of food. But the trip from England to Tahiti was especially difficult. For a month, the ship attempted to leave the Atlantic and enter the Pacific by sailing east around the southern tip of South America, but storms and rough seas prevented that approach.  So instead, Bligh took the ship on a longer route to the west, past the southern tip of Africa, then crossing the Indian Ocean and finally into the Pacific and Tahiti. After 10 months at sea, the Bounty reached the island, where it remained for five months, waiting for native breadfruit plants to grow enough to be removed successfully.

No one is certain today what led to the Bounty mutiny, in which a group of crewmen led by Fletcher Christian, reported to be Bligh’s friend and protégé, took control of the ship on April 28, 1789, several weeks after leaving Tahiti. Many on-the-scene accounts appear to be contradictory and self-serving, unfortunately. Today, some believe it was simply Bligh’s harsh demands on his crew. Others believe that the crew wished to return to the comparative comfort of their five-month stay at Tahiti, where many of them began to live among the natives and adopted a relaxed lifestyle.

But what happened next might one of the most fascinating parts of the Bounty story. Bligh and 18 men loyal to him (a few others wouldn’t fit in the boat and remained on the Bounty) were set adrift – in the middle of the South Pacific – in a small open boat that measured about 23 feet long and a bit less than seven feet wide. Fortunately, the mutineers gave them some food and water, as well as some navigational equipment. And with that alone, Bligh took that small boat and its crew some 3,600 nautical miles across the Pacific in 47 days to a Dutch settlement on the island of Timor. The only casualty of the journey was a man killed by natives of an island at which the boat visited to add to its food and water supplies, although several of the British sailors died soon after arriving on Timor.

Bligh made it back to England, where he was court-martialed for losing the Bounty but acquitted. After several more ship commands (including a second – and successful – trip to Tahiti for breadfruit plants), he was appointed Governor of New South Wales in Australia. He later returned to England, where he died at 64 in 1817.

And what happened to the Bounty mutineers?  That's another fascinating story, for another time. 

Note:  In late October 2012, a replica of the Bounty sunk off the Eastern United States. The ship was a victim of Hurricane Sandy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The bureaucrat who put his own face on our money

As the Civil War continued into the early 1860s, U.S. money in the form of coins was in short supply. People tended to hold on the coins as more intrinsically valuable than paper money in such troubled times. And there’re some reports that the war effort’s demand for metals crimped the supply of coins too, even driving up the cost of metal so high that at least some coins became worth more than their face value.

In response, the U.S. government issued fractional notes – paper money in denominations of less than a dollar – beginning in 1862. At one point or another during the war and in the years that followed, paper bills were issued for 3 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 15 cents, 25 cents, and 50 cents.

During the first several issues of these fractional notes, portraits of either George Washington or Thomas Jefferson were on the bills for every denomination. But that changed with a new issue of notes in late 1864, when the 5 cent note carried the portrait of Spencer M.Clark, the first superintendent of the National Currency Bureau (now the Bureau of Engraving and Printing). The Bureau was the agency responsible for the design of the notes.

Members of Congress were outraged when they saw the bureaucrat's likeness on the new notes, and soon passed legislation prohibiting U.S. bills from carrying the portraits of anyone still living.

Clark reportedly kept his job at the time only through the intervention of U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. Clark resigned in 1868, however, as a result of a congressional investigation into alleged improprieties at the Bureau.

Clark is generally credited for organizing and developing the Bureau, creating the basic design for one of the seals appearing on U.S. bills today, and for implementing security measures such as a standard reproduction of federal officials signatures on the bills rather than having those officials signatures penned by Bureau workers. Little definitive information about his life and contributions seems easily or widely accessible, however.