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.

1 comment:

The Horse Dad said...

Thanks for a great year of insights into American History, Ray. With July 4 as our national birthday, celebration, I look forward to another year of your work on these pages.