John Hancock and His Signature

Today’s post comes from Michael Hancock of the National Archives History Office.

Declaration of Independence in the National Archives Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

During my time working at the National Archives in Washington, DC, I often make it a point to visit the Rotunda at the end of the day. This large space houses our nation’s most significant documents, including the original Declaration of Independence.

By the time I make my way to the hallowed hall, the crowds have cleared and I have the opportunity to survey the 56 signatures of the men who composed the Second Continental Congress. One name stands out among them and it just so happens that it belongs to my namesake, John Hancock.

His signature has become synonymous with patriotism and defiance in the face of tyranny. But very few people from the first two generations of Americans ever viewed the actual document that signaled the break from England.

For them, the Declaration was broadcast aloud from the steps of their local government buildings or as printed text. The great portion of citizens were provided with a printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, not the original parchment that was once handled by our founders.

John Hancock by Alonzo Chapel. (National Archives Identifier 135797826)

That made the signatures on the Declaration, especially that of John Hancock, icons of patriotism. The signing of the document became just as significant as Congress’s votes to approve the measure, although the signing did not commence until August 2. Those 56 members of Congress have become figures of immense historical significance and elevated in public memory above all of the other delegates at that time. And dramatic tales of how they put pen to parchment have become almost mythical in nature. 

Soon after the Colonial Revival of the late 1800s, many historians became skeptical of these stories. One narrative that received particular scrutiny was John Hancock’s motivation for producing his large signature. One anecdote provides the following:

It will be remembered that a reward was offered for the head of John Hancock. When he signed the Declaration of Independence he did it was a bold hand, in a conspicuous manner, and rose from his seat, pointing to it, and said, “There, John Bull can read my name without spectacles, he may double his reward, and I put his at defiance.” 

There is no evidence that Britain ever offered up a bounty on John Hancock. No such example appears in any newspapers, letters, or documents of that time and King George III would have surely broadcast that information to the colonies.  

The Dunlap Broadside, the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. (National Archives Identifier 301682)

The details sometimes change, but the dramatic story arc remains the same: that John Hancock signed his name so large so that “someone can read my name without spectacles.”

There is one glaring problem with this story, and that is that the Continental Congress had no intention of dispatching the parchment off to George III. The Declaration had already been printed and published with John Hancock’s name prominently displayed at the bottom, with copies sent off to Britain and the colonies. Hancock’s signature was for his fellow delegates and for future generations of Americans.

Hancock House, Boston, Massachusetts. (National Archives Identifier 135803187)

Whether his intended reader was John Bull (the personification of England), the King and his ministers, or visitors to the National Archives, the dramatic stroke of Hancock’s pen still resonates to this day despite its faded presence on the Declaration of Independence.  

Leave a Reply