The Power of Penmanship: Writing the Declaration of Independence

Today’s post comes from Breanne Robertson, Education Specialist in the Museum Programs Division in Washington, DC. Visit our July 4th webpage to learn more about the Declaration of Independence and our celebration of it at the National Archives.

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? If you answered “Thomas Jefferson,” you are both right and wrong. While Jefferson authored many of the eloquent and persuasive passages in the proclamation, Timothy Matlack is the scribe whose impeccable handwriting adorns the official, signed parchment on display in the National Archives Rotunda.

Today we use cell phones and computers to type nearly all of our written work. Whether we’re dashing off a quick text message to a friend or filing the purchase agreement for a new house, we rely on electronic fonts and software features like autocorrect to ensure that our meaning comes across cleanly and legibly on the other side. Sure, we might occasionally mix things up with a playful emoji or a vibrant font color, but the result remains far less personal than a handwritten scrawl. 

Penmanship, or the skill of writing by hand, can reveal a lot about an individual’s identity, education, and even mood. This was especially true in the colonial era, when only some Americans had the opportunity to learn how to read and write. For early Americans, writing was a necessary skill for carrying out one’s professional and social duties. Since these tasks differed by social standing and gender, so too did the style of writing a person would learn. Merchants employed a thin, loopy script that was both quick and assured, whereas wealthier men projected a sense of leisure through handwriting that seemed effortless. 

Fewer women than men learned to write in the 18th century. Among the elite members of colonial American society, women who did receive penmanship instruction learned a flowing style whose light touch and varying thickness gave a pleasing appearance that could be embellished further with decorative shading. 

Standardization and formality have long been hallmarks of official documentation, such as legal or government papers. For this reason, the mastery of fine handwriting became a profession itself, and the craftsmen who expertly transcribed texts for hire were called “penman.” The mark of “good” penmanship was its artful appearance. Fine letter formation instilled trust and so carried an importance equal to what the words actually said. 

Even as letter writing became a fashionable hobby among upwardly mobile Americans, the proliferation of the printing press shrank the demand for professional scribes in the mid-18th century. Indeed, the Second Continental Congress turned to Philadelphia printer John Dunlap to publish the Declaration of Independence in the form of a broadside several weeks before commissioning an engrossed version on parchment. 

On the evening of July 4, 1776, Dunlap printed the first edition of the proclamation for entry in the Rough Journal of the Continental Congress. Additional broadsides went to the states and troops to publicly announce and explain the reasons for the delegates’ decision to break away from Great Britain. While the exact number Dunlap printed remains unknown, it is thought that he made around 200 copies. The Dunlap Broadside at the National Archives is one of only 26 copies known to survive.

Given the speed, clarity, and wide distribution of the printed broadside, why did the Second Continental Congress order an engrossed version of the Declaration of Independence be made a few weeks later, on July 19? The preparation of the document in a large, clear hand denoted that this version was the official copy, the one that would bear the delegates’ signatures. Signing the Declaration became as important as the votes cast in Congress to approve the measure. The Declaration of Independence was an act of treason against the British Crown; the document acknowledges this at the end with the words: “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” 

Matlack, who was an assistant to the Secretary of the Second Continental Congress, set to work with parchment, ink, and quill to transcribe the document using a patrician style called English round hand or Copperplate. Although the printing press began to replace handwritten documents at this time, Matlack’s handwritten document lends a sense of elegance, authority, and—most important—anonymity to the Declaration of Independence. The purpose of the document is to justify American independence and raise support for an independent United States, both within the colonies and abroad. The formality and skill of the engrossed copy strengthened the persuasiveness of the Declaration by distancing its arguments from any individual. The document not only helped protect the identities of the signers—the names were kept secret until 1777—but it also announced the official standing of the new government by giving sophisticated visual expression to its collective voice.

Timothy Matlack, ca. 1790. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Timothy Matlack, ca. 1790. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The collection of signatures began on August 2, 1776. John Hancock, the president of the Congress, was the first to sign the document. The prominent placement of his large, ornate signature has come to represent patriotism and defiance in the face of British rule. Other delegates then added their names, signing below the text in accordance with the geographic location of the state they represented. Some delegates signed days later while a few refused to sign at all. 

Image of the Stone Engraving of the Declaration of Independence (National Archives Identifier 1656604)

The 56 signers became elevated in public memory more than the other delegates to the Continental Congresses. Their commitment to freedom and the birth of a new nation endowed them with almost mythical agency in the founding of the country. For instance, as Michael J. Hancock writes his post John Hancock and His Signature, a bounty was rumored to have been levied against John Hancock for his bold signature. Meanwhile, Timothy Matlack remains a minor character in the story of American independence despite the physical trace of his hand being clearly visible in every word of the Declaration of Independence. To be sure, the very concealment of his identity speaks to the artistry of his pen.

3 thoughts on “The Power of Penmanship: Writing the Declaration of Independence

  1. I wonder, was a handwritten version sent to King George? What was actually presented to him? And was it also signed?

  2. In “Killing England”, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, pg. 110, reads “On July 8, a casually transmitted line of information from Gen. William Howe to King George changed the political landscape: “I am informed that the Continental Congress have declared the United Colonies free and independent states.” Later, in mid-August, the entire Declaration of Independence was published in the newspaper the London Chronicle. “King George and the vast majority of Parliament were outraged. There would be no reconciliation.”

    I’m ashamed to admit I’m beginning to start learning about American history after being out of school for decades and wonder how I missed most of the facts about what started the war between the throne of the British and the American colonies! It is so amazing!!

  3. Why did John Hancock’s signature stand out so much more than the others, like John Adams’s signature. You would think that would open up their eyes, because John Adams was a defender of the law and worked for the British government.

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