America’s Most Famous Signature Moment

September 27th, 2012
by George S. Crimmin


John Hancock’s signature on the Delcaration of Independence. (National Archives)

John Hancock’s signature on the Delcaration of Independence. (National Archives)

Thomas Jefferson may have written the most famous words in American history, but the most famous penmanship belongs to John Hancock.

According to historian Bruce G. Kauffmann, “Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence is so large and prominent that it is the main contributor to his lasting fame, and has even ushered him into the lexicon of American slang.” To most Americans, your signature and your “John Hancock” are one and the same.

Why did Hancock write his signature so prominently? The answer goes to the heart of what Hancock and his fellow representatives faced in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, when rebellion against Great Britain under King George III was all but official.

To make the rebellion official, Thomas Jefferson drafted a document that many historians consider to contain the most famous words in American history: “These united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.”

All that remained was for Hancock and the other members of the Second Continental Congress to approve the document by signing it. That would then put the 13 colonies they represented at war against the world’s mightiest military power of the time. Facing that mighty power would be a rag-tag band of about 3 million people with no regular army or navy to speak of, few weapons, very few fortifications, no access to financial resources and no allies. In short, their cause looked hopeless, and should it fail, the British could be expected to seek out and capture those rebel leaders, confiscate their property, imprison them and their families and ship them all back to England to be hanged for treason.

Hancock and his compatriots faced a decision of monumental, even life-altering importance as they stood in Independence Hall studying the document inscribed with Jefferson’s now immortal words. For them to sign the declaration was literally the equivalent of signing their own death warrant in the highly likely event that the revolution was crushed. This was especially true of Hancock, who, as president of the Second Continental Congress, would be the first to decide whether to sign.

The first time I read the account of this event I literally got goosebumps. In Kauffmann’s words, “Hancock never hesitated. With a steady hand and a flourish that has made him world famous, John Hancock dipped his quill in ink and literally as well as figuratively put his ‘John Hancock’ on the declaration in large, bold letters.”

After signing his name, Hancock reportedly said: “There, John Bull (the British) should have no trouble reading that!”

I John Hancock’s famous signature was an unmistakable message to the British. Inspired by Hancock’s courage and emboldened by his audacity, over the next several weeks, 55 other delegates signed the document, and a revolution was on. It truly was a signature event in American history.

Today, the Bay Islands are at a crossroads. Perhaps fate has dealt us an unfair hand, but it is the only one we have, and we must play it. We could use a John Hancock. As never before, it is in our collective best interest to secure autonomy for our Islands and take responsibility for our own destiny.

I have said it before, and it bears repeating: choice, not chance, determines destiny. Allow me to paraphrase Jefferson: these Bay Islands, a former colony of Great Britain, are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. Anyone willing to put their John Hancock on that document? Anyone at all? [/private]

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