Tom Jefferson may have penned the most famous words in American history, but the most famous penmanship in American history belongs to John Hancock, who was born this week (Jan. 12) in 1737 in Quincy, Massachusetts. As we all know, his 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.
The question is, why did Hancock write his signature so prominently? And the answer goes to the heart of what he and his fellow members of the Second Continental Congress faced in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 when rebellion against England under King George III was all but official. To make it official, Tom Jefferson had drafted a document that declared “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States.” Now all that remained was for Hancock and the others to approve the document and sign it. That would put the 13 colonies they represented at war against the world’s mightiest military power.
Facing that mighty power would be a loosely allied band of about 3 million people with no army or navy to speak of, few weapons, fewer 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 mercilessly seek out and capture these rebel leaders (at least those who survived the war), confiscate their property, imprison their families, and ship them back to England to be hanged for treason.
Thus did Hancock and his compatriots face a decision of monumental, even life-altering importance as they stood in Independence Hall studying the piece of parchment inscribed with Jefferson’s immortal words. For them to sign the Declaration was tantamount to 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 or not to sign.
He 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. “There,” he reportedly said, “John Bull (the British) should have no trouble reading that!” Inspired by his courage and emboldened by his audacity, over the next several weeks 55 other delegates to Congress eventually signed the document and a revolution was on.
It was truly a signature event in American history.