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John Hancock and His Famous Signature

John Hancock (Illustration) American History Famous People American Revolution

John Hancock's signature, on the Declaration of Independence, is the largest of all. He wanted to be sure that King George III could read it. Today, his is about the only signature still legible on the highly faded document.

But ... is the famous story, about why Hancock used such large letters to sign his name, fact or fiction?

It's also said that Hancock remarked, on signing the Declaration: 

There! John Bull [the personification of Great Britain, equivalent to “Uncle Sam” for the U.S.] can read my name without spectacles and may now double his reward of £500 for my head. That is my defiance.

Another report is that Hancock, on signing the Declaration, said:

The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward.

How do we sort-out which of these stories, if any, are true?

If we go all the way back to examine the evidence—on who was actually present, when Hancock signed the Declaration on July 4, 1776—we learn that everyone except Hancock and Charles Thomson (the Secretary of Congress) had left for the day. So ... there’s a very good chance that all the stories about the way Hancock signed his name—and what he said about it—are just ... stories.

In fact, signing his name with large letters and a flourish was typical for Hancock (just as he signed one of the foundational documents for the U.S. Navy during June or July, 1776).

In other words ... the way he signed the Declaration of Independence was not at all unusual for him. In fact, he was already signing letters that way—coupled with an extra-emphasis underline—while he was a student at Harvard (as evidenced by this letter to his sister):

What do we reliably know about Hancock? Here are some key facts:

  • He was born on January 12, 1737;
  • After his paternal Uncle Thomas died, when John was 27, he inherited his Uncle’s Boston home (which is still in use);
  • In 1775, he was elected to serve as President of the Continental Congress;
  • He was 39 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence;
  • In 1780, at the age of 43, he was elected as Massachusetts’ first governor;
  • He died on the 8th of October, in 1793, at the age of 56.

And ... as directed by the Continental Congress ... he hired John Dunlap to print the broadside version of the Declaration which he sent to General Washington (for publicizing to the Continental Army).

In the image, at the top of this page, we see a portrait of John Hancock, painted by John Singleton Copley in 1765.  The original painting is maintained by the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5155stories and lessons created

Original Release: Feb 18, 2014

Updated Last Revision: Aug 07, 2018


Media Credits

Image online, courtesy the Museum of Fine Arts website.

 

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"John Hancock and His Famous Signature" AwesomeStories.com. Feb 18, 2014. Sep 18, 2018.
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