John Hancock’s signature


Hancock’s signature in the Declaration of Independence

Hancock’s historic autograph on the Declaration of Independence is so well known that it is often used as a noun synonymous to “signature”. What can it tell us about the owner? Among other things it reveals his status in society of that time. In the eighteenth century much importance was given to elegant scripts and sophisticated handwriting. It was said that “a good hand was the sign of a good man”. Not surprisingly the National Handwriting Day is celebrated on January 23rd which is also John Hancock’s birthday.

Symbolically the most famous signature in American history is linked with the Declaration of Independence, the most cherished symbol of liberty. But why did John Hancock sign his name proportionally larger than the rest of the delegates?

John Hancock’s signature in the Declaration of Independence. Click image to enlarge

The popular legend states that he signed his name bigger than everyone else’s so that the “fat old King could read it without his spectacles”. The fact is that as the president of the Continental Congress he was the first person to sign the document and because he was the leader of Congress his signature was centered below the text. According to the National Archives it was customary that other delegates began to sign at the right below the text in geographical order according to the states they represent. The northernmost state, New Hampshire began and ended with Georgia, the southernmost.

Another myth reinforced by the Trumbull’s painting of the Declaration of Independence which is now located in the United States Capitol rotunda  is that the declaration was signed by all delegates on July 4, 1776. The fact is that signing started August 2 and was not completed until late November. Perhaps the delay was due to the fact that putting their names on the document the delegates essentially signed their death warrants. There was no greater treason than declaring independence from the King. The fact that this did not deter Hancock from putting the biggest signature on the document testifies to his bravery and his unshaken belief that the independence will prevail.

Modern techniques applied to analysis of John Hancock’s handwriting can reveal few more interesting details. The ornate elements at the end and especially underneath the name indicate the desire to draw attention to himself and to make a big impression. This would be consistent with what we know about Hancock’s personality. Even his best friend John Adams was known to be critical of Hancock conspicuous lifestyle.  Looking carefully at the signature one may notice another interesting point – the handwriting baseline is not horizontal, instead the letters tend to rise toward end of the line. This pattern is also evident in other samples of Hancock’s handwriting. This may suggest a flair for the dramatics as if the person is trying to raise his intonation in theatrical manner. Regardless of whether you believe these suppositions or not “John Hancock” remains one of the most recognized autographs in the word.

John Hancock's handwriting

John Hancock’s handwriting

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