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Week of 19 November 1999

Vol. III, No. 15

Feature Article

Hancock's pen more memorable than his sword

By Eric McHenry

John Hancock is best-known for his John Hancock -- the oversized signature he contributed to the Declaration of Independence. Its long, elegant penstrokes have come to represent the courage and defiance of the upstart republic.

But Hancock signed most documents that way, including personal letters to his wife, Dolly. One such letter, dated August 18, 1778, is currently on display in the Richards-Theodore Roosevelt Room of Mugar Memorial Library. Hancock used a fairly free cursive that matched the letter's familiar tone, but signed off with an unmistakable flourish.

"The letter . . . is signed 'remaining yours forever, John Hancock,'" says Alex Rankin, archival coordinator for the Department of Special Collections. "Though the signature is a bit more messy than on his official documents, it is still surprising that he would sign a letter to a loved one using his full Christian name."

"Just as I was sitting down to Dinner this Day," Hancock wrote from Rhode Island, where he was leading a siege on a British military outpost in Newport, "I had the most sensible pleasure in receiving and reading your most agreeable Letter of the 16th. indeed [sic] My sweet Girl you have Reviv'd my spirits . . ."

"I am greatly Rejoyc'd to hear that our Dear little John is upon the recovery," he wrote of his son, John George Washington Hancock, who was then only three months old. "God grant he may be spar'd to us."

Hancock and his detachment of Massachusetts militia lost the battle at Newport, though it wasn't a decisive setback to the Revolutionary cause. His infant son, conversely, defeated his illness, but tragically died at the age of nine from a head injury he suffered while ice skating.

Famously flamboyant and vain, Hancock took great pride in his penmanship. As a schoolboy, he had been indifferent to many subjects, but auspiciously interested in calligraphy. Historian William M. Fowler, Jr., in his biography The Baron of Beacon Hill (Houghton Mifflin, 1980), calls the "handsome signature" Hancock's "hallmark since the days at Abiah Holbrook's," referring to a writing school where Hancock had been a star student of penmanship.

The letter to Dolly is one of more than 20 Hancock items held by Special Collections, and one of two pieces of Hancock correspondence on exhibit in the Richards- Roosevelt Room. The other, addressed to Governor Samuel Huntington of Connecticut from Governor John Hancock of Massachusetts, concerns pardons for participants in Shays' Rebellion. Dated August 18, 1788, and drafted by a secretary, the letter is without question signed by Hancock. He reported to Huntington that "the general court of this commonwealth have thought it expedient" to grant amnesty to Daniel Shays and other leaders of the antitax insurrection, which had involved clashes between armed mobs and state militia.

Through the years, Hancock's famous signature has tended to obscure, and at times define, Hancock himself. But in the early days of the republic, the man was prominent in more meaningful ways. A senior major general and New England's wealthiest merchant, he was the first elected governor of Massachusetts, serving nine year-long terms between 1780 and his death in 1793. He also presided over the 1788 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Many historians credit passage of the Constitution, an embattled document, to Hancock's eloquence in support of it. As his letter to Dolly suggests, he was also a devoted father. Fowler writes that the day of young John's funeral was "the saddest day of Hancock's life."

The Hancock correspondence shares a showcase with handwritten letters from Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine and an original manuscript by John Jay. These documents are illuminated by filtered fluorescent tubes with the lowest available UV rating, Rankin says. When not on display, they lie in acid-free boxes in temperature-controlled vaults. Patrons permitted to examine them must wear lint-free gloves.

They weren't always treated so well. Visitors to the Richards- Roosevelt Room might be surprised to notice, in faint pencil over the Huntington letter's salutation, the words "Shay's [sic] Rebellion."

"For many, many years," Rankin says, "there was no such science as archival preservation. Most of the documents preserved today were sold, shown, and held repeatedly for over a century without much regard to keeping [them] as perfect as possible. . . . The writing in pencil on the letter was probably from a dealer."

"Case Studies" is an occasional feature highlighting items of interest from the University's collections and archives.