Tag Archives: American Revolution

Was John Hancock’s Signature Too Big?

0903declaraWhen John Hancock put his John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence he certainly wrote it large enough for all to see. In fact, Hancock’s grandiose signature is the stuff of figures of speech and insurance company jingles. But what’s the real reason behind the gigantic scrawl?

Ben Blatt, tongue firmly planted in his cheek, offers an explanation why in a recent Slate article.  It’s all about the number of men who originally signed the engrossed copy of the Declaration on July 4, 1776, instead of August 2, 1776. (Yes, this gets confusing, but the article does a good job of straightening out the whole “when was it signed” issue.)

In 1986, Wilfred Ritz, then a recently retired professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, published a paper titled “The Authentication of the Engrossed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776” in the journal Law and History Review. In it, he quotes numerous letters and journal entries written by members of the congress as evidence that some but not all members did actually sign on July 4.

So, Blatt argues, the size of the signature is about the space available.

If the historical consensus that approximately 51 men signed the Declaration on Aug. 2 is wrong, and Wilfred Ritz is right that the engrossed copy was actually first signed on July 4, and he’s right that it was signed that day by 34 men, and we accept that Hancock assumed only the 34 men present on the fourth would ever sign the document, then John Hancock’s signature was of a perfectly reasonable size. You might even congratulate him on signing at precisely the right size to accommodate all of his colleagues. Good show, John!

I guess size does matter — it certainly did to John Hancock.




Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence

Talk about the Spirit of the Founding Fathers

If it were later in the day, I’d describe the following as a palate cleanser to chase away the bad taste of contemporary politics. But, I am posting this before noon, so suffice it to say most of us don’t know that the Father of Our Country was one of the leading distillers in the United States. Washington’s business venture as a whiskey distiller was a success, too. He made up to 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey annually and sold nearly every drop. Turns out he was a savvy businessman — a nice economic contrast when we recall that fellow Virginian and founder Thomas Jefferson struggled with debt his entire adult life. However, don’t try to buy this booze on the Internet. Apparently, it is for sale only at Mount Vernon.

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February 18, 2014 · 6:02 am

Yorktown and the End of the American Revolution

Cornwallis surrenderThe United States is the only nation to defeat the British Empire in war for the purpose of securing its independence.  Six years of battle that killed or wounded more than 25,000 Americans came to an end after the combined forces of the Continental Army and the French defeated Gen. Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, leading to the British forces’ surrender on this date in 1781.

John Ferling explains the profound significance of this event in an excerpt from one his books posted at Command Posts, the military history blog.

Today, we look at the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence as reasons enough for the existence of the United States. However, the thought of the British abandoning one of the wealthiest parts of their empire simply because of the political sentiments of the American colonists is not supported by history. The British in the 18th century did not relinquish their hold on Scotland, Ireland, or India for similar reasons. It took a war not always expertly fought but but fought to win independence. No wonder George Washington commented, “You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”

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Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence

Think of Them as the Founding Twenty-Somethings

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence” (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

From Slate via a repost from the Journal of the American Revolution, Todd Andrlik asks us to consider an often overlooked fact about the Founding Generation: Many of them were younger than we think. Although there were plenty of the Fathers and Mothers who were as ancient as a certain mariner (Ben Franklin comes to mind), many of them were in their 20s, even their teens when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Andrlik compiled a list ranging from youngest to oldest of the Patriots (and a few figures from the other side) of the American Revolution. He also uses a quote from biographer David McCullough to explain why we age our founding heroes.

“We tend to see them as much older than they were,” said John Adams biographer David McCullough in a 2005 speech. “Because we’re seeing them in portraits by Gilbert Stuart and others when they were truly the Founding Fathers—when they were president or chief justice of the Supreme Court and their hair, if it hadn’t turned white, was powdered white. We see the awkward teeth. We see the elder statesmen. At the time of the revolution, they were all young. It was a young man’s–young woman’s cause.”

It was a youthful revolution, particularly when it comes to the age of the men who fought in the ranks of the Continental Army or supported the war on the home front. Sam Adams or Roger Sherman added some gravitas to the ranks of the Second Continental Congress, but many members were still in their 30s, including luminaries such as Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson.  Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox, two future members of George Washington’s administration, were still in their 20s yet in command of soldiers in the field. Yes, people lived shorter lives and maturity was something grasped during one’s teen-aged years. But, just consider this: Could you have led a revolution when you were 20 years old? The future of the United States would have been doubtful if I were alive then and had been given such an awesome responsibility at so youthful a time in my life with little experience to guide my efforts. That so many young people guided this nation into existence when no other nation like the United States had ever existed before is another reason to be amazed by the American Revolution.



Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

Pauline Maier, RIP

Some truly sad news today via History News Network. Pauline Maier, author of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998) and one of the nation’s most lauded historians of the American Revolution, died Monday of lung cancer, according to an HNN article. She was 75.

Maier was among a group of historians who turned the tide of historiography about the American Revolution by emphasizing the

Pauline Maier

Pauline Maier

unique political achievements of the independence movement and the political culture it created. She represented a younger generation of historians who rejected the New Left and Progressive schools of thought, examining how radical English libertarian thought changed American political beliefs and how wide-spread acceptance of natural rights and individual liberty distinctively altered politics, economics, and society. Maier’s thoughts on these subjects deeply influenced my own perspective as a historian, as the pages of this Web site often attest. 

Not only was I influenced by her research, which was always written in clear and interesting prose all-too-uncommon in the academic world, but her work also helped me gain as an American history teacher.  She deeply respected secondary and college educators like me who labor in the trenches day after day so students can learn about (and learn to guard) the democratic principles of this nation. I have used curriculum she created with great success while teaching the American Studies courses that I teach.  Her death is a great loss to scholarship and the intellectual marketplace of the contemporary United States. RIP.

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Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians

Why Thomas Jefferson Was the Right Man for the Job

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I recently stumbled across an article posted at Forbes.com examining the leadership qualities of Thomas Jefferson and why he was well-qualified to sum up the revolutionary principles of self-government that were the basis of the American war for independence.  I am usually not a fan of the “Leadership Skills of (Blank)” genre of articles, but this essay does a yeoman-like job of explaining the intellectual and personal qualities that shaped Jefferson’s belief in government by consent of the people. It is a good introduction to the political and intellectuals sources used by Jefferson when writing the Declaration of Independence, as well as another proof why Forbes (at least in my opinion) has some of the better writing on non-business-related topics found in any business magazine. It is well worth the time spent reading the brief but informative essay.


Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence

Time Magazine Publishes 19th-Century Photos of 18th-Century Patriots

188374_10150136440405747_803215746_6646993_415462_nThe past is not always as distant as it seems. TIME’s Lightbox section on-line recently carried 19th-century photographs of men who were aged veterans of the American Revolution. Many of their stories are also told in brief thanks to the work of Joe Bauman, a journalist who was first prompted by the American Bicentennial to laboriously track down old daguerreotypes and collate the pictures using Revolutionary War pension records. His e-book is in part the source of the photo essay presented.

Seeing the faces is a weird experience in the original meaning of the word. Here are men from a time more legendary than real in the minds of many Americans who are outside the scholarly study of history, but their images are captured by an old technology still in regular use today: photography. The matter-of-fact explanations offered by the veterans of why they joined the fight against Britain are staggering in their simplicity. At least one of the veterans hints he was afraid not to fight the British.  So, gaze on the faces that 237 years ago made it possible for the United States to become a nation rather than simply a still-born idea.

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Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence