John Hancock

John Hancock

John Hancock
Seventh President of the United States
in Congress Assembled
November 23, 1785 to June 5, 1786

1st President of the Continental Congress of the United States of America

John Hancock was born in Quincy, Massachusetts, on January 12, 1737 and died there October 8, 1793. Hancock received a privileged childhood education and was admitted to Harvard graduating in 1754. Upon the death of his father, John Hancock was adopted by his uncle, Thomas, who employed him at the Hancock counting-house. Upon his Uncle’s death John Hancock inherited the thriving business as well as a sizable fortune which some scholars claim was amassed during the French and Indian War.

On November 1, 1765, in an effort to recoup loss revenues due to the war, the British Parliament, imposed a direct tax on the American Colonies. This tax was to be paid directly to King George III to replenish the royal treasuries coffers emptied by his father during the height of the 7 Years War. Under the British Stamp Act, all printed materials including broad­sides, newspapers, pamphlets, bills, legal documents, licenses, almanacs, dice and playing cards, were required to carry a revenue stamp. Americans who for 160 years faithfully paid taxes to their respective colonial governments were, for the first time, expected to pay this additional tax direct­ly to Great Britain.

The colonists, in opposition to King and Parliament, convened the Stamp Act Congress in New York City on October 19, 1765. They passed a resolution which made “the following declarations of our humble opinion, respecting the most essential rights and liberties Of the colonists, and of the grievances under which they labour, by reason of several late Acts of Parliament” calling on King George III to repeal the Act.. The Act was repealed on March 18, 1766 but it was replaced with the Declaratory Act. This Act asserted that the British government had absolute authority over the American colonies which further divided the two political systems.

In that same year Hancock was chosen to represent Boston in the Massachusetts House of Representatives with James Otis, Thomas Cushing, and Samuel Adams. In the House, Eliot says of Hancock, that “he blazed a Whig of the first magnitude” defying the taxes of the British Empire. The seizure of Hancock’s sloop, the “Liberty,” for an alleged evasion of the laws of trade, caused a riot in Massachusetts, with the royal commissioners of customs barely escaping with their lives.

In 1767, in another attempt to obtain revenue from the colonies, the Townshend Revenue Acts were passed by Parliament, taxing imported paper, tea, glass, lead and paints. In February of 1768, Samuel Adams and James Otis drafted and the Massachusetts Assembly adopted a circular letter to be sent to the other American Assemblies protesting these taxes. They expressed the hope that redress could be obtained through petitions to King George III. The letter called for a convention to thrash out the issue of taxation without representation and issue a unified address to the Crown. The British government, however, provoked a confrontation by ordering the Massachusetts Assembly to rescind the letter and ordered Governor Bernard to dismiss the assembly if they refused.

In protest to this and other British laws, John Hancock and other Selectman called for a state­wide “town meeting” at Faneuil Hall on September 23, 1768.. 96 towns answered Hancock’s call to address taxation and self-government grievances against the British Crown n September 28th. The circular produced by Hancock calling for the meeting read:

Image Courtesy of Seth Kaller

“YOU are already too well acquainted with the _hreatenin [sic] and very alarming Circumstances to which this Province, as well as America in general, is now reduced. Taxes equally detrimental to the Commercial interests of the Parent Country and her Colonies, are imposed upon the People, without their Consent; – Taxes designed for the Support of the Civil Government in the Colonies, in a Manner clearly unconstitu­tional, and contrary to that, in which ‘till of late, Government has been supported, by the free Gift of the People in the American Assemblies or Parliaments; as also for the Maintenance of a large Standing Army; not for the Defence [sic] of the newly acquired Territories, but for the old Colonies, and in a Time of Peace. The decent, humble and truly loyal Applications and Petitions from the Representatives of this Province for the Redress of these heavy and very _hreatening [sic] Grievances, have hitherto been ineffectual…The only Effect…has been a Mandate…to Dissolve the General Assembly, merely because the late House of Representatives refused to Rescind a Resolution of a former House, which imply’d nothing more than a Right in the American Subjects to unite in humble and dutiful Petitions to their gracious Sovereign, when they found themselves aggrieved…

“The Concern and Perplexity into which these Things have thrown the People, have been greatly aggravated, by a late Declaration of his Excellency Governor BERNARD, that one or more Regiments may soon be expected in this Province…

“Deprived of the Councils of a General Assembly in this dark and difficult Season, the loyal People of this Province, will, we are persuaded, immediately perceive the Propriety and Utility of the proposed Committee of Convention…”.

Forgotten U.S. Capitols 1774-1789  18x24 PosterSigned “John Hancock,” also signed “Joseph Jackson,” “John Ruddock,” “John Rowe,” and “Samuel Pemberton” as Selectmen of Boston.”

This particular Hancock document had a demonstrable effect, “it changed the world,” as the governor called for British reinforcements. Hancock’s convention composed a list of grievances, passed several resolutions, and adjourned. Two days later, royal transports unloaded British troops at the Long Wharf and began a military occupation of Boston that would last until March 17, 1776. It was the beginning of the end of British Colonialism in America.

In response to the affray known as the “Boston Massacre,” on March 5th, 1770 Hancock, at the funeral of the slain Bostonians, delivered an address to the mourning citizens. So radiant and fear­less was the speech in its condemnation of the conduct of the soldiery and their leaders that it greatly offended the Colonial Governor. Hancock’s speech was printed in key American newspa­pers broadening his notoriety throughout the colonies.

In 1774 Hancock was elected, with Samuel Adams, to the Provincial congress at Concord, Massachusetts, and he subsequently became its president. The commanding General ordered a military expedition to Concord in April, 1775 to capture these Hancock and Adams. This mili­tary movement resulted in the Battle of Lexington. The British’s arrival on April 18, 1775 forced Joseph Warren to call out the “Minute Men”. Upon learning of the British plans to capture Hancock and Adams, Warren dispatched Paul Revere who wrote “About 10 o’clock, Dr. Warren Sent in a great haste for me, and begged that I would immediately Set off for Lexington, where Messrs. Hancock and Adams were…”

Revere was rowed across the Charles River to Charlestown by two friends where he checked first with members of the Sons of Liberty that Warren’s call to arms Old Church signals had been seen. Revere then borrowed a horse from Deacon Larkin and began his famous ride. Revere reported on his ride north along the Mystic River, “I awakened the Captain of the minute men; and after that I alarmed almost every house till I got to Lexington. I found Messrs. Hancock and Adams at the Rev. Mr. Clark’s; I told them my errand …” . Revere then helped Adams and Hancock escape, and at 4:30am he wrote that “Mr Lowell asked me to go to the Tavern with him, to git a Trunk of papers belonging to Mr. Hancock. We went up Chamber; and while we were giting the Trunk, we saw the British very near, upon a full March.” It was at that time, while collecting the trunk that Revere recalls hearing “The shot heard ’round the world” on the Lexington Green. Revere wrote,

“When we got about 100 Yards from the meeting-House the British Troops appeared on both Sides… I saw and heard a Gun fired… Then I could distinguish two Guns, and then a Continual roar of Musquetry; Then we made off with the Trunk.”.

Hancock and Adams both escaped with their lives.

Following the April battles at Lexington and Concord, the British soldiers returned to Boston quar­tering the community. On 12 June, General Gage issued a proclamation offering pardons to all the rebels, excepting Samuel Adams and John Hancock, “whose offences,” it was declared, “are of too flagitious a nature to admit of any other consideration than that of condign punishment.”

On June 16th Colonel William Prescott was ordered onto the Charlestown Peninsula to occupy Bunker Hill to defy the British occupation of Boston. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, the colonists took possession of neighboring Breed’s Hill and constructed defense fortifications. General William Howe quickly assembled a force of 3,000 soldiers to the foot of the American position. Two uphill assaults were launched and repulsed by Colonel Prescott who reputedly cau­tioned his men “not to fire until they saw the whites of their eyes.” The assaults resulted in heavy losses for the British forcing Howe to call for 400 additional soldiers.

The British third charge caught the Americans low on powder and unable to resist the over­whelming numbers of fixed British bayonets. Prescott ordered the retreat down the north slope of Breed’s Hill. Many were shot in the back during this escape across the Neck. A key causality was Dr. Joseph Warren, who was among the last to leave his position. He was killed instantly by a mus­ket ball in the back of his head. His death provided a political vacuum that John Hancock would fill leading to a U.S. founding prominence second only to George Washington.

Mr. Hancock was a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress from 1775 until 1780, and from 1785 until 1786, serving as President of that body from May 25, 1775 until October 1777. The 2nd Continental Congress opened on May 10, 1775 with Peyton Randolph serving as President. As in 1774 Randolph was called to Virginia for a Burgesses session and forced to abandon his presiding chair. Henry Middleton declined to serve as President a second time due to ill health. Samuel Adams and his cousin John Adams champion the cause of their wealthy benefactor John Hancock who was elected President on May 25th, 1775. The Adam’s regretted their decision because Hancock aligned himself with delegates who were, at best, tepid in the cause of independence. Additionally Hancock used his office in an opulent fashion much to the disappointment of his Massachusetts Colleagues. Moreover, when Randolph returned to Congress Hancock made no overture to surrender the Presidency, despite many delegates charg­ing his election was only to serve during Randolph’s absence.

The Hancock presidency was most eventual starting with a July 6, 1775 resolution, “Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms,” that rejected independence but asserted that Americans were ready to die rather than be enslaved. In this resolution Congress openly invoked their Christian God stating:

“Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if nec­essary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable. — We gratefully acknowledge, as signal instances of the Divine favour towards us, that his Providence would not per­mit us to be called into this severe controversy, until we were grown up to our present strength, had been previously exercised in warlike operation, and possessed of the means of defending ourselves. With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost ener­gy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverence, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.”

On June 14, debate opens in Congress on the appointment of a commander-in-chief of Continental forces. John Hancock made it known to all the delegates that he wanted the high office and as President expects to be nominated. He is surprised when his fellow Massachusetts delegate, John Adams, moves to appoint George Washington suggesting he had the military experience necessary to wage war and character around which all the colonies might unite.On June 17th, 1775 the Continental Congress passed the following resolution appointing George Washington as Commander-In-Chief:

Resolved unanimously upon the question, Whereas, the delegates of all the colonies, from Nova-Scotia to Georgia, in Congress assembled, have unanimously chosen George Washington, Esq. to be General and commander in chief, of such forces as are, or shall be, raised for the maintenance and preservation of American liberty; this Congress doth now declare, that they will maintain and assist him, and adhere to him, the said George Washington, Esqr., with their lives and fortunes in the same cause.

John Adams wrote his wife this concerning the appointment:

I can now inform you that the Congress have made Choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington Esqr., to be the General of the American Army, and that he is to repair as soon as possible to the Camp before Boston.

George Washington's Commission signed by President John Hancock

George Washington’s Commission signed by President John Hancock – Image Courtesy of George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress

On July 26, 1775 John Hancock’s Continental Congress established the Colonial Post office with this resolution:

“That a postmaster General be appointed for the United Colonies, who shall hold his office at Philadelphia, and shall be allowed a salary of 1000 dollars per annum for himself, and 340 dollars per annum for a secretary and Comptroller, with power to appoint such, and so many deputies as to him may seem proper and necessary.

That a line of posts be appointed under the direction of the Postmaster general, from Falmouth in New England to Savannah in Georgia, with as many cross posts as he shall think fit.

That the allowance to the deputies in lieu of salary and all contingent expenses, shall be 20% on the sums they collect and pay into the General post office annually, when the whole is under or not exceeding 1000 Dollars, and 10% for all sums above 1000 dollars a year.

That the rates of postage shall be 20% less than those appointed by act of Parliament1. That the several deputies account quarterly with the general post office, and the postmaster general annually with the continental treasurers, when he shall pay into the receipt of the Sd Treasurers, the profits of the Post Office; and if the nec­essary expense of this establishment should exceed the produce of it, the deficiency shall be made good by the United Colonies, and paid to the postmaster general by the continental Treasure.

The Congress then proceeded to the election of a postmaster general for one year, and until another is appointed by a future Congress, when Benjamin Franklin, Esquire was unanimously chosen.”

In November of 1775 Congress established both the Continental Marines and Navy on the news of Continental Army’s Victory in Montreal. December of 1775 brought the disastrous news that Generals Richard Montgomery and Arnold’s attack on the key to Canada, Quebec City failed. General Montgomery was killed and Benedict Arnold was forced to make a hasty retreat into New York. This loss put a great strain on troops and resources while shifting the main thrust of the war back to the Colonies.

On January 16th, 1776 the Continental Congress approved the enlistment of “free negroes.” This led to the establishment of the First Rhode Island Regiment, composed of 33 free-negroes and 92 slaves. The regiment distinguished itself at the Battle of Newport and the slaves were freed at the end of the war. Also in January Thomas Paine publishes “Common Sense“, which was a con­temptuous attack on King George III’s reign over the colonies. Paine’s work united many Americans in the Revolutionary Cause by successfully arguing that the Colonists now had a moral obligation to reject monarchy.

Paine’s first edition sold out quickly and within three months, it is estimated that over 120,000 copies had been printed. Signer Benjamin Rush recalled that

“Its effects were sudden and exten­sive upon the American mind.. It was read by public men, repeated in clubs, spouted in Schools, and in one instance, delivered from the pulpit instead of a sermon by a clergyman in Connecticut..”

The work so inspired George Washington that he swept away all remaining allegiance to King George III declaring that Common Sense offered “…sound doctrine and unanswerable rea­soning.” for independence.

Paine’s provocative pamphlet was translated into French and appeared first in Quebec. John Adams wrote that “Common Sense was received in France and in all Europe with Rapture.” Common Sense was translated into German, Danish, and Russia. It was estimated that over 500,000 copies were sold during the initial years of the Revolutionary War.

John Hancock’s Congress capitalized on this ground swell of Paine Patriotism by invocating the aid of God in this moral cause for independence. This time the name of Jesus Christ was actual­ly included in the official congressional resolution passed on March 16th, 1776. This proclama­tion signed by President Hancock set May 17, 1776:

“Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer” throughout the colonies. The Continental Congress urged its fellow citizens to “confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his [God’s] righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness.”

The Colony of Massachusetts followed suit almost immediately ordering a “suitable number” of these proclamations to be printed so “that each of the religious Assemblies in this Colony, may be furnished with a Copy of the same” and added the motto “God Save This People” as a substitute for “God Save the King.”

Common Sense changed the political climate in America as the pamphlet ignited debates where the people spoke openly and often for independence. The Second Continental Congress would take to heart Paine’s suggestion:

“To conclude: However strange it may appear to some, or however unwilling they may be to think so, matters not, but many strong and striking reasons may be given, to show, that nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration for independence.”

Common Sense was expertly peppered with evocations to Almighty God and biblical quotes that theologically makes a case for Independence from Great Britain. Clearly, the Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer resolution passed by Congress in the Spring of 1776 draws strongly from the popular Judeo-Christian verbiage in Paine’s best selling pamphlet..

Specifically the 1776 Journals of Congress record the resolution as:

Mr. W[illiam] Livingston, pursuant to leave granted, brought in a resolution for appointing a fast, which & par being taken into consideration, ∥ was agreed to as follows:

In times of impending calamity and distress; when the liberties of America are immi­nently endangered by the secret machinations and open assaults of an insidious and vindictive administration, it becomes the indispensable duty of these hitherto free and happy colonies, with true penitence of heart, and the most reverent devotion, publick­ly to acknowledge the over ruling providence of God; to confess and deplore our offences against him; and to supplicate his interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and pos­terity.

The Congress, therefore, considering the warlike preparations of the British Ministry to subvert our invaluable rights and priviledges, and to reduce us by fire and sword, by the savages of the wilderness, and our own domestics, to the most abject and igno­minious bondage: Desirous, at the same time, to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God’s super intending providence, and of their duty, devoutly to rely, in all their lawful enterprizes, on his aid and direction, Do earnestly recommend, that Friday, the Seventeenth day of May next, be observed by the said colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may, with unit­ed hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness; humbly imploring his assistance to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence, prevent the further effusion of kin­dred blood. But if, continuing deaf to the voice of reason and humanity, and inflexi­bly bent, on desolation and war, they constrain us to repel their hostile invasions by open resistance, that it may please the Lord of Hosts, the God of Armies, to animate our officers and soldiers with invincible fortitude, to guard and protect them in the day of battle, and to crown the continental arms, by sea and land, with victory and suc­cess: Earnestly beseeching him to bless our civil rulers, and the representatives of the people, in their several assemblies and conventions; to preserve and strengthen their union, to inspire them with an ardent, disinterested love of their country; to give wis­dom and stability to their counsels; and direct them to the most efficacious measures for establishing the rights of America on the most honourable and permanent basis–That he would be graciously pleased to bless all his people in these colonies with health and plenty, and grant that a spirit of incorruptible patriotism, and of pure unde­filed religion, may universally prevail; and this continent be speedily restored to the blessings of peace and liberty, and enabled to transmit them inviolate to the latest posterity. And it is recommended to Christians of all denominations, to assemble for public worship, and abstain from servile labour on the said day.

Resolved, That the foregoing resolve be published.

John Hanock, President
Charles Thomson, Secretary

This proclamation was printed in full in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 20 March, 1776. There were many more 1776 events in Hancock’s Congress that are noteworthy in the march towards Independence but all are reduced to historical footnotes due to Richard Henry Lee’s June resolution and Thomas Jefferson’s pen of independence. Despite his attempts to thwart revolution, John Hancock was caught up in the “Common Sense” fervor and ended-up presiding over the Continental Congress who would vote to abolish all ties with Great Britain.

The Declaration of Independence

The most important resolution to emerge from John Hancock’s Presidency is the Declaration of Independence. My editors have recommended concision on each of these chapters but this is a virtually impossibility when it comes to 1776 and particularly to the Declaration of Independence. In the spirit of brevity here is a summary on the Declaration and its early printings.

On June 7th, 1776 Richard Henry Lee brought the following resolution before the Continental Congress of the United Colonies:

“Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and inde­pendent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

On Saturday, June 8th, Lee’s resolution was referred to a committee of the whole (the entire Continental Congress), and they spent most of that day as well as Monday, June 10th debating independence. The chief opposition for independence came mostly from Pennsylvania, New York and South Carolina. As Thomas Jefferson said, they “were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem.” Since Congress could not agree more time was needed

“to give an opportunity to the delegates from those colonies which had not yet given authority to adopt this decisive measure, to consult their constituents .. and in the meanwhile, that no time be lost, that a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration”.

Accordingly, on June 11th a Committee of Five was chosen with Thomas Jefferson of Virginia picked unanimously as its first member. Congress also chose John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee assigned Jefferson the task of produc­ing a draft Declaration, as proposed in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, for its consideration.

Jefferson’s writing of the original draft took place in seventeen days between his appointment on the committee until the report of draft to Congress on June 28th. Thomas Jefferson drew heavily on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (passed on June 12, 1776), Common Sense, state and local calls for independence, and his own work on the Virginia Constitution.

Jefferson’s original rough draft was first submitted to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams for their thoughts and changes. Jefferson wrote,

“… because they were the two members of whose judgments and amendments I wished most to have the benefit before presenting it to the Committee”.
The entire committee reviewed the Declaration after Franklin and Adams’s changes. After much discussion 26 additional changes were made from Jefferson’s original draft. The Committee presented it to Congress on Friday June 28th which ordered it to lie on the table.

According to historian John C. Fitzpatrick the Declaration’s

“…genesis roughly speaking, is the first three sections of George Mason’s immortal composition (Virginia Declaration of Rights), Thomas Jefferson’s Preamble to the Virginia Constitution, and Richard Henry Lee’s resolution…”

Congress was called to order on July 1st at 9am and serious debate consumed most of that hot and humid Monday. Late in the day it was apparent that the delegates from Pennsylvania and South Carolina were not ready to pass the Lee resolution for Independence. Additionally the two delegates from Delaware were split so debate was postponed until the following day. On July 2, 1776 both Robert Morris and John Dickinson deliberately abstained by not attending the session and the remaining Pennsylvania delegation voted for independence. South Carolina leader’s son, Arthur Middleton, chose to ignore his absent and ailing father’s Tory wishes changing the colony’s position to aye. Finally the great patriot Caesar Rodney with his face riddled with cancer rode all night through the rain and a lightening storm arriving in time to break the Delaware 1 to 1 dead­lock by casting the third vote for independence. Thus all 12 colonies voted on July 2nd and adopt­ed the resolution, introduced by Richard Henry Lee and John Adams, declaring independence from Great Britain:

“Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and inde­pendent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” .

On July 2, 1776 the Association known as United Colonies of America officially became the United States of America.

It was July 2, 1776 that John Adams thought would be celebrated by future generations of Americans writing to his wife Abigail Adams on July 3, 1776:

“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

After the resolution was passed the Continental Congress turned to the debate over the language in the Committee of Five’s formal Declaration of Independence. Time was short and Congress adjourned until Wednesday the 3rd. The debates of July 3rd and 4th altered the manuscript and with these changes the Declaration of Independence was approved. Thomas Jefferson was dis­appointed by the “depredations” made by Congress writing:

“The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censure on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in compliance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under these censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”

Draft Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Despite these July 4th changes and previous committee edits Jefferson is rightfully considered the main author of the Declaration of Independence. Late in the afternoon on July 4th, 1776 twelve of the thirteen colonies, New York was the lone holdout, reached agreement to formally proclaim themselves as free and independent nations. Richard Henry Lee’s resolution of July 2nd was the birth certificate of new nation but the July 4th Declaration of Independence was the birth announcement. This was a Proclamation that was long overdue as the fighting between the American colonists and the British forces had been going on for over a year. This masterful rhetorical document on July 4th finally memorialized what his­tory has judged to be a just, moral and most persuasive treatise on why the colonies had the right to declare their independence from Great Britain. The July 2nd vote put the world on notice of the Colonies’ independence but the proclamation’s was designed to win the hearts and minds of the American Colonists who would be asked to continue the seemingly insurmountable war against King and country. Therefore, it was essential that the Delegates not rely on the newspa­pers to disseminate its message to the people as most colonists could not afford the cost of pur­chasing a paper.. Consequently, in the evening of July 4, 1776 John Hancock’s Congress ordered:

“That the declaration be authenticated and printed That the committee appointed to prepare the declaration superintend and correct the press. That the copies of the declaration be sent to the several assemblies, conventions and committees, or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the con­tinental troops, and that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army.”

In accordance with the above order Philadelphia printer John Dunlap was given the task to print broadside copies of the agreed-upon declaration to be signed in type only by Continental Congress President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson.

Broadside Produced during the night of July 4, 1776, by printer John Dunlap - Courtesy of the National Archives

John Dunlap is thought to have printed 200 Broadsides that July 4th evening which were distrib­uted to the members of Congress on July 5th. It is a known fact that John Hancock sent a copy on July 5th, 1776 to the Committee of Safety of Pennsylvania, a copy to the Convention of New Jersey, and a copy to Colonel Haslet with instructions to have it read at the head of his battalion. In addition John Adams sent one copy, and Elbridge Gerry two copies, to friends.

The Declaration, as affirmatively voted on July 4th, was not signed on that day by the attending delegates. The New York Delegates were required by their legislature to abstain from voting or signing any instrument of independence. John Hancock in an attempt to quickly gain the unan­imous consent from all thirteen colonies sent a Dunlap broadside off to the NY Provincial Congress on Saturday July 6th. On July 9th the New York Provincial congress sitting in the Court House in White Plains adopted this resolution under the leadership of John Jay who had rushed from New York City to preside over the body:

“That reasons assigned by the Continental Congress for declaring The United Colonies Free and Independent States are cogent and conclusive, and that now we approve the same, and will at the risque of our lives and fortunes, join with the other colonies in supporting it.”

The New York Resolution was laid before the Continental Congress on July 15th so then and not before was it proper to entitle the document “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen States of America.”
Today only 25 of these Dunlap broadsides are known to exist. The original working copy of the Declaration of Independence that was signed by Hancock and Thomson on July 4, 1776 is lost. All we have left from the actual July 4th event are the printings of John Dunlap. One of these unsigned “Dunlap Broadsides”, as it is known, sold for $8.14 million in an August 2000 New York City Auction. This copy was discovered in 1989 by a man browsing in a flea market who pur­chased a painting for four dollars because he was interested in the frame. Concealed in the back­ing of the frame was an original Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence.

The other printings of the Dunlap Broadside known to exist are dispersed among private owners, American and British institutions. The following are the current know locations of the Dunlap Broadsides.

National Archives, Washington, DC Library of Congress, Washington, DC (two copies) Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA Independence National Historic Park, Philadelphia American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Princeton University, Princeton, NJ New York Historical Society New York Public Library Pierpont Morgan Library, New York Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston Harvard University, Cambridge, MA Chapin Library, Williams College, Williamstown, MA Yale University, New Haven, CT American Independence Museum, Exeter, NH Maine Historical Society, Portland Indiana University, Bloomington, IN Chicago Historical Society , City of Dallas, City Hall, Norman Lear (private collector), Public Record Office, United Kingdom (two copies)

In 1776 as the Delegates returned home with their personal copies of the Dunlap Broadside each State decided on how to disseminate the Declaration of Independence to its citizens. Some states, like Virginia, chose newspapers while others ordered official State Broadsides to be printed from the Dunlap Declaration of Independence. The official printing, for instance, ordered by Massachusetts was to be distributed to ministers of all denominations, to be read to their congregations. News of the declaration was proclaimed in every parish of Massachusetts via this state printed broadside. In the absence of other media, broadsides such as this were subsequently distributed out among the colonies and tacked to the walls of churches and other meeting places to spread news of America’s independence. These state broadsides all had the July 4th date but many adding the corrected language “Unanimous Declaration” to their headings with NY’s ascension on July 9th.

Another Philadelphia Printer, Henrich Millers, produced a German Newspaper in 1776 called the Pennsylvanisher staatsbote. On July 9, 1776 the newspaper printed a full German translation of the American Declaration of Independence and reported:

“Yesterday at noon, the Declaration of Independence, which is published on this news paper’s front page, was publicly proclaimed in English from an elevated platform in t he courtyard of the State House. Thereby the United Colonies of North America were absolved from all previously pledged allegiance to the king of Great Britain, they are and henceforth will be totally free and independent. The proclamation was read by Colonel Nixon, sheriff Dewees stood by his side and many members of the Congress, of the [Pennsylvania] Assembly, generals and other high army officers were also pres­ent. Several thousand people were in the courtyard to witness the solemn occasion. After the reading of the Declaration there were three cheers and the cry: God bless the free states of North America! To this every true friend of these colonies can only say, Amen. ”

Miller did prepare a full printing of the Declaration of Independence in a German-language broad­side on July 9th but historian Karl J..R. Arndt of Clark University claims Miller was trumped by German printers Cist and Steiner. According to Clark, Cist and Steiner produced an ordinary laid paper German Declaration of Independence broadside, without a watermark, measuring 16 inch­es by 12 3/4 inches as early as July 6th, the day after Dunlap’s printing . I had the privilege to inspect and hold this historic broadside that is now in the archives of Gettysburg College. At the bottom center of the Declaration there is an imprint appears as “Philadelphia: Gedruckt bey Steiner und Cist, in der Zweyten-strasse.”

Contrary to popular belief, two original July 5th, 1776 Dunlap printed broadsides with only Hancock and Thomson’s names were the actual documents delivered to King George III notifying him of the resolution to absolve all ties with Great Britain. King George III never received a signed copy with a John Hancock’s signature large enough for him to read without his spectacles. The other names of the signers were not made public until 1777.

In 1776, the Continental Congress had fled to Baltimore, Maryland due to mounting British vic­tories. Congress re-convened on 20 December 1776 and stayed in session until March 4th, 1777. On January 18th, 1777, after victories at Trenton and Princeton, John Hancock’s Congress ordered a true copy of the Declaration of Independence printed complete with the names of all the sign­ers. Mary Katherine Goddard, a Baltimore Postmaster, Printer and publisher, was given the origi­nal engrossed copy of the Declaration to set the type in her shop. A copy of the Goddard print­ing was ordered to be sent to each state so the people would know the names of the signers. Today, there are nine known Goddard broadsides that can be found:

Library of Congress, Connecticut State Library of the late John W. Garrett, Maryland Hall of Records, Maryland Historical Society, Massachusetts Archives, New York Public Library, Library Company of Philadelphia, Rhode Island State Archives

This list was compiled from information contained in Michael J. Walsh, “Contemporary Broadside Editions of the Declaration of Independence.” Harvard Library Bulletin 3 (1949): 41.

John Hancock

The Engrossed Declaration of Independence

After the Continental Congress learned N.Y. agreed to the declaration they ordered, on July 19, 1776, that the Declaration be

“fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of ‘The unanimous decla­ration of the thirteen United States of America,’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.”

Timothy Matlack, a Pennsylvanian who had assisted the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson prepared the official document in a large, clear hand. Matlack was also the “scribe” who wrote out George Washington’s commission as commanding general of the Continental Army which was also signed by President John Hancock. Finally on August 2, 1776 the journal of the Continental Congress record reports: “The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed.” which contradicts the popular belief that the Declaration was executed by all the delegates in attendance on July 4, 1776.

According to the — National Archives and Records Administration:

“John Hancock, the President of the Congress, was the first to sign the sheet of parch­ment measuring 24¼ by 29¾ inches. He used a bold signature centered below the text. In accordance with prevailing custom, the other delegates began to sign at the right below the text, their signatures arranged according to the geographic location of the states they represented. New Hampshire, the northernmost state, began the list, and Georgia, the southernmost, ended it. Eventually 56 delegates signed, although all were not present on August 2. Among the later signers were Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, and Matthew Thornton, who found that he had no room to sign with the other New Hampshire delegates. A few delegates who voted for adoption of the Declaration on July 4 were never to sign in spite of the July 19 order of Congress that the engrossed document “be signed by every member of Congress.”

Non-signers included John Dickinson, who clung to the idea of reconciliation with Britain, and Robert R. Livingston, one of the Committee of Five, who thought the Declaration, was premature.”

With the signatures of 56 brave delegates, this new nation born in freedom with an indivisible spirit, proclaimed on a singular piece of parchment their Unanimous Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence was safeguarded all throughout the revolutionary war traveling with the Continental Congress to maintain its safety. The National Archives lists the following locations of the Traveling Declaration since 1776:

Philadelphia: August-December 1776
Baltimore: December 1776-March 1777
Philadelphia: March-September 1777
Lancaster, PA: September 27, 1777
York, PA: September 30, 1777-June 1778
Philadelphia: July 1778-June 1783
Princeton, NJ: June-November 1783
Annapolis, MD: November 1783-October 1784
Trenton, NJ: November-December 1784
New York: 1785-1790
Philadelphia: 1790-1800
Washington, DC (three locations): 1800-1814
Leesburg, VA: August-September 1814
Washington, DC (three locations): 1814-1841
Washington, DC (Patent Office Building): 1841-1876
Philadelphia: May-November 1876
Washington, DC (State, War, and Navy Building): 1877-1921
Washington, DC (Library of Congress): 1921-1941
Fort Knox*: 1941-1944

Washington, DC (Library of Congress): 1944-1952

Washington, DC (National Archives): 1952-present *Except that the document was displayed on April 13, 1943, at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.

The original Declaration, now exhibited in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, has faded badly — largely because of poor preservation techniques during the 19th century and the wet ink transfer of 1820.

The Wet Ink Transfer of the Declaration

It is important we digress here to explain the history and process that virtually eradicated most of the ink on the one and only engrossed signed Declaration of Independence that has become our national icon.

By 1820 the condition of the only signed Declaration of Independence was rapidly deteriorating. In that year John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, commissioned William J. Stone of Washington to create exact copies of the Declaration using a “new” Wet-Ink Transfer process. Unfortunately this Wet-Ink Transfer greatly contributed to the degradation of the only engrossed and signed Declaration of Independence ever produced.

On April 24, 1903 the National Academy of Sciences reported its findings, summarizing the phys­ical history of the Declaration:

“The instrument has suffered very seriously from the very harsh treatment to which it was exposed in the early years of the Republic. Folding and rolling have creased the parchment. The wet press-copying operation to which it was exposed about 1820, for the purpose of producing a facsimile copy, removed a large portion of the ink. Subsequent exposure to the action of light for more than thirty years, while the instru­ment was placed on exhibition, has resulted in the fading of the ink, particularly in the signatures. The present method of caring for the instrument seems to be the best that can be suggested.”

The Wet-Ink Transfer Process called for the surface of the Declaration to be moistened transfer­ring some of the original ink to the surface of a clean copper plate. Three and one-half years later under the date of June 4, 1823, the National Intelligencer reported that:

“the City Gazette informs us that Mr. Wm. J. Stone, a respectable and enterprising (sic) engraver of this City has, after a labor of three years, completed a facsimile of the Original of the Declaration of Independence, now in the archives of the government, that it is executed with the greatest exactness and fidelity; and that the Department of State has become the purchaser of the plate. The facility of multiplying copies of it, now possessed by the Department of State will render furthur (sic) exposure of the original unnecessary.”

On May 26, 1824, a resolution by the Senate and House of Representatives provided:

“That two hundred copies of the Declaration, now in the Department of State, be dis­tributed in the manner following: two copies to each of the surviving Signers of the Declaration of Independence (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Carroll of Carrollton); two copies to the President of the United States (Monroe); two copies to the Vice-President of the United States (Tompkins); two copies to the late President, Mr. Madison; two copies to the Marquis de Lafayette, twenty copies for the two hous­es of Congress; twelve copies for the different departments of the Government (State, Treasury, Justice, Navy, War and Postmaster); two copies for the President’s House; two copies for the Supreme Court room, one copy to each of the Governors of the States; and one to each of the Governors of the Territories of the United States; and one copy to the Council of each Territory; and the remaining copies to the different Universities and Colleges of the United States, as the President of the United States may direct.”

Author's Copy of the Wet Ink Transfer - Declaration of IndependenceThe 201 official parchment copies struck from the Stone plate carry the identification “Engraved by W. J. Stone for the Department of State, by order” in the upper left corner followed by “of J. Q. Adams, Sec. of State July 4th 1824.” in the upper right corner. “Unofficial” copies that were struck later do not have the identification at the top of the document or are the printed on vellum. Instead the engraver identified his work by engraving “W. J. Stone SC. Washn.” near the lower left corner and burnishing out the earlier identification. Today 33 of the 201 Stone facsimiles printed in 1823 are known to exist. Additionally, two 1823 strikes on paper, are known to exist..