When we picture the Declaration of Independence, most of us immediately think of the document handwritten on parchment and signed at the bottom by fifty-six members of the Second Continental Congress. Few individuals from the first two generations of Americans shared that view, however. The vast majority of those citizens never saw the Congress’s document, which was kept safe in the nascent national government’s archive. For them the Declaration existed as a printed text or as words read aloud. It was a piece of writing, not a piece of parchment.
The first engraved copies of the handwritten Declaration were published in 1818 and 1819, followed by a government-endorsed facsimile in 1823. Many more reproductions followed. (In fact, the process of making copies caused the original to become so faded that modern images and souvenirs are based on the 1823 reproduction rather than the original.) Eventually the elegantly signed handwritten document became Americans’ shared conception of the Declaration.
That made the signatures on the Declaration, especially John Hancock’s, icons of patriotism. The signing of the document became more important than the Congress’s actual votes to approve independence and the Declaration’s text, though the signing did not begin until August 2 and assigned that action to July 4. Those fifty-six members of the Congress were labeled the Signers, elevated in public memory above other delegates. Dramatic stories of just how they put their names on the parchment became significant to the nation.
After the Colonial Revival of the late 1800s, however, historians became more skeptical about those stories. Often authors would retell one of those anecdotes—they really are good stories—but add a note that the tale was probably just a legend. In this article I reexamine four of those stories, trying to identify how early they appeared in print and how reliable they really are. The results vary.
The first anecdote is about is Benjamin Harrison, one of several oversized Virginians at the Congress, joking with slender Elbridge Gerry about long it would take each of them to hang. The Course of Human Events blog listed this among “a number of quotations from the signing for which we have no evidence.” A recent Weekly Standard essay called the story “probably apocryphal.”
In fact, we can trace that story back to one of the men in the room where it happened. Dr. Benjamin Rush recounted that anecdote in a July 20, 1811, letter to John Adams, a fellow Signer:
Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants? The Silence & the gloom of the morning were interrupted I well recollect only for a moment by Col: Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr Gerry at the table, “I shall have a great advantage over you Mr: Gerry when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” This Speech procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the Solemnity with which the whole business was conducted.
This was a private letter between friends, written before the handwritten Declaration became an icon and thus not concocted to please the public.
Dr. James Thacher published a version of the same story in 1823 in his Military Journal, a book that combined his actual notes from the war years with later recollections and material from other sources. In an entry pegged to 1776, Thacher wrote:
I am credibly informed that the following anecdote occurred on the day of signing the declaration. Mr. Harrison, a delegate from Virginia, is a large portly man—Mr. Gerry of Massachusetts is slender and spare. A little time after the solemn transaction of signing the instrument, Mr. Harrison said smilingly to Mr. Gerry, “When the hanging scene comes to be exhibited I shall have the advantage over you on account of my size. All will be over with me in a moment, but you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.”
Thacher might well have heard the story from Rush, with whom he corresponded. Yet his wording of Harrison’s remark is obviously different from what Rush wrote down for Adams. Rush also said Harrison spoke “at the table” while Thacher said he did so “A little time after the solemn transaction of signing the instrument.” Nonetheless, this is obviously the same story being passed along.
It is notable that John Adams, who could be quite cranky about Revolutionary myth-making when he wasn’t indulging in it himself, did not object to the story from either Rush or Thacher. His reply letter to Rush took no issue with the tale even though he disliked Harrison and came to see Gerry as a political foe. In 1824 Adams told Thacher: “I have had read to me, your valuable Journal of your Campaigns in the American revolutionary war, and I have no hesitation in saying, that it is the most natural, simple, and faithful narration of facts, that I have seen in any history of that period.”
Of course it is possible that Rush’s recollection was not accurate. For example, Harrison could have come up with the witticism days later instead of at the dramatic moment of signing. The story had obvious appeal for Adams and Rush in burnishing their egos, emphasizing how the Congress delegates signed despite fear that they might be executed for doing so. Nevertheless, for a story from the Revolution not written down at the time, the agreement of two documented witnesses is about as strong as our evidence can get.
Another oft-told story first appeared in the biographical sketch of Benjamin Franklin that historian Jared Sparks published in 1840:
There is also another anecdote related of Franklin, respecting an incident which took place when the members were about to sign the Declaration. “We must be unanimous,” said Hancock; “there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.” “Yes,” replied Franklin, “we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Sparks did not cite any source for this anecdote. However, we can trace the witty line back to a book first published in 1811. Unfortunately for our picture of the signing, that book attributed the witticism to a different man who had left the country by 1776. In his memoirs, Alexander Graydon wrote:
Both the brothers, John and Richard Penn, had been governors of Pennsylvania; the former being in office at the beginning of hostilities. By yielding to the torrent, which it would have been impossible to withstand, he gave no offence, and avoided reproach; though it was deemed expedient to have him secured and removed from Philadelphia, on the approach of the royal army in the year 1777. Mr. Richard Penn, having no official motives for reserve, was even upon terms of familiarity with some of the most thorough-going whigs, such as general [Charles] Lee and others: An evidence of this was the pleasantry ascribed to him, on occasion of a member of Congress, one day observing to his compatriots, that at all events “they must hang together:” “If you do not, gentlemen,” said Mr. Penn, “I can tell you that you will be very apt to hang separately.”
The way Graydon presented the witticism as “ascribed to” former governor Richard Penn indicates that he had no direct knowledge of the conversation. Many people were probably passing around the story. It is also notable that Graydon mentioned Franklin several times in his book but did not credit him with this line.
In American culture Franklin became a magnet for witty remarks and clever ideas. Of course, he did come up with many such remarks and ideas, but he also gets credit for all the sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanac, most quoted from earlier publications; for suggestions he clearly made in jest, such as daylight saving time; and for schemes that probably duped him as much as everyone else, such as Baron de Steuben’s claims of a marvelous career in the Prussian army.
The “hang separately” line is good dark humor; American authors like Sparks wanted it to come from Franklin, and at a significant moment. In the mid-1800s the signing of the Declaration became the most important act of the Continental Congress. Furthermore, the anecdote about Harrison and Gerry suggested that the Signers did speak about hanging on August 2. Unfortunately, the evidence that Franklin responded with a witticism of his own is weak, and if he did he was most likely quoting lukewarm Loyalist Richard Penn.
Two more stories about the signing surfaced in an 1840s article headed “Revolutionary Anecdotes,” printed in many American newspapers. At the time it was common for editors to run this type of historical material, which was of public interest but did not become dated. Editors copied texts from other papers whenever they needed to fill space, occasionally with credit but usually without. Such items circulated so thoroughly that a newspaper could run the same tidbit a year or two later with no suggestion that readers might have seen it before.
The earliest newspaper I have seen offering these “Revolutionary Anecdotes” was the August 2, 1841, Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg, Adams County, Pennsylvania. However, the stories appear to have Massachusetts roots, and I suspect they had appeared earlier in a New England newspaper which further research might identify.
One of the two “Revolutionary Anecdotes” states:
When I visited Mr. [John] Adams in November, 1818, his hand trembled similar to that of Stephen Hopkins, the Quaker patriot from Rhode Island, who had been afflicted with a paralytic stroke. Mr. Adams acted as his amanuensis, and asked him if he should sign his name to the Declaration of Independence for him. “No! I will sign it myself—if we are hung for signing it, you shall not be hung for it for me.” Mr. Adams, then, in imitation of Hopkins, took his pen, clasped his wrist with his left hand, went through the tremulous motion of signing his name, and in the language of Hopkins, emphatically said, “If my hand trembles, John Bull will find my heart won’t!” which Mr. Adams said electrified all Congress, and made the most timid firm in their purpose.
There is no author name attached to this story as published in the Adams Sentinel. But within the telling itself are signs of a provenance: from John Adams, present at the signing, to a writer who visited him in late 1818. We know that Adams remembered Hopkins with respect and fondness, which offers support for this story. At the same time, Adams’s anecdotes are not always reliable.
If we could find the original publication of the story, it might offer more hints about the writer, which in turn would make it easier to assess the tale. Even as it is, however, this story comes to us with a provenance leading back to a Signer. That may not be enough to make everyone certain that it happened, but it is evidence to be reckoned with.
The other of the two “Revolutionary Anecdotes” seems much less solid. Although published in Gettysburg alongside the story about Hopkins and Adams, it did not come with the same sort of internal sourcing. Most likely, an early newspaper editor put the tales together because they were both about the signing—all the more reason to find the earliest source of each.
That anecdote is:
It will be remembered that a reward of £500 was offered for the head of John Hancock. When he signed the Declaration of Independence, he did it with a bold hand, in a conspicuous manner, and rose from his seat, pointing to it, and exclaimed, “there, John Bull can read my name without spectacles, he may double his reward, and I put him at defiance.”
In fact, there is no evidence that the British government offered a £500 reward to capture Hancock by the summer of 1776, though this article implies that most readers would already believe that. For such a reward to be effective, it would have had to be widely publicized, and no example of such an offer appears in newspapers or letters of the time.
This tale is so far the earliest version of the story of Hancock signing his name on the Declaration so large that someone “can read my name without spectacles.” In this version that figure is John Bull, the personification of England also reportedly mentioned by Hopkins. Later authors changed that imagined reader to King George III or his ministers. Likewise, the wording of Hancock’s exclamation changes slightly from one recounting to another.
All versions of this story about Hancock’s signature collapse under one crucial fact: the Continental Congress never planned to send the signed parchment to Britain. As noted above, that document remained carefully guarded in the American government’s archive. The Congress had already published its Declaration with Hancock’s name printed at the bottom and sent copies of that printed version to Britain and elsewhere. Hancock’s ornate signature was for his fellow delegates, or for history.
The anecdote about John Hancock’s signature and King George’s spectacles is therefore not reliable in the least. But, like the three other stories of the signing, two of which rest on more solid foundations, that patriotic tall tale has lasted—some authors are still repeating it today.
Some Signers added their names after August 2, 1776, the last being Thomas McKean of Delaware sometime between 1777 and 1782. See Emily Sneff, “Unsullied by Falsehood: The Signing,” Course of Human Events: Declaration Resources Project Blog, July 27, 2016, declaration.fas.harvard.edu/blog/signing, accessed June 19, 2019.
Richard Samuelson, “The Fighting Spirit of the Declaration,” Weekly Standard, July 2, 2016, www.weeklystandard.com/richard-samuelson/the-fighting-spirit-of-the-declaration, accessed June 19, 2019.
Benjamin Rush to John Adams, July 20, 1811, in Letters of Benjamin Rush, Eric Crahan, ed. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1951), 2:1090. See also Rush to Adams, July 20, 1811, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5659, accessed June 19, 2019.
Adams to Rush, July 31, 1811, in Old Family Letters, Series A, Alexander Biddle, ed. (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1892), 342-4. See Adams to Rush, July 31, 1811, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5666, accessed June 19, 2019.
Adams to Thacher, September 11, 1824, in Thacher, Military Journal, 2nd edition (Boston: Cottons & Barnard), iv. See also Adams to Thacher, September 11, 1824, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-7915, accessed June 19, 2019.
Alexander Graydon, Memoirs of a Life, Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania, within the Last Sixty Years (Harrisburg: John Wyeth, 1811), 115-6. Graydon’s name did not appear in this first edition, but it did in the 1846 edition, retitled Memoirs of His Own Time. Richard Penn (1735-1811) left Philadelphia in the summer of 1775, carrying the Continental Congress’s Olive Branch Petition to London. He settled in Britain, returning to Philadelphia only for a visit in 1808.