We hold this truth to be self-evident: John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence was too big. But what if the problem wasn’t that Hancock’s signature was too large—it was that everyone else’s was unnecessarily small? What if Hancock’s only looks grandiose by comparison with the self-abnegating autographs of his fellow continental congressmen?
There’s no question Hancock’s signature is the biggest, and by a wide margin. By my measurements, Hancock’s signature comes in at 1.3 inches tall and 4.7 inches wide. This makes the box needed to enclose the signature 6.1 square inches. Compare that with Sam Adams’ signature, which takes up a mere 0.6 square inches of surface area. Here’s a ranking of all the signatures, from biggest to smallest:
The measurements above are all based on a proportional digital copy of the “engrossed” copy of the Declaration. The engrossed copy is not the first published Declaration of Independence. The first published version is known as the Dunlap broadside and was signed only by John Hancock, who was the president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, its secretary. It was set in type and printed on July 4, 1776, then distributed to the colonies. After the Dunlap broadside was published, the Declaration was handwritten on a piece of parchment and confirmed by the members of the congress to be identical to the typeset original. This handwritten version is the engrossed copy. It—or an engraved copy of it made in the early 19th century, when the original started to fade—is what you are most likely used to seeing in textbooks or patriotic montages. Unlike the Dunlap broadside, the engrossed copy bears the names of 56 signers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. It’s currently on display at the National Archives.
As you can see, the engrossed copy has large pockets of empty space, including a box 6.5 inches wide and 5 inches tall in the lower left hand corner:
In trying to determine whether John Hancock’s signature was too big, there are two important questions we need to address. In what order did the men sign the document? And how many men did Hancock think would ultimately sign?
The first is easy. The consensus view among historians is that John Hancock, in his capacity as president of the congress, would have been the first to sign. For the purposes of our thought experiment, I am going to assume that Hancock was the first signer and was setting the tone for the men who would follow.
The second question is trickier. It turns out that many of the most basic facts surrounding the signing are disputed by historians. Did Hancock know that 56 men would ultimately sign the document when he put pen to paper? Or might he have assumed fewer signatories, and thus more space for signing?
We know this much: You can’t fit 56 Hancock-sized signatures onto the parchment. If all 56 men signed the declaration at that size, the document would have needed approximately 5.5 more inches of vertical space to accommodate all the names—even with crammed spacing and slim margins:
If Hancock had wanted all 56 signatories to sign at maximum size and still have everyone fit, his signature and theirs should have been closer to 3.1 square inches in size. This is about half the size of Hancock’s original, though it’s larger than most of the signatures on the document. It’s roughly in line with William Ellery’s autograph, which is the second largest on the Declaration.
But what if Hancock had anticipated fewer signatures? As it turns out, it was likely impossible for him to have known the exact number of eventual signers. The process by which the document was signed is, and was, highly confusing. Some men who were members of the Second Continental Congress in July 1776 never signed it—and some men who signed it weren’t members of the Second Continental Congress in July 1776. For instance, signer Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire was not a member of the Congress until months after July 1776. Other members of the congress at the time the Declaration was drafted, like John Dickinson, never signed. Thomas McKean was a member of the Continental Congress representing Delaware in July 1776—but some historians believe he may not have signed the document until at least 1777. How could Hancock have anticipated the results of such a pell-mell signing process?
Though we celebrate July 4 as our nation’s birthday, most historians believe that the majority of signers scrawled their name on the engrossed copy later in the summer, on Aug. 2. Could everyone who signed on Aug. 2 have fit on the Declaration at Hancock proportions? We could perhaps forgive Hancock his giant signature if he left space for big autographs from everyone in the room with him on that August day, right? It’s not his fault if a bunch of bandwagon patriots showed up weeks, months, and years later to claim a piece of posterity.
Though a tight squeeze, at least 34 signatures of Hancock size could fit on the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence:
Unfortunately for our hero, there were likely more than 34 signers present on Aug. 2. Some historians, including those at the National Archives, have estimated that 51 of the 56 eventual signatories probably signed that day. Even if that estimate is off by five or 10 men, Hancock’s signature is still looking pretty egregious.
At least one man, however, disagrees with the consensus view of the August 2 signing. 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.
And here’s the really good news for Hancock: Ritz argues that 34 members signed on July 4—exactly the number of men who could have signed at Hancock size and still all fit. Here is a GIF of the 34 men Ritz believes signed on July 4 signing in the order in which he believes they put pen to paper (essentially, north to south):
And here are all 34 of those signatures, blown up to Hancock size:
So, to recap: 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!
One minor problem: I couldn’t find a single historian who bought Ritz’s theory. I talked to professors Jack Rakove and Alexander Tsesis (both of whom have authored books relating the Declaration of Independence) as well Rebecca Martin, an interpreter at the National Archives. None of them believed in the July 4 signing of the engrossed copy. Unfortunately, Ritz died in 1995, so I was unable to ask him to defend his work. This would seem to leave Hancock’s disproportionately large signature out of place and out of excuses.
Permit me, however, one final attempt to defend the patriot with the big hand: Up until this point, we’ve been looking at what would happen if the other 55 signatories had signed as large as possible while Hancock’s name stayed the same size. What would the Declaration have looked like if everyone else’s signature stayed the same size and Hancock’s was made as large as possible? It would look like this:
Maybe Hancock was being modest after all.