Art Maier: John Hancock a handwriting patriot to remember

Art Maier

One distinctive signature, and threats of the time when penned, will ever connect patriotic John Hancock with handwriting.

But fuller history gives this American founder many more compliments. Another John Hancock signature helped promote an early African American poetess.

Jan. 23, a stated birthday of John Hancock, is designated National Handwriting Day by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association and other handwriting enthusiasts.

Some educators, well aware of special benefits handwriting kinetics bring to mental development, wish handwriting could be celebrated year-round.

Social workers and other family advocates may also wish to declare Jan. 23 as an American Adoption Day. John was an adopted child. And it is quite correct to say that the adoption indirectly helped make the American nation possible.

John was born, reportedly, Jan. 23, 1737, in Massachusetts, then one of the English American colonies. When young, he was, as a source said, orphaned. An uncle, who had a merchant business but no children, adopted the boy.

In his new home, John saw a strong work ethic. The growing youth took the ethic to heart, earning a college business degree at age 17. For about a year, John lived in England, establishing contacts for his uncle. Back in the American colony, he continued in his uncle’s business, eventually becoming a full partner.

The uncle died in 1764, leaving his business and money to John. All together, the inheritance made John one of the richest men in the American colonies.

John became involved in anti-British politics, primarily for commercial reasons. He felt royal English governmental policies were bringing him financial loss. More correctly, however, the government was trying to curtail John’s evasion of commerce taxes. No doubt about it – John’s business practices were not always legal at the time.

Once committed, John became an important financier of the American cause. There was a well-known patriot who wrote rousing, anti-British letters to newspapers. It was said, perhaps jokingly, that this man wrote the letters, and John paid the expenses of delivering them.

In 1775, John was elected president of a congress of delegates, representing and working for American independence. When the Declaration of Independence was ready, in 1776, John was the first to sign. A reward had been announced by the British for some leading revolutionists, including John Hancock. On writing his name, in clear, fairly large letters, on the Declaration, John Hancock reportedly said something like this: “Our British ministry should be able to read this without eye glasses; let them make their reward double.”

John’s signature on the preserved Declaration document does appear to be a good size. But it may have been normal size, for him. Quite a few large John Hancock signatures are known.

After American independence, John Hancock did other public service. He died, age 55, while governor of Massachusetts.

The private life of John mixed happiness and tragedy. John was married to a Dorothy Quincy. Two children born to them didn’t live beyond childhood.

And what about connecting with African American promotion? A book by the African American poetess Phyllis Wheatley was published in 1772. Racially judgmental critics said a black person couldn’t have done such a book.

John Hancock, with others, put their names to a document verifying Phyllis Wheatley as the author.

The handwriting style John used for his famous Declaration signature is not the ornate, loopy round form that many English speaking people then used. Calligraphers may say the Hancock hand is reminiscent of a style called Italic.

The Italic letterforms were developed in Italy, around 1500. Today, a version of Italic is sometimes taught as an alternative handwriting style, in elementary schools. The letter shapes are obviously graceful, easy to master, and, as teachers may find, have a fun aspect.

The John Hancock birthday can be a reminder of handwriting's many virtues. In recent decades, handwriting has been sadly relegated to being taught for use, but not much more. It is regrettable. Hand - lettering activity, actually, pays many educational and even basic developmental dividends.

Happily, handwriting’s cultural cousin, calligraphy, enjoys popularity, and even contributes to several non-art academic subjects. For example, the Declaration of Independence is studied in part as a document of history, and also because of interest in its physical beauty.

The writing itself became a calligraphic accomplishment.

For an admiring public, the Declaration of Independence, with the original John Hancock and other signatures, is displayed in Washington, D.C. The old writing shows some fading, but the Declaration words remain indelible.

Art Maier is a contributing editor to Pen World Magazine and a columnist for the Boonville Daily News.