In the classic film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Maxwell Scott, the newspaper man, tells Senator Stoddard that he is not going to use the true story of what happened. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” John Hancock is a man of legend, but little else of the real story is known to us.
On August 2, 1776, the members of the Second Continental Congress gathered to finish what they had begun back in July. Now, each of the men was called forward, one at a time, to affix his name to the final version of the document which had already electrified the world. On what should have been a joyous day, the full weight of what was happening was hitting home.
Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, joked with Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts that when the King hung them, Harrison would die quickly because of his weight, while Gerry would dangle and dance “for hours” because he was so small. For a moment, the joke broke the unexpected gloom of the morning.
There was one man who did not sign that day. He had already signed back on July 4th. As the President of the 2nd Continental Congress, John Hancock had the honor of speaking on behalf of the new nation and had put his flourished signature on the document before any one else. When the members of Congress had seen his giant “John Hancock,” the comment had been made that the British would be able to read it without spectacles. Hancock himself was reported to have said, “There! I guess King George will be able to read that!”
John Hancock is a man like so many of our founders. He is renown for the legend, but flawed in real life. He will leave Congress under a cloud of suspicion over his financial responsibilities to Harvard University. Like so many Founders, he will attempt to lead a military campaign in the war, which will end in a disaster. Later he will be the first elected Governor in Massachusetts, but is forced to resign for “health reasons,” once again with questions about his management of things.
But in 1787 he is re-elected to the governorship of his state.
And it is then that the legend of John Hancock will live up to the legend of his signature on the Declaration of Independence…