J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The Story of Stephen Hopkins’s Signature

Today is the anniversary of the day when delegates to the Continental Congress started signing the handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence that we know so well, as the Course of Human Events blog recently described in detail.

Pauline Maier, Danielle Allen, and other scholars have pointed out how almost none of the first two or three generations of Americans saw that document or a reproduction of it. For them the Declaration existed as a printed text or as words read aloud.

After the first facsimile of the handwritten Declaration was published in 1823, that elegant image became the standard idea of the document. The signatures, especially John Hancock’s, became iconic. The signing of the document became an important moment to remember—though a lot of authors forgot that happened on 2 August and moved it to 4 July, the date on the text.

Yesterday I quoted the anecdote about Hancock signing his name published by the Adams Sentinel of Gettysburg on 2 Aug 1841. That was one of two “Revolutionary Anecdotes,” and here’s the other:
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’s no signature or source attached to this article in the Adams Sentinel. But within the story itself are signs of a provenance: from “Mr. Adams,” who was at the signing, to a writer who visited him in late 1818. Its original publication presumably contained more hints about that writer.

This story appeared under the unsourced anecdote about Hancock signing the Declaration that I discussed yesterday. Did a newspaper editor put these two anecdotes together because they came from the same source—i.e., John Adams? Or simply because they both involved Continental Congress delegates signing the Declaration with a comment about “John Bull”? I suspect the latter.

We know that Adams remembered Hopkins with respect and fondness, which offers support for this story. At the same time, Adams’s anecdotes don’t always check out. On balance, I think that evidence supports this anecdote of the signing. Now if only we could identify the original writer.

TOMORROW: Another reliable anecdote of the signing.

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