John Hancock became the President of the Continental Congress in 1775, exactly 243 years ago today. He is one of the least known, but most fascinating, of the Founding Fathers. He is best known not for being president of Congress, but for his large, flourished signature on the Declaration of Independence.
That huge signature became so well known that it became synonymous with the word “signature.” So when people sign a document they often say, “I put my John Hancock on it.”
Hancock put his life in jeopardy when he, along with the Charles Thompson, the Secretary of the Continental Congress, signed his name to the Declaration. Most Americans believe that all the signers affixed their names to the document on July 4, 1776. John Trumbull even painted a famous depiction of the event – which didn’t take place. Only the President of the Congress was required to sign, along with the Secretary to attest to his signature. The other signers didn’t actually sign it until two months later, reducing the risk to their necks.
After he signed the Declaration of Independence Hancock is reported to have said, “There! The King can read that signature without spectacles, and may now double his reward of £500 for my head. That is my defiance.” Hancock and Sam Adams were the only two Founders at that point that had arrest warrants for them and bounties for their capture. He risked being hung due to signing because the British Crown considered that treason.
Following the adoption and signing of this great document, it was set in type and printed on broadsides to be sent to the Colonial legislatures for approval, and also to be distributed to the Continental Army. Of course, they didn’t have digital printing capability then, so the signatures were not included – just the names of the two signers in typeface.
The “Official” parchment copy of the Declaration that you can view in the Rotunda in the National Archives does not look the way it was when it was originally signed by Hancock and Thompson. Congress kept the identities of the people who would eventually sign it secret to keep them from being charged with treason.
When most of the delegates signed it on August 2, 1776, it was so anti-climactic that nothing was written to memorialize the group signing. It wasn’t until 100 years after the fact that a researcher discovered that only two men signed the original Declaration on July 4, 1776, and that the rest signed the hand-lettered parchment months later.
Hancock, by his boldness in signing the document in huge letters, encouraged the colonists to be strong in their quest for freedom. But the reason he was the first signer is even more interesting than the signing itself.
You see, America did not have a President until twelve years after the Revolution. People are always shocked when I teach about this because they imagine that George Washington became President of the United States on July 4, 1776. Actually, he was too busy fighting the War of Independence to have time for politics. For our first twelve years, we had no Constitution. We were governed by the Articles of Confederation – which didn’t allow for a President of the nation.
There was a President of the Congress. At the time of the signing of the Declaration, John Hancock was the President of the Second Continental Congress. It was in that capacity that he signed the document, acting for all the members of the Congress.
Many mistakenly believe that the President of the Congress was also President of the nation. But we did not have that concept then. The governors of the thirteen original States had more power than any of the members of Congress – because they appointed the members. A State is a nation. Think the State of Israel or the State of France. The United States of America was created to be an alliance of Sovereign States, each of them a nation in its own right, with its own Constitution and its own laws.
Once Ben Franklin and his boys got together in 1787 to try to fix the deficiencies in the Articles of Confederation, they realized that it was beyond repair. The Continental Dollar had hyper-inflated, the nation had huge debt, and no one respected the central government. The delegates decided that a completely new document was needed, and they produced the US Constitution in secret behind closed doors, guarded by armed men.
Once it was done, a matron met Ben Franklin in the street, and asked him, “Well, Mr. Franklin, what have you given us?” His reply: “A republic, madam – if you can keep it.” It was ratified by the required nine States in 1788.
It was at that point that the Constitution’s provisions for a President, a Senate and House of Representatives, and a Supreme Court came into being. The President headed the Executive Branch of a federal government that was designed by the Founders to be relatively weak and hold extremely limited powers.
The Congress (the Legislative Branch) was designed to be the strongest since it was most directly responsive to the People. The President was tasked with carrying out the laws passed by Congress and was second in power since the President was an elected official. The Supreme Court (The Judicial Branch) was created to be the weakest branch. Its members are appointed, and since they have life tenure, they are the least responsive to the People.
As I mentioned, the Constitution gave the federal government few and limited powers, known as the Enumerated Powers. They intended for the States to have most of the power. The Constitution, in the Tenth Amendment, clearly states that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Notice that the States could prohibit the federal government from having or exercising powers.
It is the nature of natural, unregenerate man to do evil. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9) Most of the Founding Fathers were Christians. In fact, the State Constitutions required that elected officials had to be Christians. But as time went on, more and more unregenerate men were elected. And they turned everything the Founders established on its head.
First, the myth of the three “co-equal branches of government.” The so-called legal scholars that push this lie always make reference to the first three Articles of the Constitution. That’s a good ploy since they know few will ever check the reference. And the three Articles do describe the three branches. But there is not even a hint that they are equal in any way. There is a clue in the fact that the Legislative is established first, the Executive second, and the Judicial last.
There are also numerous writings of the Founders (particularly the Federalist Papers) in which they expand on their thinking when they wrote the Constitution. In these letters, books, and papers they clearly demonstrate and explain why the Legislative Branch must be the strongest and the Judicial Branch the weakest. But the main thing to remember is that there is not a single word or phrase in the Constitution itself that supports the lie of equality between the branches.
Second is the devastation to the Constitution and the strength of our nation brought about by the continuous weakening of the Rights of the States, and the power grabs by the Federal Government. The States, which were once sovereign governments, are now no more than political sub-divisions of the central government, in the same way that Counties are political sub-divisions of their States.
I could (and will) write an entire article on each of these subversions of our government. For now, just remember to treat what your politicians say the same way you treat what your pastor says. I always encouraged people to check what I taught in church against the Bible. If what I said wasn’t there, they were encouraged to ignore me.
Do the same with your politicians. Most of them don’t know or understand the Constitution. By the way they talk, I suspect that many of them have never even read it.
I once wrote an article titled, “The Last Democrat.” On a tour of Harry Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West, I discovered that Harry Truman kept a copy of the Constitution on his desk. Our tour guide told us that he read it every day. I had made an important historical discovery. I had discovered The Last Democrat who read the Constitution.
For decades the Democrats have repeatedly called the Constitution “old-fashioned” and insist that it is a “living document” designed to bend to the times. That is hogwash! But today there are many Republicans who are leaning in that traitorous direction.
The next time you hear one of your representatives speak about the need for the federal government to have more power over the States, or tell you that the three branches of government are co-equal, ask him to show you justification for his statements in the Constitution. If he believes those things, you will probably discover that he doesn’t have a copy. Give him or her a pocket copy of the Constitution and insist that they study it.
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Fascinating Biography of John Hancock
About those “Co-Equal” Branches of Government
The Erosion of States’ Rights
The Last Democrat