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Item - BSL - Hancock 1775


***  An Extraordinary Moment in American History  ***
John Hancock as President of the Continental Congress
 orders the troops of one colony to go to the aid of another in
 An Act of Colonial Co-operative Self Defense



John Hancock (1737 -1793)

As President of the Continental Congress, Hancock knew that before there could ever be a common Declaration of Independence, the Colonies had to build a mutual sense of trust and common cause. Instrumental in this regard was the actual, physical commitment of the troops of one Colony to aid another. This is the order that directed Pennsylvanian Troops to go to the aid of Virginia in the winter of 1775.

Historical Note on John Hancock Letter

President of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1777, Hancock was the first Signer of the Declaration of Independence and apocryphally wrote his signature very large with the quip that the King wouldn't have to put on his spectacles to read it. In June 1775, at the command of the Continental Congress, George Washington assumed command of the fledgling American army which was encircling British forces in Boston. The troops which poured into his camp were initially from New England, but soon their number was swelled by men from Virginia, Maryland and other colonies. Although the primary attention of the country was on the front in Boston, neither the Congress nor the individual colonies were under any illusions that the war would be confined to New England; in the colonies recruiting was undertaken for troops to be used wherever needed. Congress was also active in recruiting and in November 1775 authorized the formation of battalions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. On November 25th 1775 the Journal of the Continental Congress states that it elected field officers for the Pennsylvania Battalion and that "John Bull, Esq. was elected Colonel." This was the senior command position of the Battalion.

Excerpted Transcription of Minutes of the
 Continental Congress from December 1775

Trouble was brewing in Virginia. The British governor, the Earl of Dunsmore, was rallying Tories. Headquartered in Norfolk, he began raiding Tidewater plantations. On November 7th 1775 he issued a proclamation declaring martial law, calling on all citizens to actively support the Crown and offering freedom to the slaves of those in rebellion who would join his cause. Virginia was in an uproar and asked Congress for help to overcome this royalist threat. On December 4th 1775 Congress acted. The Journal of the Continental Congress notes that it voted to urge Virginia to resist Dunsmore and ordered three companies of the Pennsylvania Battalion to "immediately march under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Irvine [Bull's second in command] into Northampton County in Virginia for the protection and for the defense thereof against the designs of the enemies of America.” Thus did Congress take an important step in the unification of the colonies; ordering what from our research appears to be the first northern troops to help defend the south in the Revolutionary War. With southerners ordered to New England and northerners to the south all could see that there was but one cause and they must stand or fall together.

Handwritten 1 page Letter – Signed and Dated: January 9, 1885
Text as Follows:

Transcription of Letter:



Colonel Bull                                                           Congress Chamber, December 4, 1775


I am to inform you that the Congress have this Day come into the resolution which I now Inclose you, and you will immediately determine upon the Companies, & See that they are properly equipp’d, & when ready inform me thereof, that you may Receive the further orders of Congress as to your particular route.

                                                     I am Sir, Your very hum servt

                                                                         John Hancock, Presidt.

It is probable the Companies
will Embark on board Vessells
in this River


A few days after this letter was written, Virginia troops, aided by some nearby North Carolinians, defeated Dunsmore at Great Bridge and eliminated him as a threat to the colony. Dunsmore did however burn Norfolk as he left, which act made a great impression throughout America. It is possible that news of the victory reached Philadelphia before the Pennsylvanians left and that their excursion was cancelled; they may also have arrived in Virginia. Whether or not the Pennsylvanians reached Virginia is of interest but is beside the point. What is crucial is the vision of Congress: seeing that the war was national in scope, taking action to make assistance reciprocal, and treating the separate colonies as one country. Just seven months later, the very principles manifested by this letter led the same men to declare American Independence and to pledge to each other not merely military aid, but "our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." As for Col. Bull, Congress must have had complete trust in him, as on February 13th, 1776 it entrusted him with the task of carrying money from the treasury in Philadelphia to General Washington at Cambridge, Massachusetts and advanced him $150 for personal expenses. Later during the war Bull was a commissioner at the Indian Treaty in Easton in 1777 and then became Adjutant General of Pennsylvania. He returned to command the 2nd Pennsylvania Brigade and set up defenses on the Delaware River to protect Philadelphia. He had an active career after the war and served in the Pennsylvania Assembly. Bull died in 1824 at the age of 90.

Included is a copy of  the addressed, folded sheet envelope in Hancock's hand in which this letter and the resolution were sent (also rare) providing another fine example of John Hancock's signature as the Free Frank for this letter which was sent "On Publick Service". This is one of the earliest such free franks, especially signed by Hancock as President of the Congress and signed in the Chamber itself, such congressional free franks having been authorized by the Continental Congress less than a month before on November 8, 1775.

[Copy only included]

Document Specifications: Fine Document on Batonne Laid Paper, autograph signed by "John Hancock" as President of the Continental Congress and dated "Congress Chamber December 4, 1775". Page Measures approximately 8w x 12 1/4h inches (200 x 312mm). Manuscript has been archivally backed with linen which was a standard conservation technique in the past. Four original letter folds, one affecting signature and some small corner fold separations as shown in the above image. This is a beautiful example of John Hancock's full and flourishing signature as President of the Continental Congress; as he writes and signs the letter that encloses the resolution to direct Pennsylvanian Troops to be prepared to aid in the Defense of Virginia. This is the first moment when the "Continental Congress Assembled" truly knew that "United They Must Stand" if they were to persevere in their quest for "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness".

signed "John Hancock Presidt"

Offered by Berryhill & Sturgeon, Ltd.

End of Item - BSL - Hancock 1775

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