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.
1 page Letter – Signed and Dated: January 9, 1885
Text as Follows:
Transcription of Letter:
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.
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"
by Berryhill & Sturgeon, Ltd.