Signers of the Times: Spirit of 1776 lives on at July R&R auction

AMHERST, N.H.—It was more than just the stifling humidity that was heating things up in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. Revolution was in the air, blood had already been shed, and a single document was about to change the course of history.

Prominent among the offerings at R&R Auction Company’s July sale is a remarkable selection of more than 40 items from Signers of the Declaration of Independence, including a superb and significant example of arguably the most familiar autograph in American history: that of John Hancock.

As the first person to affix his name to the document—and, contrary to popular lore, the only Signer to do so on July 4—Hancock has earned a singular niche among his fellow patriots. While his name has been affixed to everything from insurance companies to aircraft carriers, it was his distinctive, instantly recognizable signature that practically became a logo for the birth of a nation.

Hancock’s autograph never looked bigger or better than it does on a document written in his hand and dated September 16, 1776. The document, issued to Continental Congressman John Alsop, provided safe passage between Philadelphia and New York City, a route Alsop traveled frequently in his crucial role as a supplier for the Continental Army.

While Signers of the Declaration of the Independence were one of the first specialties to emerge with the rise of autograph collecting in America more than 150 years ago, not all examples, to turn a phrase from the Declaration on its head, were created equal. In addition to examples from the rarely obtainable Button Gwinnett and Thomas Lynch, most prized among Signer-related items are those with the magic date of 1776, for which ardent collectors will gladly pay a premium. In the case of the Hancock pass, the large, clear signature, important association, splendid appearance, and all-important date combine in a potent brew that makes for an item of exceeding desirability.

The auction also features two other important items of 1776 date. One, an official appointment from brewer-cum-Signer Samuel Adams, is also notable for an annotation specifically negating the authority of King George III. The other, an order authorizing commanders of American ships “to make Captures of British Vessels and Cargoes,” is signed by Continental Congressman John Jay, who would later become the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Not a Signer but certainly no less a patriot was George Washington, represented by an astounding document that has survived as one of the earliest extant examples of his handwriting. The document, a land survey completed by the future president at the tender age of eighteen, bears two signatures—one, contemporary to the document and much different from his mature signature, the other, a later docket in his distinctive, more familiar, hand. The survey was reproduced in one of the collecting hobby’s pioneering references, Word Shadows of the Great (1930).

Other standouts among the items to be offered are exceptional letters from Stonewall Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, Theodore Roosevelt, Sigmund Freud, N. C. Wyeth, Virginia Woolf, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and others; a superb first-edition copy of The Grapes of Wrath inscribed by John Steinbeck; an original Charles Schulz drawing featuring nine Peanuts characters; and an outstanding set of Beatles signatures from the set of the film Help!

R&R Auction Company’s next auction begins on June 30 and ends on July 16. Bids are accepted online or via telephone, fax, or e-mail. For information or to consign to future auctions, visit the R&R Web site at www.rrauction.com or contact Elizebeth Otto at elizebeth@rrauction.com.

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