- - Monday, July 3, 2017

Have you ever looked at the signatures of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence?

Yes, it’s difficult to get past John Hancock’s. He is supposed to have signed extra large so that “fat George in London could read it without his spectacles.” Then again, it may have been just another example of Hancock’s outsized ego at work.

But if you look at the other signatures that follow, you are likely to be struck by the fact that nearly all of them — while not on the same grandiose scale as Hancock’s — are written in clear, bold, distinctive hands — with many of them incorporating elaborate flourishes and underlinings.

Our Founding Fathers were men of strong character; it shows in their autographs. And as historian David McCullough reminds us, they were exceedingly brave men.

Merely to travel to Philadelphia in 1774 to sit in the Continental Congress required a certain amount of courage. The delegates knew that only a year before, more than 300 people in the city had died in an outbreak of smallpox.

And, of course, they faced even greater perils. Americans were by no means united on the question of independence even by 1776. Had the pollsters been around then, they would probably have found one-third of respondents strongly in favor, one-third strongly opposed and the rest undecided.

More to the point, as Mr. McCullough tells us, the same week that the Continental Congress voted for independence, the British landed 32,000 troops on Staten Island. That was more than the entire population of Philadelphia, which was then our largest city.

So when our Founding Fathers penned their names to the Declaration, each knew that he was signing what could prove to be his own death warrant. And yet they pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” with a resolve that can be read in their signatures.

All except one.

If you look under the signature of Elbridge Gerry, you can just barely make out the shaky, spidery, almost tentative hand of Stephen Hopkins, a delegate from Rhode Island. Why did Hopkins seem to falter?

Was he perhaps advanced in years? He was 69. But Ben Franklin was a year older, and his signature was as robust as the others.

Was he assailed by doubts at the last moment? No. He had been for independence from the day he arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 — and passionately so. He had no illusions as to how the differences between America and the Mother Country would be resolved. Make no mistake about it, he told his fellow delegates, “Powder and ball will decide this question. The gun and bayonet alone will finish the contest in which we are engaged, and any of you who cannot bring your minds to this mode of adjusting this question had better retire in time.”

So clearly, Hopkins was a fire-breathing American patriot. The reason for his spindly autograph was that for years he had suffered from something that doctors of the time called the “shaking palsy” — what we know today as Parkinson’s disease. His right hand trembled uncontrollably, so much so that he had to rely on a clerk to do his writing for him.

But when it came to signing the Declaration, Hopkins would let no one but himself affix his signature. Using his good left hand to steady his shaky right, he signed the document. It cost him considerable effort, but when he finished he said, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.”

Hopkins lived to see America win its independence. He died on July 13, 1785, and is buried in the North Burying Ground in Providence, R.I. His tomb bears this epitaph:

“Here lies a man in fateful hour,

Who boldly stemmed tyrannic pow’r,

And held his hand in the decree

which bade America be free.”

Happy Fourth of July.

• Thomas C. Stewart is a retired New York investment banker and a former U.S. Naval attack commander.

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