Do you know who penned the final copy of the Declaration of Independence? How about the Constitution? How did people write before computers, or even typewriters? Here are some famous handwritten documents from history.
This document was the first of its kind to establish the rule of law above the rule of the crown. King John of England (Richard the Lionheart's younger brother) had committed several abuses during his rule, until a large-scale revolt by the noblemen of the county forced King John to agree to the demands of his barons for a guarantee of certain rights. The King authorized handwritten copies of Magna Carta be prepared on parchment, affixed with his seal, and publicly read throughout the realm. With the Magna Carta, he bound himself and his "heirs, for ever" to grant "to all freemen of our kingdom" the rights and liberties described in the charter. King John and all England's future sovereigns and magistrates were forever bound within the rule of law. This greatly impacted English common law, and eventually inspired the Constitution of the United States of America.
It is generally believed that King John could not write, nor could most noblemen at the time. The copies of the Magna Carta were instead written by professional scribes, sealed with the King's official seal, and then distributed throughout the kingdom. Learn more about the Magna Carta.
The American colonists were fighting to preserve the rights and freedoms that were the tradition of English common law, thanks to the Magna Carta. When they realized they needed to break free of England altogether, Thomas Jefferson was appointed to compose the Declaration of Independence. After a few rough drafts, he had a final version ready, and Timothy Matlack, an accomplished penman who was assisting the Secretary of the Continental Congress, engrossed the final copy (to engross means to write an official copy in a large, clear hand). The Declaration of Independence, although voted for approval on July 4, was actually signed on August 2, 1776.
When the new United States of America realized that the Articles of Confederation were not adequate for running the nation, a Constitutional Convention convened in the summer of 1787 to draft a new Constitution. When a final version was ready, the task fell to Jacob Shallus, a clerk with the Pennsylvania General Assembly, to write, over the weekend, the final copy of the Constitution for the members of the Convention to approve on September 17, 1787.
The Library of Congress has about 65,000 papers written by George Washington: letters, diaries, journals, military records and reports, financial records and more. His writings paint a vivid picture of colonial life, from day to day living, to the military duties of an officer, to the business of running a new nation. His handwriting reflects the same style used by penmen, except more casual. The tall or long "s" character was still widely in use at the time. You can find his papers at the Library of Congress.
John and Abigail Adams exchanged hundreds of letters to each other, from their early courtship, through John's Vice Presidency and Presidency. The letters show not only the concerns of John's daily life as a farmer and attorney, but also the heavier burdens of being a diplomat and President. They also contain insight into his beliefs about religion, politics, and social issues.
John Adams suffered from a hand tremor his whole adult life. It became progressively worse with age. His letters show better penmanship than his journal entries, which contain hurried scrawls of each day's events. Abigal Adams' handwriting is also casual in style, as girls typically did not receive much formal education compared to boys, and often were taught at home. You can see the letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Jane Austen is famous not only for her novels, but also for her correspondence with family and friends (most of which is lost), and her musings on various topics, including her entertaining treatise on the history of England. She wrote out all her novels by hand. Her handwriting also reflects the more casual form used by women, who were usually taught to write by family members. You can view the original writing of her "History of England" at the British Library.
Leonardo DaVinci was an artist and visionary of science. He wrote extensive notes illustrating his ideas of mechanical devices, and many of his notes still survive -- but they are very hard to read. Da Vinci actually wrote most of his notes backwards! There are some theories on this: it may have been easier for him to write backwards since he was left-handed (so he wouldn't smear the ink as he wrote); it kept many others from reading his notes (in case someone would steal his ideas). You can view pages of his notebook at the British Library.
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