Some of the historical figures whose penmanship I’ve replicated over the years were true heroes—like Frederick Douglass (abolitionist, statesman, orator, and inspiration for Douglass Pen). But some also had a shady side. For instance, most of those whose hands inspired my Texas Heroes Font Set owned slaves; then again both Sam Houston (Houston Pen) and Thomas J Rusk (Texas Hero), Texas’s first two U.S. Senators, opposed secession from the Union.
Bonhomme Richard, my latest, just-released old pen font, is modeled after the fine cursive script of John Paul Jones, who happens to fall into the latter category. On the one hand, he was the hero of one of the earliest and most famous U.S. naval engagements, the Battle of Flamborough Head; on the other, Jones demonstrated something of a disagreeable nature, leading to lifelong disputes, accusations, and clashes with authority.
As a Scottish youth named John Paul, Jones went to sea, sailed the Atlantic on merchant and slave ships, and worked his way up to ship’s master—albeit with an apparent affinity for violent leadership. He spent time in jail for flogging a crew member who died as a result, and later he killed a mutinous crewman with a sword. Although he claimed self-defense in the second incident, he doubted he’d get a fair trial and fled to the American colony of Virginia, where he added the last name “Jones.”
In the Colonies, thanks to his undeniable mariner’s skills, Jones soon found himself a commander in the fledgling Continental Navy. In France in 1777, appealing for the Colonial cause, Jones met (perhaps even befriended) American Commissioner Benjamin Franklin. Two years later, he took command of the Continental frigate Bonhomme Richard, named after Franklin (from Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard, the French translation of Poor Richard’s Almanack). Although his ship was lost at Flamborough Head, Jones and crew emerged victorious over the British warship HMS Serapis, commanded by Richard Pearson. When Pearson challenged Jones to surrender, he’s said to have replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” (It’s likely to have been something more like “I may sink, but I’m damned if I strike!”)
The next year,King Louis XVI of France honored Jones with the title “Chevalier,” likely the high point of his career.
After the war, Chevalier Jones had various commands fall through or expire until 1887, when he entered the service of Catherine the Great of Russia. But there, too, he found himself mired in controversy—including an 1889 charge of having sexually assaulted a ten-year-old girl. Although very likely guilty of the deed, he managed to avoid punishment and died in Paris three years later, at age 45.
Humanity is full of good and bad characters. But just to be clear, the old pen fonts I design don’t celebrate the characters of the historical figures who wrote that way—just their writing styles. Some folks just had very cool handwriting. And the ability to write clearly and stylishly by hand seems a dying art these days.
It’s been two months since I’ve posted any musings here. (My apologies.) That horrifying fact occurred to me this morning—after several weeks of distracting, time-consuming work on a wholly different project—when I realized I’d missed National Handwriting Day, celebrated on the birthday of John Hancock, who was born 278 years ago yesterday.
I spent dozens of hours staring at a copy of the Declaration of Independence while working on my American Scribe font back in 2003, yet I have no memory of seeing the signature of a man named Button.
Not until I listened recently to a Radiolab podcast [aside: if you haven’t listened to Radiolab, you must] that featured Gwinnett did I have any recollection of his name at all.
And yet—as Radiolab explains—his is the most valuable signature of them all. That’s because he died in a duel soon after the Declaration was signed. And rich people like to collect all those signatures.
Stream-of-consciousness took me then to those fifty-six Declaration signatures, and the early American leaders who wrote each other letters in longhand—it seems just about every day. And their handwriting, which I’ve looked at from time to time.
George Washington to the Ministers of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church.
Thomas Jefferson’s, for instance, which doesn’t seem very distinctive, rather a small, utilitarian hand. In fact, I found this quote of Jefferson’s, from a letter he wrote to his grandson:
[T]ake pains at the same time to write a neat round, plain hand, and you will find it a great convenience through life to write a small & compact hand as well as a fair & legible one.
Of course Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration contrasts sharply with the famous, finely engrossed version by Timothy Matlack.
Let’s see, who else? How about James Madison? Not a Declaration signer, but an early leader and president. Well, again, nothing too fancy—his handwriting seemingly dashed out in a hell of a hurry, and not overly legible, much like Benjamin Franklin’s.
John Hancock, extract from Journals of Congress, 1776.
Hancock himself definitely rocked a stylish brand of cursive, even when he wasn’t sending a message to the King of England: bold, dark, with a confident flourish.
As for Button Gwinnett—not much of his penmanship survived the destruction of Savannah in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Still, he had a neatly stylish signature.
Stream-of-consciousness now carries me away to thoughts of our current crop of movers-and-shakers. Just how many of them write by hand at all?
A couple hundred years from now, what subtle clues will people of the future have into the personalities of our long-dead generation? Must they simply go by YouTube videos?
One thing’s sure: there’s a lot more than written communication going on as we manually string letters and words together, applying subtle pressures with a pen.