HANCOCK, John (1737-1793), President of Congress. Autograph document signed ("John Hancock Presidt."), as President of the Continental Congress, addressed to William Bingham (1752-1804), "In Congress," Philadelphia, 1 October 1776. 1 page, small folio (13 x 7 5/8 in.), boldly addressed by Hancock on verso, recipient's docket. In fine condition.
HANCOCK CERTIFIES FRANKLIN AND MORRIS AS MEMBERS OF THE COMMITTEE OF SECRET CORRESPONDENCE
An official certification by the President of Congress, addressed to Bingham, agent of the Continental Congress at Martinique, who served as a line of direct communication with the French government. The document, written in Hanock's boldest and most emphatic hand, dates from a particularly critical and eventful period in the Revolution. Three months earlier, Congress had adopted the Declaration of Independence, but not long afterwards, Washington's armies had been routed and forced to abandon Manhattan altogether. British General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe had made it known that George III had granted them special peace-making powers. Just a few days before this document, Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge met with the Howes under flag of truce, but the parley ended with a mutual realization that reconciliation was impossible; all-out war remained the only course. The crisis of this period convinced many delegates in Congress that the new nation must obtain support and material assistance overseas. The nation which offered the best prospect for such aid was Britain's old enemy, France. Bingham, sent to Martinique by the Secret Committee in June 1776, would prove a particularly important communication link: "beginning in October 1776, considerable correspondence with him is found in the collected Revolutionary correspondence" (Burnett, ed. Letters of the Delegates to Congress, 2:96n). The five-man Committee of Secret Correspondence had been established in September 1775 to explore the possibility of foreign treaties and alliances, and constituted an embryonic State Department; in April 1777 it was renamed the Committee on Foreign Affairs. .
Here, Hancock certifies to Bingham the appointment of two eminent Pennsylvania delegates to Congress's Committee of Secret Correspondence and details their special powers, especially relative to the purchase of desperately needed arms and munitions: "I do hereby certify that Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris Esquires delegates in Congress from Pennsylvania have been duly appointed Members of the Honorable Committee of Secret Correspondence and that they are fully empowered to direct all matters in their department on behalf of the United States of America, the other Members of said Committee being now absent. I do also certify that the delivery of Arms, ammunition, Specie or other stores to them or their order on behalf of the Congress is and will be acknowledged as Valid and binding on the United States of America."
It is not apparent exactly how Franklin and Morris (who had previously served as chairman of the committee) had occasion to employ the powers here certified by Hancock. Not long afterwards Franklin was appointed special minister to France, and only a few weeks after this document was drafted, he sailed for France to aid Silas Deane in negotiations already under way in Paris. Bingham, later a successful banker, served in the Pennsylvania legislature, then in the U.S. Senate. Ultimately one of the wealthiest men in America, it was he who commissioned Gilbert Stuart in 1795 to paint a full-length portrait of Washington that Bingham later presented to Lord Lansdowne (this famous portrait was recently acquired by the National Portrait Gallery).