John Hancock’s large and stylish signature is impossible to miss on the document declaring America’s independence from the mighty British Empire.
“Do you know why he did that?” Bentley said. “John Hancock, when he signed it, he said, ‘I want my name to be big enough to where King George can read it no matter what light he’s in!’ Listen, these men were putting their lives on the line. They were special.”
Bentley bought the engraving a few years ago.
“I lucked up on it in a sale,” he said. “They printed 20 of them especially for Thomas Jefferson, who wrote it. The mate to that one is in (Jefferson’s) home of Monticello.”
The first published copy of the Declaration was made on the evening of July 4, 1776, by Philadelphian John Dunlap, and it was not until 1818 that Americans could see the text in engraved writing as opposed to print, according to Monticello.org.
A race to publish
A rivalry ensued between printers John Binns and Benjamin Owen Tyler to be the first to publish and garner Jefferson’s endorsement. Binns began taking subscriptions for his print of the Declaration in 1816. It was to be surrounded by portraits of Hancock, George Washington and Jefferson, and the seals of all 13 states, but he failed to produce the work until 1819, Monticello.org reports.
“In the meantime, Tyler took advantage of Binns’s publicity and produced a less expensive and unornamented print in April 1818, complete with facsimile signatures and a dedication to Jefferson,” according to the site.
Bentley points to the top of the document, where engraved in cursive is Tyler’s dedication: “To Thomas Jefferson, Patron of the Arts, the firm Supporter of American Independence, and the Rights of Man, this Charter of Freedom is, with the highest esteem, most Respectfully Inscribed by his much Obliged and very Humble Servant Benjamin Owen Tyler.”
Bentley said he doubts there will ever again be a time when so many brilliant minds gathered together in the defense of liberty, from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Franklin to John Adams.
“We don’t have any of those people here now,” Bentley said. “They didn’t have the schooling, the education we have today. We had men then who dared to put their lives on the line. When they signed that document right there they signed their death warrant.”
Bentley recalled President John F. Kennedy’s remarks at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, where Kennedy said, “this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Collecting historical documents
Bentley is a collector of artifacts, and has in his possession such rarities as a 7,000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh’s death mask along with one of only two molds made of the head of Abraham Lincoln when Lincoln was alive.
Bentley, 86, is the son of Oscar and Ima Bentley of Marietta. Oscar Bentley ran Shillings Hardware Store on the Marietta Square, where the current Shillings Restaurant is located.
A member of the Marietta High School Class of 1941, Bentley served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, stationed in Chicago, where he worked with sonar and radar technology.
“I want you to know, that while I was in service in Chicago, Ill., not one Japanese, not one German attacked Chicago while I was guarding it,” Bentley said with a laugh.
A graduate of Emory Law School, he served three terms in the Georgia House and one term in the Georgia Senate.
He lives just outside the city of Kennesaw with his wife, Jane Morrill McNeel.
They have 18 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.