Hidden Histories

Shaking Hands: An Ancient & Early American Custom

Tuesday, 9/21/10
The origin of two individuals shaking hands, as a sign of friendship, legal commitment or oath-taking, is lost in antiquity, though examples of it exist in both stone and illustration as far back as the 5th century B.C., in early Greece.

In our own nation, not many years ago, a handshake was once as binding as a verbal or written agreement, at least before the plethora of lawsuits became the norm in our society.  'A Man's Word is his Bond,' was a common phrase in early Colonial and pioneer days, and though still used in present-day vernacular, regrettably, no private or public institution, nor sane person would consider it legally binding in today's world.

Thus reams of paper with signatures signed in triplicate, along with a multitude of fees paid, are now considered the norm in any contractual agreement. The handshake has been relegated to that of a quaint custom, rather than an act of solemnity and serious dedication.

But this was not always the situation, as is revealed by an early court case, handled by the famous founder of Philadelphia and early Pennsylvania colony, the country's most famous Quaker, that of William Penn.
While William Penn was serving as both Proprietor and Governor in Colonial Pennsylvania, his Council met on May 13, 1684 to discuss a disagreement between two early Swedish inhabitants, Andrew Johnson and Hans or Hance Peterson. The court case reads simply as follows:
"There being a Difference depending between them, the Governor & Councill advised them to shake hands, and to forgive One another; and Ordered that they should Enter in Bonds for fifty pounds apiece, for their good abearance; which accordingly they did." 
It is thus normal to assume that the two men naturally agreed to the contract since they were required to both pay a bond or fee, in order to seal the bargain.

However, it is the final sentence of the case which gives added 'weight' to the validity and binding nature of this custom and incident, since it states: "It was also Ordered that the Records of the Court Concerning that Business should be burnt."

The above account IS the case. The original court record does not survive in any other form, except as recorded as above, which was later printed within the Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, Vol.1 (Harrisburg, PA: 1838): 52.

In the next century, during the Revolutionary War, a Captain Thomas B. Bowen of the Ninth Pennsylvania Regiment, was renown for his hot temper and on occasion would challenge his offender to a duel. These conflicts became quite common in 19th-century America, although the last duel in Pennsylvania resulted in the death of Tarleton Bates, on January 8, 1806 in Allegheny County at Pittsburgh.

A Captain Bower in Bowen's regiment made an unintended snide remark to the latter, while he was playing backgammon with Charles Biddle, another famous Pennsylvanian. Bower apologized, but Captain Bowen asked Biddle if he should 'challenge' the man to a duel. Biddle wisely replied:
"A man who would not fight on some occasions was not fit to live, nor was a man fit to live who was always quarreling."  Biddle had both men shake hands and thus a duel was avoided.
One wonders how peaceful our nation and world-at-large would be, if only a simple handshake could bring about peace and serve as a deterrent to conflict as it once did on many occasions. Yes, a handshake may be considered once again a quaint & old-fashioned custom in today's so-called sophisticated world. But then again, maybe it would be wise in many cases to 're-invent the wheel.'