National Notary Public Day – November 7th and the History of the Notary Public

National Notary Public Day

November 7th is National Notary Public Day and was first established in 1975 as a day to “recognize notaries for their public service and their contributions to national and international commerce.”

The date of November 7 was chosen in recognition of the day that America’s first notary, Thomas Fugill, was appointed.  Fugill’s appointment by the Colony of New Haven occurred on October 25, 1639 (Julian calendar), November 7 on the Gregorian calendar now in use.

History of the Notary Public

[Source: National Notary Association  ( and the
Informed Notaries of Maine (]

The practice of the notary public dates back to ancient Roman times when few people were taught to read and write. A notarius was appointed as a public official to create written documents of agreement or wills and hold them for safekeeping.

Wax seals with individualized engravings or symbols were used as signatures at the end of the written agreements. In later centuries, ribbons were woven into multiple page documents to tie the pages together. Seals were placed over the knots to ensure no pages were added or removed. This was the birth of the notary seal and certificate.

In colonial America, persons of high moral character were appointed as public notaries to certify and keep safe documents of shipping and bills of lading for transatlantic shipping.

Around the globe today, there are three major, distinctly different notarial systems, each associated with a different kind of Notary: the Civil Law Notary system of the Latin nations, the Common Law Notary system of the English-speaking nations, and the Notary system of the United States, which is derived from the English Common Law system but quite different. The following selective historical accounts provide illuminating background information on the evolution of the three modern systems of notarization.

Ancient Egypt: Old Kingdom: 2750-2250 B.C.

ancient egyptian scribesAncient Egyptian “sesh,” or “scribes,” were established in the Old Kingdom and were the earliest known chroniclers of official communications in recorded history. The tools of their craft were pigments, water pots and writing implements, which they often carried over their shoulders. Scribes made up an entire level of ancient bureaucracy and were the only citizens who were aware of almost every noteworthy event in the empire. Personal letters, diplomatic communications, wills and other legal documents, official proclamations, tax records, administrative, economic, and religious documents, and other documents all went through their hands. The closing phrase of their ancient letters, “May you be well when you hear this,” implies that the scribes not only wrote but also read communications between two people. The recording of events was so highly valued that Pharaoh Tutankhamen even included writing equipment among the necessities he had with him for the afterlife. Today, there are preserved copies of the efforts of some scribal apprentices whose works have been corrected in red by their masters.

 Roman Empire, Corpus Juris Civilis of Emperor Justinian: A.D. 535

Corpus JurisThe true ancestors of Notaries were born in the Roman Empire. Many regard history’s first Notary to be a Roman slave named Tiro, who developed a shorthand system which he called notae for taking down the speeches of famed orator Cicero. Other witnessing stenographers came to be known asnotarii and scribae. torian notesTheir historical development was shaped by Roman Private Law which, in AD 535, culminated in the Corpus Juris Civilis of Emperor Justinian. Part of his new law was novella 44, the first Notaries Act. Six hundred years later, the glossarists of the law school of Bologna rediscovered the “novels” of Justinian, and adapted them for the use of a new class of medieval legal officers: the international Notaries. As literacy was not widespread, the Notary, or “Notarius” as they were called, served to prepare contracts, wills, and other important documents for a fee. As the Roman Empire grew and literacy increased, demand for the Notary also increased. Soon, Notaries were being used in the empire provinces of what are now England, France, and Spain.

 Order of the Knights Templar: 1099-1307

Clergy of the Order of Knights TemplarThe Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, more commonly known as the Knights Templar, were a monastic military order formed at the end of the First Crusade with the mandate of protecting Christian pilgrims on route to the Holy Land. From humble beginnings of poverty when the order relied on alms from the traveling pilgrims, the Order would go on to have the backing of the Holy See and the collective European monarchies. Within two centuries they had become powerful enough to defy all but the Papal throne, and created the modern system of banking, mortgages and loans. The Clergy of the Order were highly educated and became the critically important Notaries for all Templar business, official documents, orders and proclamations. The Templars had grown rich and powerful, and amid unsubstantiated rumors of heretical practices, King Philip the Fair of France saw an opportunity to fill his own coffers at their expense. He had all the Templars in France arrested and pressured Pope Clement V to suppress the order. Clement V ordered one of the Order’s Notaries to record the coerced confessions of scores of Order members. On Friday, October 13th, 1307, King Philip had all the Templars arrested on the grounds of heresy, since this was the only charge that would allow the seizing of their money and assets. With the forced notarized confessions used as key evidence, many Templars were tortured, banished or burned at the stake. Ever since then, the superstitious have considered Friday the 13th a day of bad luck.

 Notaries Public in England: 13th and 14th Centuries

notary england 13 14 centuriesNotaries were not introduced into England until later in the 13th and 14th centuries as English common law developed free from most of the influences of Roman law. Notaries were often appointed by the Papal Legate or the Archbishop of Canterbury, and in those early days many were members of the clergy. Over the course of time members of the clergy ceased to involve themselves in secular business, thus the laymen in towns and trading centers began to assume the official character and functions of a modern Notary.

Then in 1533 the enactment of the Ecclesiastical Licenses Act — also known as the “Peters Pence and Dispensations Act” — terminated the power of the Pope to appoint Notaries and vested that power in the King. Traditionally, Notaries recorded matters of judicial importance as well as private transactions or events where an officially authenticated record or a document drawn up with professional skill or knowledge was required. In the Middle Ages, Notaries were sometimes asked to witness the consummation of marriages involving royalty. The other emphasis on notarial acts was the importance of the Deed. In Roman law countries only Court judgments carried any special force, but, as Notaries ceased to be dependent on judicial authorities more and more force was given to their Authentic Acts, as they are called. It was Louis XIV of France who abolished the last vestiges of the ancient dependence on judicial authority and granted to each Notary a seal with the Royal Arms. The modern Notary must still employ his seal, but that is now for him to design personally and to guard carefully.

 Notaries and the Conquests of Columbus: 15th Century

15th century notaryNotaries accompanied Columbus on all of his voyages to ensure to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that all discovered treasures were accounted for. Thus, Notaries during this time enjoyed a special relationship to the truth. They witnessed noteworthy acts, from the spectacular — like when Columbus first beheld the New World in 1492 by landing on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas — to the humble and mundane: the promise of a dowry, an apprenticeship, or a loan. It then fell to Notaries to shape the messy specifics of each event into the proper form to be committed truthfully to the page. Not just any written language would do. Manuals with specific itineraries of meaning were used in Europe and the colonial Americas to guide these men in regularizing the endless diversity of people’s actions and language into the approved formula. Notaries were thus truth’s alchemists, mixing the singular into the formulaic in accordance with prescribed recipes to produce the written, duly witnessed, and certified truth. The marks of this stylized, notarial truth are everywhere in the archives of Europe and the Americas, in documents that aggressively demand the reader’s belief in the Notary’s word. Even the most routine transactions are full of formulaic professions of the Notary’s faithfulness and appeal to the notion that he was there — present at the scene, a trustworthy eyewitness — properly equipped to register what mattered. From this dedication to truth was born the modern notarial certificate.

 Notaries in Early America: 1600-1800

In Colonial America, only persons of high moral character were appointed as public Notaries to certify and keep documents safe. Their fundamental contributions to colonial life and the founding and development of the United States are largely seen as the reason American business became a huge success. For example in colonial times, Notaries were invaluable to trans-Atlantic commerce, as parties on both sides depended on them to be honest third parties in reporting damage or loss to a ship’s cargo. While Notaries were held in very high regard during this time, life for Notaries in early America was anything but easy. A Notary’s work supported government, commerce and private life, all of which were filled with conflict between the colonies of the New World and the empires of the Netherlands, England, Spain and France. Adriaen Janse van IlpendamMany Notaries were faced with huge challenges of authority and relevance during the era of rapid political and cultural change. Some were even killed for their involvement in authenticating official documents and recordkeeping as conflicting factions fought for control of the New World. Others saw their fortunes and celebrity either increase, or decline depending on the ever-changing power structure. The most intriguing story of a Notary’s early struggle lies in the life of Adriaen Janse van Ilpendam, a Dutch immigrant to “New Amsterdam,” whose career as a Notary led him to an uncertain existence after the English took over, renamed the region “New York,” and replaced English with Dutch as the region’s official language. As a result, van Ilpendam took his own life in 1686, as his place in society had all but evaporated. Despite the early struggles of Notaries, their certificates and seal of office remained prima facie evidence that an official act occurred and was authentic. 

John Coolidge and President Calvin Coolidge: 1872-1933

John  CoolidgeJohn Coolidge was born in 1845 and was 78 years old when he came to fame as a Notary Public in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. He had owned the village store, was a town leader in Plymouth, was a member of the state legislature and had been a state senator. His family had been among the original settlers of the town after the Revolutionary War. His son was Calvin Coolidge, born in 1872. calvin coolidgeAfter attending the town’s one room schoolhouse, the younger Coolidge went on to the local academy where he was encouraged to go to college, the first one in his family to attend. He became involved in the Republican Party and was elected Vice President under Warren G. Harding in 1921. When Harding died in 1923, Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States by his father – the only president to ever be sworn in by a Notary. Coolidge is a very important President with respect to Notaries. The public trust that Coolidge earned is reflected by his having held 10 elected positions – a number far greater than that of any other President in our history. His lesson for Notaries was that, unlike other Presidents, he consistently demonstrated the courage to say “no” when warranted. This is something that Notaries, as public officials, are also expected to do. An important basis for his high ideals and ethical integrity came from his commitment to the founding principles of our country, including the defense of property and personal rights. In fact, Coolidge and Abraham Lincoln were the only two presidents to have been experts on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

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Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) and Notaries Public

Notaries are “ministerial” officials which means their duties are limited to the specific procedures established by their state law and they cannot exercise any individual judgment or discretion.
A “judicial” official, by contrast, is given broad discretionary authority by comparison.

It is considered Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) for a Notary to offer legal advice or draft documents for another person, unless they are also an attorney or a trained and credentialed expert in a relevent field.
A Notary may not even choose for the signer the type of notarial act to perform if the document does not contain notarial verbiage.  The Notary must explain the difference between an Acknowledgment and a Jurat and allow the signer to select which notarial act they want or have them contact the originator of the document for guidance.  If the signer has a question about a document, they must be referred to an attorney or the documents issuing or receiving agency for an answer.

Acts that Constitute the Practice of Law

  • Preparation, drafting or selection or determination of any legal document
  • Giving advice in relation to any legal document or matter

If a Notary is asked to perform such tasks, they should decline and refer the requester to an attorney.  To do otherwise is considered Unauthorized Practice of Law (UPL) and grounds for civil and criminal penalties.

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California Notary Law Update – Senate Bill 1050

Effective January 1, 2015, the forms and wording of the California Acknowledgment, Jurat and Proof of Execution certificates are changing to include the following consumer disclosure:

“A notary public or other officer completing this certificate verifies only the identity of the individual who signed the document to which this certificate is attached, and not the truthfulness, accuracy, or validity of that document.”

While this may seem an unnecessary adjunct to the notarial certificates, which after all already include prescribed notarial verbiage that state the limits clearly, the intent of SB 1050 is to reduce fraud by including a clear consumer notification statement as to the limited effect of a notary’s seal and signature.

2015 CA Acknowledgment
2015 CA Jurat

law_scaleCalifornia does love its consumer disclosures! Just how many states feel it’s necessary to advise the consumer that drinking gasoline can be harmful and put a sticker on the pump to warn them?

But seriously, in this case I can see the value of such a disclosure.
As a California notary, I am frequently approached by customers with out-of-state or foreign documents that request the notary public do something that would be in violation of CA notary law.
The laws that govern notaries vary from state to state.  The document originators usually prepare the document to be compliant with their own states notary law.  When the document is signed in another state, the notarial act must follow the states laws where the signing takes place.  The customer is often frustrated and doesn’t understand why we can’t “just stamp it.”

By law, a document notarized in California must contain prescribed notarial verbiage.  If it doesn’t, and many out of state / foreign documents either lack the verbiage or their states verbiage is deficient by CA standards, it must be corrected by either attaching a loose certificate or by stamping the verbiage on the document to make it compliant.

The exception to this rule is if the document requires an acknowledgment and will be recorded in another state.

Per the California Secretary of State:
“A notary public may complete a certificate of acknowledgment required in another state or jurisdiction of the United States on documents to be filed in that other state or jurisdiction, provided the form does not require the notary public to determine or certify that the signer holds a particular representative capacity or to make other determinations and certifications not allowed by California law.”

In California, we cannot certify copies of documents with the exception of Power of Attorney documents and our own notarial journal entries.  I am frequently asked to “notarize” or certify photocopies of identification documents; driver licenses, foreign passports, Permanent Resident Cards, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration forms for foreign passport renewals and other purposes.  California law prohibits that, but in many cases, an alternative procedure may be permissible:

Copy Certification by Document Custodian:
Copy certification by document custodian is the process where the holder of an original document writes a statement attesting to the accuracy of the photocopy  and their statement is then notarized. In effect, the owner of the document is certifying the document, not the notary public.
The statement may be hand written directly on the photocopy.  The custodian or holder of the document must then select which notarial act, acknowledgment or jurat, the notary will execute.  The notary will then perform the notarization and attach the notarial certificate to the photocopy.  If the photocopy has the room, the notary may stamp the notarial verbiage directly on the photocopy before signing and sealing.

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What will you need to bring for a notarization?

Besides the document that requires notarization, you’ll need identification so the notary can certify your identity as the signer and the notarial fee.

Any document that requires notarization can be executed by the notary, but some have special requirements:

Out of State real estate documents
Recordable documents that transfer property (Deed of Trust, Mortgage, Grant Deed, Quitclaim Deed, Warranty Deed, etc) located in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisianna or South Carolina have witness requirements in addition to the notarial requirement.

  • Connecticut requires two witnesses (one may be the notary)
  • Florida requires two witnesses (one may be the notary)
  • Georgia requires one witness (it cannot be the notary)
  • Louisianna requires two witnesses (neither can be the notary)
  • South Carolina requires two witnesses (one can be the notary) The witness must also witness the notary’s signature in the acknowledgment / jurat certificate of the Deed of Trust / Mortgage even if there is no witness line.
  • Vermont requires one witness (it cannot be the notary)

Who can be a witness?
The witness is an additional person over the age of 18 that is not party to the transaction and is present to witness the signing of the document.

If your document has a signature line designated for a witness, it is recommended to call the originator of the document to get clarification on what they require.

In California, “Identity is established if the notary public is presented with satisfactory evidence of the signer’s identity”. (Civil Code section 1185(a)).
The State of California 2014 Notary Handbook:

The most common forms of identification:

  • An ID card or driver license issued by the State of California Department of Motor Vehicles
  • A United States passport

Also accepted provided it contains a photograph, description, signature and identifying number of the signer:

  • An inmate identification card issued by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, if the inmate is in custody in California state prison
  • A passport issued by a foreign government, provided it has been stamped by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service or the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services;
  • A driver’s license issued by another state or by a Canadian or Mexican public agency
  • An ID card issued by another state
  • A U.S. military ID card
  • An employee ID card issued by an agency or office of the State of California, or an agency or office of a city, county, or city and county in California.

Notarial Fee

In California, the fee a notary may charge is regulated by the state.  It is currently set at a maximum of $10.00 per notarized signature.

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What is a Notary Public and what do they do?

A Notary Public is a publicly commissioned officer of the state.  In California, Notaries Public are appointed by the Secretary of State and granted four-year terms.  They serve the public as an impartial witness and perform a variety of official fraud-deterrent acts related to the signing of important documents.  These acts are called notarizations, or notarial acts, and sometimes require the Notary to place the signer under oath to swear or affirm under penalty of perjury that the information contained in the document is true and correct.

A Notary has three primary duties:

  • To verify the true identity of the signer of the document.
  • To establish their willingness to sign without duress or coercion.
  • To determine their understanding of the content of the document and the implications of signing it.

As official representatives of the state, Notaries Public certify the proper execution of many life-changing documents of private citizens.  Impartiality is essential and dictates that they not act in circumstances where they have personal interest, nor refuse service to any person due to race, nationality, religion, politics or sexual orientation.

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