“Place your John Hancock on that line.” We have all heard that phrase dozens of times, but you may have asked, who is John Hancock? Hancock was a wealthy merchant, a patriot, a president of the Continental Congress, a governor of Massachusetts, and a mild Anti-Federalist. He has been described by historians as a rogue smuggler, and as a vain and dim-witted demagogue. In that regard, he has prestigious company. George Washington and Samuel Adams are often described in similar fashion. John Hancock was more than a famous signature; he was an admirable man with an interesting, and in some ways politically incorrect, history.
John Hancock was born the American Colonies in 1737 in Braintree, Massachusetts, the same birthplace as John Adams. His father was the pastor of the church at Braintree and his mother was a widow from the small community of Hingham, Massachusetts. They lived a comfortable life with at least one slave. Hancock’s father died in 1744, so care of the boy fell to his wealthy merchant uncle, Thomas Hancock, proprietor of the “House of Hancock,” a prosperous mercantile firm which imported manufactured goods and exported rum, whale oil, and fish. John Hancock and his mother moved into his uncle’s home, Hancock Manor, on Beacon Hill in Boston. The house was the finest in Boston, possibly in the colony of Massachusetts, and was staffed by a number of servants and slaves.
Hancock was educated at the Boston Grammar School and was graduated from Harvard in 1754. His uncle began grooming him for the family business, and in 1760 he was sent to London for an education in British trade. The House of Hancock obtained several profitable government contracts during the French and Indian War, and master John Hancock had a large expense account and a taste for European fashion and social life. He was young and wealthy and what Americans would call a “playboy” today. He loved fine wine, good parties, and was considered a charming ladies man. In 1763, Hancock was made a partner in the House of Hancock, and after his uncle died in 1764, he eventually inherited the firm, Hancock Manor, thousands of acres, two or three slaves, and close to 70,000 pounds (or roughly $10,000,000 2007 dollars). Hancock, at the age of twenty-seven, was now, by far, the wealthiest man in Boston if not all the colonies. This proved fortunate for the patriot cause, for Hancock would be one of the chief financiers of the early stages of the American War for Independence. Samuel Adams supposedly called him the “milch cow.”
“Treasonous” John Hancock
In contrast to most of the other prominent revolutionary leaders, John Hancock did not have the gift of the pen, and was not a great speaker. But because of his personal connections through the House of Hancock, he was an important and respected member of his community. The Stamp Act riots that erupted in 1765 worried Hancock. He was a conservative businessman, worried that violence from the lower classes could be precipitated against any wealthy man, including himself. He gently urged his powerful friends, royal officials included, to reconsider the Stamp Act, but when the act was implemented against his warnings, Hancock decried it as unconstitutional. “I have a right,” he wrote, “to the Libertys and privileges of the English Constitution, and as Englishmen will enjoy them.” He supported, in protest, the nonimportation of British goods, and gave liberally to the patriot cause. Hancock eventually became allies with the more outspoken Samuel Adams, who groomed him for leadership in the cause of independence.
While he served as a local selectman and in the Massachusetts government, he focused most of his energy on the House of Hancock and hoped that the British would refrain from any further hostile acts. But the Townshend Duties of 1767 sparked a furious response. He wrote to a London associate that the only choice left for Americans was to “unite & come under a Solemn agreement to stop importing any goods from England. . . . ” But this didn’t stop him from continuing his thriving merchant business, sometimes clandestinely through smuggling. He was moving closer to the position that a breach with England was inevitable.
John Hancock owned several ships and a wharf in Boston. In 1768, one of his ships, the Liberty, docked with a cargo of wine. Most of the wine was offloaded under the cover of darkness and therefore Hancock escaped paying the customs duty. When the customs officials boarded the next morning, they found a dead captain and only twenty-five pipes of wine, far less than the ship’s capacity. One man who was locked up in the hold during the illegal activity was eventually bribed to tell his story. The British seized the Liberty, and Hancock was dragged to court under the charge of smuggling, the objective being to cut the life-blood of the patriot finances in Boston. He was represented by John Adams, and though only one witness could be found on behalf of the prosecution, the trial continued for five months. Hancock was eventually acquitted due to a lack of evidence, but he became a celebrity in Boston and the symbol of resistance to unconstitutional Parliamentary acts and abuse at the hands of royal officials.
John Hancock was reelected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1769, and in 1770 was selected to head a town committee following the Boston Massacre. Hancock forced the royal governor to remove his troops from Boston through a false boast of “ten thousand men armed and ready to come into town upon his refusal.” He was again the hero, the forceful negotiator who had bluffed his way to a strategic victory. The relative calm following the “Massacre” allowed him to again focus on business, but by 1773, the tension in Boston, particularly over the publication of the “Hutchinson Letters” (from the royal governor Thomas Hutchinson, advocating restrictions on colonial rights) and the Tea Act, was thick. Hancock had in fact led the charge against Governor Hutchinson in the General Court, and had enthusiastically supported the Boston Tea Party. When offered the chance to be the Massacre Day orator in 1774, he seized the opportunity to move the people toward independence. As a man predisposed for public glory, his star never shone brighter.
Shortly after the Massacre Day remembrance, the Massachusetts legislature was dissolved and in its place the citizens created the Provincial Congress in defiance of the royal authority. Hancock was chosen president of the Congress and elected chairman of the committee of safety with responsibility over the militia. He used his own money to help supply the famous Massachusetts “Minutemen” and the rest of the state militia in the months leading to war. Massachusetts elected him to serve in the Second Continental Congress in 1775, and politics was now his fulltime occupation—he even gave instructions to sell his ships. Hancock’s influence was so large in Massachusetts that the British government regarded Hancock and Samuel Adams as its chief enemies.
In April 1775, the British made their move on the Massachusetts rebels. They hoped to apprehend John Hancock and Adams in Lexington and then march to Concord to seize the town arsenal and coerce the “illegal” state government, which had relocated there from Boston. When Paul Revere and William Dawes arrived in Lexington and informed Hancock that the “Regulars are coming out,” he initially marched out to the Lexington green with the other militia, but was persuaded to flee north with Samuel Adams for the good of the cause. He evaded capture, and the war began with the shots fired in Lexington. But to the British, Hancock was now the leader of a military rebellion and had committed an act of treason.
With the rest of the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress in tow and under a military escort, Hancock departed for Philadelphia shortly after the battle at Lexington and Concord to take his seat in the Congress. He was met by thousands of excited and enthusiastic people and ringing bells in New York and Philadelphia, and by the second week of the Congress, Hancock was elected president. He would serve continuously in that capacity until 1777. While there is some suggestion that he wanted to be commanderin- chief of the Continental Army, Hancock supported Washington’s selection and called him a fine gentleman worthy of the role. Hancock, meanwhile, also took on the role of husband, marrying Dorothy Quincy in August 1775, at the age of thirty-eight.
John Hancock was an able president and worked vigorously to shore up the Continental finances and supply for the military. He also helped create the first American navy, and the frigate USS Hancock was commissioned and named in his honor. Hancock also famously presided over the ratification of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. The first copy was sent to the printer on 4 July and Hancock, as president of the Congress, was the only name to appear on the document. These broadsides were sent to all the states and Hancock sent a copy to George Washington with instructions for it to be read to his troops. Along with most of the other delegates to the Congress, he did not affix his signature to the document until August. His was the largest because he was president, and possibly because he was vain, but he never said he signed large enough for King George to read it without his glasses (as the legend goes). This engrossed copy is the most famous copy of the Declaration, but was neither the first nor the only one produced.
John Hancock had to flee Philadelphia with the Congress twice as president and by 1777 was worn out from the stress of two years of leading the group. He asked for a personal leave of absence in order to spend time with his family. He briefly returned to the Continental Congress in 1778, where he had been replaced as president by South Carolinian Henry Laurens. He was disappointed, but he remained for a time and signed the Articles of Confederation with the rest of the Massachusetts delegation, before he turned to what he believed was his true calling, state and local politics. His only foray into military life during the Revolution occurred in 1778 when he led a group of 5,000 Massachusetts militiamen against the British in Rhode Island. That expedition, however, proved a failure. He returned to Boston later that year and remained engaged in local and state politics for the remainder of his life.
If nothing else, John Hancock was wildly popular among the people of Massachusetts. While the leaders of Massachusetts questioned his sincerity and intelligence, the people called him a hero. Hancock was a wealthy and pretentious man, often a glory-seeker, and he continued to give lavish parties to local and foreign dignitaries, but to the people of his state, he was one of them, the man who had used his fortune to help the poor and destitute during the hardest days of the struggle for independence, and who had brought them to tears with his Massacre Day oration in 1774. He realized his power was in Boston, not Philadelphia, and as one biographer has labeled him, he was the gout ridden, five-foot-four-inch “Baron of Beacon Hill.”
Massachusetts ratified a new state constitution in 1780, and Hancock was elected governor with 90 percent of the vote. The state elite could not understand his appeal, and Samuel Adams often complained of his subordinate status to Hancock. He was re-elected every year until 1785, when an attack of gout forced him to resign. The historian William Fowler called this “political gout,” because Hancock seemed to disappear when the political situation in Massachusetts grew difficult. His resignation allowed him to miss the mess known as Shay’s Rebellion in 1786.
The Massachusetts economy was in shambles; heavy debt led the legislature to pile on high taxes, and the farmers who could not pay were often thrown in debtor’s prison or had their property confiscated. Several formed a militia and led a revolt against the government. They were ultimately crushed by state forces, and many were captured, imprisoned, and sentenced to death.
John Hancock used this to his advantage. He was re-elected governor in 1787 and pardoned or commuted the sentences of all those involved. He had once again come to the rescue of the people. He would be re-elected every year for the remainder of his life by crushing majorities. His health declined during this time, and he grew less interested in government, becoming more or less a figurehead. He had been elected to serve in the Confederation Congress in 1786, and was even chosen president, but he never showed up and resigned his seat due to his health.
When the Constitutional Convention was called in 1787, Hancock, due to his role as governor, was not selected as a delegate, but as a firm advocate of state authority, he questioned the need for a stronger central government and feared the result of political centralization. He was appointed to the state ratification convention and though he did not take his seat as president of the convention until its end (because of gout), he gave a speech in support of the Constitution in conjunction with a series of amendments demanded by the convention. The first in this list stated, “That it be explicitly declared, that all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several states, to be by them exercised.” Hancock gave his “assent to the Constitution in full confidence that the amendments proposed will soon become a part of the system. These amendments being in no wise local, but calculated to give security and ease to all the states, I think that all will agree to them.” Such was his support, conditional. Massachusetts ratified the document by a slim majority even with Hancock’s approval.
John Hancock died in 1793 at the age of fifty-six. His funeral was a grand event. State dignitaries, including friends and former enemies, and Vice President John Adams joined in the procession. Bostonians lined to streets to see their governor one last time. No man was more respected in Massachusetts than Hancock, save perhaps George Washington. This is why his relative historical eclipse is so befuddling. One possible explanation is that Hancock was so devoted to his state and its politics rather than to the politics of the Union. Another is that he has been overshadowed by other Massachusetts politicians who were intensely jealous of him, men like Samuel Adams and John Adams. But without John Hancock the cause of independence might have failed in 1775.
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