Hancock, Thomas (1703-1764)
Thomas Hancock (1703-1764)
Lowly Beginnings. Thomas Hancock was born on 13 July 1703 to a poor parish minister, the Reverend John Hancock, and his wife, Elizabeth Clark. They lived in a settlement called Cambridge Farms, which would be known later as Lexington, Massachusetts. His education was limited to what his father was able to offer him. When Thomas was thirteen years old he accepted an apprenticeship with a Boston bookseller and bookbinder. In 1723 he established his own bookshop.
Diversification. Hancock’s success led to other ventures. With various partners he engaged in paper manufacturing; he exported codfish, whale oil, logwood, and potash; he supplied rum, molasses, and other supplies to the Newfoundland fishing fleet; and he controlled a group of fishing vessels. His marriage in 1730 to Lydia Henchman, the daughter of a prominent Boston merchant, had a positive influence on his business dealings in Boston. The combination of that favorable marriage with his business skills increased his business transactions significantly. As a result he accumulated a considerable fortune. One activity that contributed to his ample wealth was his participation in smuggling. It was not uncommon for merchants who wanted to avoid the restrictions of the English navigation laws to turn to illegal smuggling. He transported tea and paper from Amsterdam to the West Indies and then concealed French molasses that traveled to the Boston ports.
Legacy. Thomas Hancock had no children to inherit his substantial wealth, so he named his nephew, John Hancock, the patriot leader, his equal partner in 1763. Only one year later Thomas Hancock died from a stroke at the Massachusetts State House, where he served as member of the Governor’s Council. Thomas Hancock was a central figure of the wealthy merchant class of New England who dominated the seaborne trade.
William T. Baxter, The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724–1775 (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965).