Born January 23, 1737
Died October 8, 1793
Political leader, businessman
John Hancock played an important role in American life during the early days of the Revolution. He served as a unifying force among men who displayed a wide variety of opinions about the wisdom of declaring independence. Although criticized for his vanity and self-interest, he showed strong abilities as the president of the Second Continental Congress. But after 1776, Hancock spent most of his time attending to the affairs of his home state of Massachusetts, where he was immensely popular.
John Hancock was born in 1737 in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. He was the second of three children born to John Hancock, a Protestant minister, and his wife, Mary Hawke Thaxter Hancock. When young John Hancock was seven years old, his father died of a heart attack. His mother then sent him to live with his uncle, Thomas Hancock, one of Boston's wealthiest businessmen. John Hancock attended Boston Latin School, then graduated in 1754 from what is now Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He immediately went to work as a clerk in his uncle's shipping business.
In 1760 young Hancock went to London, England, to learn more about his uncle's foreign business affairs. There he met and socialized with high-ranking members of European society and witnessed the crowning of the new British king, George III see entry, who granted him the honor of a brief meeting.
Hancock returned to Boston after a year abroad. Two years later, in 1763, he became a partner in his uncle's successful shipping business. When his uncle died in 1764, Hancock inherited the business and his childless uncle's large estate. He became, at age twenty-seven, the richest man in Boston and probably all of New England. Hancock continued to prosper, in time owning twenty ships that carried whale oil, whale-bone, lumber, and codfish from New England to Europe and elsewhere. They were traded for such items as tea, paper, furniture, wine, leather, and swords that were then brought back and sold in America.
Hancock's biographer, William M. Fowler Jr., described the handsome young man in The Baron of Beacon Hill. (A baron is a powerful businessman and Beacon Hill was the elite section of Boston where Hancock lived.) Fowler wrote: "Though not tall, Hancock was slender and well proportioned. He had dark brown hair, which he usually hid under a short white wig, and bushy eyebrows sitting atop dark, almond-shaped eyes." He also had a long, straight nose and a large dimple in his chin.
Opposes Stamp Act taxation
Hancock greatly enjoyed his life of luxury. He traveled in a carriage drawn by six horses, and held lavish parties that featured expensive imported wines. Writer Jean Fritz described his fashionable way of dressing in her book Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? She wrote: "Generally, John's [vests] were of embroidered satin, his [trousers] were of velvet, and his shoes had gold or silver buckles on them. He liked a touch of lavender or purple about his neck and he was wild about lace."
The first sign of trouble in Hancock's prosperous world came in 1765, when the British imposed a new form of taxation on the colonists by way of the Stamp Act. The act's purpose was to help pay for the cost of maintaining British troops in America. The Stamp Act taxed many paper items such as newspapers, business and legal documents, and even dice and playing cards.
Along with other colonial merchants who would be affected by the tax, Hancock deeply resented the Stamp Act. In a letter to businessman John Barnard, Hancock protested the fact that the colonists were being taxed but were not represented in the Parliament, the British law-making body. He wrote, "I will not be a slave. I have a right to the libertys and privileges of the English constitution."
Strong opposition to the Stamp Act by the colonists and their supporters in Parliament led to its repeal in 1766. Upon hearing the news, America celebrated. In Boston, Hancock held a huge banquet. Lamps were placed in all fifty-four windows of his Beacon Hill mansion. He endeared himself to ordinary citizens when he provided them with casks of wine on Boston Common as part of the celebration. At the end of the evening, hundreds of men, women, and children gathered in Boston Common to hang lanterns in the Liberty Tree, Boston's symbol of freedom. That same year, 1766, Hancock's popularity resulted in his election to serve on the Massachusetts General Court, a position he held for eight years.
The Liberty affair
By the late 1760s, tensions were high between the American colonists and their British rulers over British taxation policies. In time, a large number of British troops were stationed in Boston under General Thomas Gage see entry for the purpose of keeping the rebellious colonists under control.
During that time, Hancock began using his ships for smuggling. (Smuggling is bringing goods secretly or illegally into or out of a country without paying the required taxes.) British tax collectors in Boston objected to Hancock's open display of contempt towards them. But since they could not find any evidence to charge him with smuggling, they were unable to punish him. Then, in June 1768, tax officials used an oddity in the tax law as an excuse to seize one of Hancock's vessels, the Liberty.
Hancock was by then a very popular man among the citizens of Boston. When the British towed Hancock's ship into the harbor and anchored it right next to a British ship, riots broke out among the angry Bostonians. They were already seething with resentment against British taxation policies. Fearing attack, tax officials fled in terror to an island in Boston Harbor. Hancock was threatened with huge fines for the Liberty affair. But Boston patriot Samuel Adams see entry spoke so eloquently in Hancock's defense in court that the British dropped the smuggling charges against him.
Hancock soon became friends with patriots Samuel Adams and his cousin, John Adams see entry. The two men realized the value of having such a wealthy, well-known, and well-liked comrade. Soon Samuel Adams and Hancock began to be seen together at political clubs and meetings throughout Boston. Hancock was proud to associate with the esteemed patriot, and Samuel Adams used Hancock's popularity to influence more people to support the revolutionary cause.
Hancock and Samuel Adams became such constant companions that their enemies started calling Hancock "Johnny Dupe." A dupe is a person who is easily fooled or influenced. They joked that Adams "led him around like an ape." They also referred to the vain and self-involved Hancock as "Hancocky" (cocky means conceited).
Hancock begins his political rise
The years just before the start of the Revolutionary War were a time of much disagreement and turmoil among the American colonists. While some wanted to break away from England and declare their independence, others wanted to remain part of Great Britain.
Hancock wavered for a time before announcing that he was totally committed to the patriot cause, even if it cost him his life and all his money. Some historians have suggested he was waiting to see which way the public was leaning before he made his own decision. Before long, his reputation as a patriot grew. In his article on Hancock in the Encyclopedia of American Biography, Richard D. Brown refers to the Bostonian as "remarkable for his deliberate decision to build a public career based on popularity."
Hancock enhanced his image by giving gifts to the city such as church steeples, library books, and even a fire engine. Using their own influence, the Adamses helped him to become a powerful figure beyond the boundaries of Boston, among those people throughout the colonies who favored revolution. Whether or not he really deserved all the acclaim he received as a force for liberty is a question still debated by historians. Still, it took courage to defy the British Empire in as public a way as Hancock did.
In Massachusetts, it was the British-appointed governor who decided issues that involved the whole colony, but each town had its own "selectmen," who decided local issues and oversaw the town business. Hancock's reputation as a voice for American freedom got a big boost in 1770 when he was elected to one of Boston's most important offices, moderator of the Boston Town Meeting. At that time Boston citizens were very upset over an incident called the Boston Massacre, in which five colonists were killed by British soldiers during a mob action. In his new position as moderator, Hancock and other committee members went to the British-appointed authorities to demand the removal of British troops from the city of Boston because their presence was causing so much trouble. Their demands were ignored.
By 1774, the citizens of Boston were growing more and more angry with Great Britain for ignoring their protests. The anger boiled over when a series of measures was passed that colonists called the Intolerable Acts. The acts punished Boston for the Boston Tea Party, a protest in which Bostonians threw hundreds of pounds of English tea into Boston Harbor to protest British taxation policies. The Intolerable Acts punished Boston's rebellious behavior by closing Boston Harbor and ending the Massachusetts charter government, which had been in place for nearly a century. (A charter is a document setting forth a group's or nation's aims and principles.)
First Continental Congress
In April 1774, General Thomas Gage was appointed by King George III to be the British governor of Massachusetts. When a military man is appointed governor, it usually means that citizens have become very unruly. Gage had problems trying to restore order, especially among the citizens of Boston, who were considered the most rebellious of all the Americans.
In September 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to discuss what to do in the face of what they considered unfair taxation and other measures imposed on them by the British. The Congress was made up of representatives of all the colonies except Georgia. The congressmen called for a boycott on British goods, to begin in December. Boycotting meant they refused to buy from or sell products to the British. This measure would hurt British merchants; if they were hurt badly enough, Congress thought, merchants would protest to Parliament for a change. Hancock was not present at the First Continental Congress, but he did participate in Massachusetts meetings leading up to the Second Continental Congress.
Hancock presides over Massachusetts Provincial Congress
Meetings were held in cities and towns throughout the colonies to discuss how to enforce the boycott and what else could be done. In Suffolk County, which included the town of Boston, representatives met and criticized the Intolerable Acts. They called Gage and his aides "enemies of the country." They then asked each town in Massachusetts to elect delegates to a statewide provincial congress to meet in October 1774.
The actual formation of the Provincial Congress marked the beginning of independent government in Massachusetts. John Hancock was elected its president. He was also made chairman of the Committee of Safety; the committee's job was to oversee the security and defense of the province of Massachusetts in case of armed conflicts with the British. Hancock was given power to call out the militia (a group of citizen soldiers) to deal with any troubles that occurred.
By the end of 1774, two governments operated in Massachusetts. One was under the command of General
(and Governor) Gage and held power in Boston. The other, the Provincial Congress with Hancock at its head, met in Salem.
By 1775 outbreaks of mob violence against the British were common in Massachusetts. In February, Parliament declared the colony to be in a state of rebellion. By then, Han cock was recognized as one of the foremost American radicals (those who favor a complete change in the government). In August 1775, King George issued a proclamation declaring all the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.
Flees to Philadelphia, attends Continental Congress
In April 1775, Governor Gage decided to seize Hancock and Samuel Adams for disloyalty to Great Britain. Hearing this, Hancock and Adams fled from Boston to Lexington, Massachusetts, to hide. Boston patriot Paul Revere see entry rode to Lexington and warned them that the British were on the way to capture them. The two escaped to Philadelphia, where they were to serve as representatives at the May meeting of the Second Continental Congress.
Governor Gage never forgave the two American patriots for the trouble they had caused him, including their escape. Two months later, when the governor made yet another effort to restore peaceful relations with the colonies, he offered a general pardon to anyone who had acted against the British government. Hancock and Adams were the only ones excluded from the pardon.
Leaders from all thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia in May 1775 for the Second Continental Congress, and Hancock and Samuel Adams were among them. King George had ignored the documents sent to him by the First Continental Congress, and he had stated that fighting would decide whether the colonies would be subject to his country or become independent. Now, delegates had to decide how to deal with Great Britain. Though still not ready to make a complete break with England, they did take action to put the colonies in a state of readiness for possible war.
Hancock briefly heads Congress
John Hancock was elected president of the Second Continental Congress, replacing Peyton Randolph who resigned due to ill health. Some members of the Congress were so pleased with themselves that a major enemy of King George III had been elected, that they happily picked Hancock up and set him in the president's chair. Hancock ran the meetings and performed such other duties as writing letters, ordering supplies, giving directions for moving troops and building forts, and signing laws.
But during his short term of office, Hancock's superior attitude earned him some enemies. He alienated many New England radical comrades, especially Samuel Adams, when he made friends with men such as John Dickinson see entry and Benjamin Harrison, who favored a less extreme course of action in dealing with Great Britain than did the radicals. When a proposal to thank Hancock for his services did not come to a vote in Congress in 1777, Hancock blamed Adams. Their relationship was never fully mended.
Hancock presided over Congress when it adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. His signature dwarfs that of all others on the Declaration. A famous story quotes Hancock as saying that he signed his name in such large letters because he wanted King George III of England to be able to read Hancock's name without his eyeglasses.
Marriage and military action
In 1777 Hancock resigned from the presidency of the Continental Congress, perhaps out of anger and disappointment that the congressmen had not voted to thank him for his service. When he was again elected to the Congress and chosen its president, he never appeared in person to take his seat, causing both confusion and embarrassment for the group. Hancock became less involved in national politics and began spending more and more of his time in his hometown of Boston, where his popularity grew.
In August 1777, Hancock married Dorothy Quincy in Fairfield, Connecticut. In a portrait by renowned artist John Singleton Copley, Mrs. Hancock appears as a slender, thoughtful-looking young woman with dark hair and eyes. The couple had two children: a daughter who died as an infant, and a son who died at the age of nine after falling and hitting his head while iceskating. The Hancocks managed to accept the tragedies and go on with their lives.
John Hancock was a person who constantly sought public acclaim, and he longed for military glory. He had been gravely disappointed when, in 1775, he was denied command of the new Continental army due to his lack of military experience. The position he desperately wanted went instead to George Washington see entry.
Hancock's only chance to earn military fame came in 1778 in the unsuccessful American attempt to recapture Newport, Rhode Island, from the British. As leader of the five-thousand-member Massachusetts unit, his service was unremarkable.
Excels in Boston politics; shows evidence of character flaws
Away from the Continental Congress and national affairs, Hancock demonstrated a talent for politics. He used his wealth to make himself popular, even among the poorest groups of Boston citizens, who were not the natural supporters of such a wealthy man. According to historian Dennis Fradin in his biography of Samuel Adams, Hancock "was as known for his generosity as his showy way of life. Each winter he donated food and firewood to Boston's poor," and he was quick to offer help to widows, orphans, and other needy citizens of Boston. He also helped the first American black poet, Phillis Wheatley see entry, to get her book of poems published.
Of course, like everyone else, Hancock also had his flaws. He loved to be idolized, as when crowds ran along his carriage shouting "King Hancock!" In addition, he sometimes behaved in an immature way and could be easily insulted. This was demonstrated in his handling of a treasurer's post at Harvard College.
In the fall of 1773, Harvard elected Hancock to serve as its treasurer. The college did so partly out of patriotism and partly to encourage him to be even more generous with his contributions. It would have been embarrassing for everyone if Hancock had refused. But his acceptance of the post caused endless problems for both him and his college. Very busy with his work leading up to the American Revolution, he ignored his treasurer's duties and did not manage the college's funds properly. Finally, Harvard asked him to resign and appointed a new treasurer. Hancock felt resentful because he believed he had been shown disrespect. When he died in 1793, he still owed Harvard money, which had to be repaid by his heirs.
Becomes nine-time governor
In spite of his damaged reputation over the Harvard incident, the people of Massachusetts still loved Hancock. In 1780, they elected him as their first governor. Massachusetts's elections for governor took place every year and Hancock was reelected five years in a row.
In 1785, Hancock voluntarily retired from the position, claiming ill health. He suffered from bad headaches and gout, a disease that resulted in painful, swollen legs. But his retirement came at a time of financial crisis for Massachusetts. Critics said that Hancock knew this and resigned to avoid the resulting political storm, caused in part by his poor handling of state funds.
Hancock left to his successor and rival, Governor James Bowdoin (pronounced BOW-dun), the task of dealing with an uprising of farmers, known as Shays's Rebellion, which took place in 1786–87 (see Daniel Shays entry). The farmers were protesting what they considered unfair taxation. After the crisis quieted down, Hancock again ran for governor, beating out Bowdoin.
Helps passage of U.S. Constitution
In 1787 Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts State Convention, which had been formed to decide whether or not Massachusetts would accept a proposed U.S. Constitution. At that time, opinion was divided on the issue of how the document should be worded and the delegates argued over every paragraph.
According to one story, Hancock offered a compromise to get Massachusetts delegates to accept the Constitution, thinking he might become the nation's first president for his efforts. His compromise was accepted. Massachusetts voted to accept the new Constitution, but his hopes of ruling the country never came to pass.
It is possible that the Constitution would not have passed in Massachusetts without his support. And had Massachusetts not passed it, the entire constitutional effort might have failed. Hancock emerged with a reputation as a peacemaker, gaining more prestige than ever.
John Hancock spent the rest of his life serving as the governor of Massachusetts, although his poor health sometimes prevented his full participation in political events. He died during his ninth term of office on October 8, 1793, at the age of fifty-six.
Hancock's funeral in Boston was one of the largest and most impressive events ever held in New England up until that time. Twenty thousand people marched four abreast in a procession that extended more than a mile. He was laid to his final rest at Boston's Old Granary Burying Ground, where people still come to look at the grave of the famous revolutionary.
In 1789 Massachusetts politician James Sullivan, a friend of John Hancock, sent a letter to fellow politician Elbridge Gerry, in which he referred to Hancock as "the centre of union." Though many historians do not consider Hancock a brilliant thinker, he was a flexible and masterful politician who could bring together people with strong opposing political opinions. As a result, Hancock helped to hold his new country together at a time when revolutionary fervor threatened to tear it apart.
For More Information
Allison, Robert T. American Eras: The Revolutionary Era. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 78–79, 202–3.
Baxter, W. T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724–1775. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945.
Boatner, Mark M. "Hancock, John" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 483–84.
Bourgoin, Suzanne M., and Paula Byers, eds. "Hancock, John" in Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 114–16.
Brown, Richard D. "Hancock, John" in Encyclopedia of American Biography. John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein, eds. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1996, pp. 496–97.
Faragher, John Mack, general ed. "Hancock, John" in Encyclopedia of Colonial and Revolutionary America. New York: Facts on File, 1990, p. 183.
Ferris, Robert G., ed. Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973, pp. 67–69.
Fowler, William M., Jr. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980.
Fowler, William M., Jr. "Hancock, John" in American National Biography. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, vol. 9, pp. 969–70.
Fradin, Dennis. Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence. New York: Clarion Books, 1998, pp. 46–7, 51.
Johnson, Allen, and Dumas Malone, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1932, vol. IV, pp. 218–19.
Purcell, Edward L. Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993, pp. 211–12.
Although many saw John Hancock (1737–1793) as nothing but a vain and pompous merchant, he was nonetheless a key figure in securing American independence and creating the republic of the United States. His capacity to sidestep controversy made him an ideal presiding officer. He displayed this skill in the Provincial Conventions, the Continental Congress, and as governor of Massachusetts. Though he was largely an uninspired leader, generally lacking personal style, Hancock became famous for the enormous signature he affixed to the Declaration of Independence as one of the nation's founding fathers.
John Hancock was born in Braintree (present-day Quincy), Massachusetts, in 1737, the son of John and Mary Hancock. Hancock's father was a minister who died when his son was only seven. His widowed mother took him and her two other children to live in Lexington, Massachusetts, with her father-in-law. In 1795 Hancock was sent to live with his uncle and aunt, Thomas and Lydia Hancock, in Boston. His uncle was one of Boston's wealthiest businessmen, and so John Hancock grew up in wealth, living in the Beacon Hill area.
Hancock attended Harvard College as part of the class of 1754; after graduating, he returned to Boston and joined his uncle's import-export business. Hancock's return to the family business coincided with the outbreak of the French and Indian War (1754–1763)— for the next six years the House of Hancock, as the business was called, became busy fulfilling government contracts. During this time Hancock learned a great deal about the business. In 1759, to cement business ties and to introduce the young Hancock to a wider world, his uncle sent him to England for a year. On his return in 1761 Hancock found his uncle in poor health and began to take more responsibility in the business and, when his uncle died in 1764, Hancock assumed full responsibility.
Although the young man began life with many advantages, he was not a gifted businessman, and Hancock lost the House of Hancock business eleven years later in 1775. Despite the fact that his uncle had left him a thriving business which Hancock was unable to adequately manage, the loss was not completely his fault. English rule made it very difficult for anyone to run a profitable import-export business.
It may be said that the business world's loss was a gain for the movement of rebellion in America. Hancock subsequently immersed himself in politics and won election to the General Court of Massachusetts. He blamed British colonial rule for his business disasters and, in 1768, when British troops stationed in Boston Harbor seized his ship (the Liberty ) for smuggling, Hancock was drawn deeper into the movement for independence. He increasingly adopted the revolutionary perspectives of Samuel Adams (1722–1803) and Thomas Paine (1737–1809).
By 1775 Hancock had become such an irritation to the British that they tried to seize him along with Samuel Adams. Hancock avoided arrest and escaped to Philadelphia as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. He was elected president of the Congress and held that position for three years. But in spite of his prominence in that service, Hancock contributed little of note to its efforts. Most of the Congress' work was accomplished through committees, which created a patchwork of enormous inefficiencies.
Hancock's greatest moment as a member of the revolutionary movement came on July 4, 1776, when he was asked with others to sign the Declaration of Independence. With his characteristic flair for the grand gesture Hancock signed the document first, with an oversized signature.
Hancock was becoming an annoyance to other members of the Continental Congress, as well as to his constituents back home. In 1777 he announced that, for reasons of health, he was returning to Boston. Still, he delayed his return until the summer of 1778. Back in Massachusetts, Hancock worked in concert with the French navy to commanded 5,000 Massachusetts militiamen in an attempt to capture Newport, Rhode Island, from the British in 1778. The expedition was a failure.
Hancock was elected as the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after the American Revolution (1775–1783). He continued as governor until 1785, when he retired purportedly because of poor health. Insiders knew that Hancock's mismanagement of Massachusetts' finances had put the state in financial peril. Hancock left in time to avoid the uprising of small farmers (including many revolutionary veterans) who, during the post-war depression, were losing their land for non-payment of taxes. Hancock's successor had the unhappy task of suppressing the rebellion.
In spite of his fiscal and governmental misadventures Hancock was elected delegate to the state ratifying convention for the new Constitution, which was written in 1787. He made public speeches in favor of ratifying the new Constitution. Many felt that without his support the Constitution might never have been ratified. Perhaps this was Hancock's finest moment in a life otherwise filled with failures and missteps. With the ratification of the Constitution, George Washington (1789–1797) was elected president. Contrary to his hopes Hancock was not elected as Vice President. John Adams (1735–1826) was instead awarded the post.
Hancock served as governor of Massachusetts from 1780 to 1793 (with the exception of two years, 1785 to 1787). He died in Boston in October of 1793.
See also: American Revolution
Baxter, William T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945.
Becker, Carl L. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
Fehrenbach, T.R. Greatness to Spare: The Heroic Sacrifices of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1968.
Fowler, William M. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Magill, Frank N., ed. Great Lives from History. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1990. s.v. "John Hancock."
Sears, Lorenzo. John Hancock, the Picturesque Patriot. Boston, MA: Gregg Press, 1972.
Hancock, John (1737-1793)
John Hancock (1737-1793)
Merchant and statesman
The House of Hancock. John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, a son of the Reverend John Hancock and the former Mary Hawke. When his father died, the boy was adopted by his childless uncle, Thomas, Boston’s richest merchant. After graduating from Harvard College in 1754, John entered his uncle’s mercantile firm. Like many young merchants being groomed to take over the family business, John was sent for a short period to England to complete his commercial education. John returned to Boston in 1761 and two years later became a partner in Thomas Hancock and Company. In 1764 Thomas Hancock died, leaving the twenty-seven-year-old John as head of the firm and heir to the bulk of his uncle’s £70,000 fortune.
Revolutionary Leader. The wealthy young merchant led a life of ease and luxury. He traveled with six horses and several servants, set a fine table, and was partial to imported goods such as Madeira wine. Like many commercial men, he became involved in Massachusetts politics, which in the 1760s revolved around the colony’s discontent with Parliament. In 1765 Hancock protested to his English correspondents against the Stamp Act. When Parliament’s new commissioners arrived in late 1767 to tighten enforcement of the customs laws, Hancock refused to allow the militia unit that he commanded to participate in the welcoming ceremonies. He became even more of a public patriotic figure in 1768, when Massachusetts was in the midst of mob violence following the imposition of the Townshend duties. Tensions with the customs officials worsened, and in April, Hancock had his men forcibly remove two minor officials from his brig Lydia for going below decks without a warrant. In response the commissioners instructed the Massachusetts attorney general to file a criminal charge against Hancock, but the charges were eventually dropped. Meanwhile customs officials, harassed by the colonial mobs, had sent a plea to England for military help. When the British warship Romney arrived in June, the officials saw their chance to send a clear message that they would no longer tolerate smuggling and other acts of noncompliance. The authorities tried to make an example of Hancock by seizing another of his ships, the Liberty and charging him with a technical violation of the Sugar Act of 1764. Instead of subduing the colonists, however, the action provoked one of the worst riots in Boston’s history. A mob of several hundred roamed the town’s streets hunting for and harassing customs officials. Hancock refused to capitulate. He was defended in court by his friend John Adams, and the suit was dropped after a few months. The incident convinced Parliament to send troops into Boston; it also enhanced Hancock’s prestige among patriots. In 1769 Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts General Court and following the Boston Massacre in 1770 was appointed head of the town committee. As relations with Britain improved in the early 1770s, Hancock’s radicalism subsided somewhat. But in 1773 the Tea Act once again threw Boston into an uproar. Hancock was one of the few substantial merchants who supported radical action, and he was elected chairman of the town meeting protesting the new tax. In 1774 Hancock was chosen to deliver the oration on the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. He exhorted his listeners “if necessary” to “fight and even die for the prosperity of our Jerusalem.” Later that year Hancock was elected president of the new Massachusetts provincial Congress and chairman of the committee of safety.
Congress. In late 1774 Hancock was made a delegate to the Second Continental Congress that was to meet in Philadelphia the following June. Hancock’s radicalism marked him as a serious troublemaker in the eyes of the British, and in April 1775 Gen. Thomas Gage attempted to seize him and Samuel Adams for high treason. Both men were staying in Thomas Hancock’s former home in Lexington, Massachusetts, along with Dorothy Quincy, whom John Hancock married later that year. Warned by Paul Revere, Hancock and Adams escaped just as the battles of Lexington and Concord began. They made their way to Philadelphia to attend the Second Continental Congress and were cheered as heroes in towns along the way. Adams and Hancock had become so notorious that General Gage specifically exempted them from the British offer of general amnesty, part of an attempt to restore peace. Hancock later became president of Congress, and he was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. He did it boldly and with characteristic flourish, and today his signature is recognized the world over as a symbol of the American Revolution. Hancock hoped to be made commander in chief of the army, but Congress chose George Washington instead. Feeling slighted and perhaps sensing that other political figures were overshadowing him, Hancock resigned as president in October 1777 and was succeeded by Henry Laurens of South Carolina.
Massachusetts Politics. Hancock had ceased to be actively involved in his firm’s business upon being elected to the Massachusetts provincial congress in 1774. After resigning from the Continental Congress in 1777, he began to spend much of his time in Boston devoting himself to Massachusetts politics and expending his money on public works. In 1780 he was a member of the Massachusetts constitutional convention and later that year was elected the first governor of the state. He served until early 1785, when an attack of gout forced him to resign just when rural debtors were revolting against the government. Hancock stood for the governorship again after the trouble subsided, eventually serving a total of nine terms. In 1788 he presided at the state convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. Hancock had been reluctant to support the Constitution, but at a crucial moment he offered amendments that satisfied the AntiFederalists, and Massachusetts ratified. Hancock never matched the business talents of his uncle. Upon his death the fortune left to him by Thomas Hancock was considerably diminished by years of inattention to the firm’s business. Yet it was a respectable fortune, having been considerably augmented by large tracts of frontier land given to John Hancock in recognition of his services to the new country. He was serving as governor of Massachusetts when he died in 1793 at age fifty-six.
W. T. Baxter, The House of Hancock. Business in Boston, 1724-1775 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1945);
William M. Fowler, The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).
Born: January 23, 1737
Died: October 8, 1793
American statesman, politician, and governor
John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence and was a leader of the movement toward revolution in the American colonies. He later served as a president of the Continental Congress, and he was elected governor of Massachusetts for nine terms.
John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on January 23, 1737. His parents were John Hancock, a Harvard graduate and minister, and Mary Hawke. After the death of his father when Hancock was seven, he was adopted by his uncle, a wealthy Boston merchant. Hancock graduated from Harvard in 1754, served for a time in his uncle's office as a clerk, and went to London in 1760 as the firm's representative. He spent a year there. In 1763 Hancock became a partner in his uncle's thriving business.
When his uncle died in 1764, Hancock inherited the business. He was one of many who was opposed to Great Britain's passing of the Stamp Act in 1765, since the act taxed the kinds of transactions, or business dealings, his company was involved with. As a result, to avoid having to pay these taxes, Hancock ignored the law and began smuggling (bringing in secretly) goods into the colonies.
Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1766 at the suggestion of other colonists who were against British interference in the colonies. Hancock had attracted attention as something of a hero after one of his smuggling ships, the Liberty, was seized by the British. He received more votes than Samuel Adams (1722–1803), one of the most famous American Revolutionary leaders, in the next General Court election. Meanwhile, Hancock was threatened with large fines by Britain for the Liberty affair. Though the fines were never collected, Hancock never got his ship back.
Growing anti-British sentiment
Every time the British made a move that affected the American colonies, especially anything involving taxes, Samuel Adams and other anti-British agitators (people who stir up public feeling on political issues) spoke out against it. The Boston Massacre of 1770 (when British soldiers fired into a crowd of people who had been throwing snowballs and sticks at them, killing five) increased colonial anger toward Britain and established a tension that continued to grow. Hancock wavered for a time, but when the strength of public opinion became clear, he made the courageous announcement that he was totally committed to making a stand against the actions of the British government—even if it cost him his life and his fortune.
During the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Boston colonists disguised as Native Americans dumped three shiploads of British tea into the harbor as a protest against the British government. After the Boston Tea Party, the British passed the Boston Port Bill of 1774. The bill ordered the closing of the port of Boston until the cost of the tea was repaid. Hancock's reputation grew during this time to the point where he became one of the main symbols of anti-British radicalism (extreme actions trying to force change). How much of this was planned by him, and how far he had been pushed by Samuel Adams, is uncertain. What is known is that when British General Thomas Gage finally decided to try to achieve peaceful relations with the colonies, Hancock and Adams were the only two Americans to whom he refused to even consider giving amnesty (a pardon).
Hancock was elected president of the Continental Congress in May 1775 and married Dorothy Quincy in August of the same year. He hoped to be named to command the army around Boston and was disappointed when George Washington (1732–1799) was selected instead. Hancock voted for, and was the first representative to sign, the Declaration of Independence. Although Hancock resigned as president of the Continental Congress in October 1777, saying that he was in poor health, he stayed on as a member.
Hancock still wanted to prove himself as a military leader. However, when given the opportunity to command an expedition into Rhode Island in 1778, he did nothing to distinguish himself. Hancock was also embarrassed in 1777 when Harvard College, which he had served as treasurer since 1773, accused him of mismanaging university funds and demanded repayment. Hancock was forced to pay £16,000 (approximately $22,000). In 1785 Hancock admitted that he still owed £1,054 (approximately $1,500) to Harvard. This sum was eventually paid out of his estate after his death.
Elected to office
Like most public figures, Hancock had enemies. His opponents spread the word that he was a shallow man who lacked strong beliefs and was only interested in helping himself. Nevertheless, they could not prevent his election as the first governor of Massachusetts, in 1780. He was reelected several times until retiring in 1785 just before Massachusetts went through a financial crisis. Although he claimed that his retirement was based on illness, Hancock's enemies claimed that he had seen the coming storm, which was caused in part by mistakes he had made in handling the state's money. After Shays's Rebellion (a 1786–87 uprising by farmers and small property owners in Massachusetts who demanded lower taxes, court reforms, and a revision of the state constitution), Hancock was reelected governor.
In 1788, Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts State Convention to ratify, or approve, the new Constitution. He was approached by members of the Federalist Party (an early political group that supported a strong central government) who wanted a set of amendments added to the document. They supposedly hinted that if Hancock presented the amendments, they would help him to be named president if Washington declined the job. The truth of this story has never been confirmed. In the end, Hancock did offer the amendments, and Massachusetts ratified the Constitution. Washington accepted the presidency, and Hancock remained as Massachusetts governor, his popularity unchallenged. He died in office on October 8, 1793.
For More Information
Gaines, Ann. John Hancock: President of the Continental Congress. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.
Koslow, Philip. John Hancock: A Signature Life. New York: Watts, 1998.
Unger, Harlow G. John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
Merchant, Political Leader
John Hancock is most famous for the enormous signature he affixed to the Declaration of Independence. Before the Revolutionary War, Hancock was a respected merchant in Boston, and his involvement in several disputes leading up to the revolution helped pave the way for his leadership role in the Continental Congress; overall, however, he was an uninspired leader, lacking little in his personal style to match the flourish of his signature.
John Hancock was born in the town of Braintree, Massachusetts, son of the Rev. John Hancock and Mary Hawke Hancock. John might have become a minister, but his father died when he was only seven years old, and his uncle Thomas Hancock adopted him. Growing up in the home of his childless aunt and uncle, John Hancock had a bright future ahead of him as the merchant Thomas Hancock was one of the wealthiest men in Boston.
John Hancock attended Boston Latin School, and in 1754 graduated from Harvard University. As soon as he finished his schooling, Hancock went to work in his Uncle's mercantile business. In 1760, when Hancock was 23, his uncle sent him to England to learn the import-export business under an associate there. A year later, he returned to Boston, and in 1763 became a partner in the family business. His uncle died in 1764, and John Hancock became the head of the firm, Hancock House. At that time it was the leading business of its kind in Boston, and with it Hancock acquired 100,000 pounds sterling.
Many of his contemporaries described Hancock as vain and small-minded. Future President John Adams was particularly cutting, referring to him as "a man without a head and without heart—a mere shadow of a man." In 1775, Hancock married Dorothy Quincy. He died without leaving a will on October 8, 1793, in Quincy, Massachusetts.
John Hancock started out with plenty of advantages, but he was not a particularly gifted businessman. In spite of everything his uncle had left him, he managed to lose his business in 1775, just 11 years after he had taken over Hancock House. Not all of this was his fault, because British rule was making it more difficult to run a successful import-export business. But Hancock was also an extremely poor manager, and he made a series of ill-advised decisions; nor did he have the discipline to stick with a certain course of action long enough to see it to fruition.
But the commercial world's loss was the political world's gain, and in 1766, Hancock began his involvement in politics by winning election to the General Court of Massachusetts. He would hold a number of posts from then on, and in spite of his inability as a businessman, he would command great respect because of his wealth. Also, since he naturally found it easier to blame the British for his failures than to blame himself, he became an ardent foe of colonial rule. In 1768, when British forces in Boston harbor seized his ship, the Liberty, for alleged smuggling and brought Hancock to trial, he became a central figure in the growing independence movement. Soon he began to gravitate more and more toward the radical revolutionary circles of Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and others.
In 1774, tensions became so bad that the British shut down Boston harbor; meanwhile, Hancock had become chairman of the Provincial Congress, making him in effect the leader of the state. A year later, General Gage for the British declared all rebels would be pardoned except for the very worst, and he specifically named Hancock and Samuel Adams as offenders. On April 18, 1775, Gage tried to seize the two, an act which marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War; Hancock and Adams meanwhile escaped from Boston. Soon afterward, the two went to Philadelphia as Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress, which elected Hancock its president. He would hold that office for the next three years.
Chronology: John Hancock
1763: Became partner in family business, Hancock House.
1764: Became head of Hancock House.
1766: Elected to Massachusetts General Court.
1774: Became Chariman of Provincial Congress.
1775: Closed the Hancock House.
1775: Elected President of Continental Congress.
1776: Became first signer of Declaration of Independence.
1780: Became first Governor of Massachusetts.
In spite of the fact that his presidency of the Congress made him the leader of the American colonies, Hancock was not a significant figure in the Revolution. He wanted to head the Continental Army, and was disappointed when wiser heads judged him too lacking in imagination and resourcefulness to take on the demanding job that would fall to George Washington.
In 1780, Hancock served in the Massachusetts constitutional convention, and became the first governor of the state. He held that office, running up the state's debt just as he had mismanaged Hancock House, until 1785. Then, with a revolt brewing in the countryside due to his economic policies, he announced that he was too ill to run for reelection. He did, however, manage to serve two one-year terms in Congress, during which time his successor as governor put down the revolt, Shay's Rebellion. Hancock then ran again for the governor's seat and won, holding that position for a total of nine terms, until his death.
Sources of Information
Fradin, Dennis B. John Hancock: First Signer of the Declaration of Independence. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1989.
Fritz, Jean. Will You Sign Here, John Hancock. New York: PaperStar Books, 1997.
Fowler, William M. Jr. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
Ingham, John. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders H-M. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983.
Miller, Frances A. John Hancock. Belmont, CA: Fearon/Janus, 1989.
Van Doren, Charles, ed. Webster's American Biographies. Springfield, MA: Merriam, 1975.
John Hancock (1737-1793) signed the Declaration of Independence and was a leader of the movement toward revolution in the American colonies. Later prominent in the Continental Congress, he was elected Massachusetts governor for nine terms.
Born at Braintree, Mass., on Jan. 23, 1737, John Hancock was reared in the piety and penury of a Congregational minister's household. He was 7 when his father died and he became a ward of his uncle, a prominent Boston merchant. Hancock graduated from Harvard in 1754, served for a time in his uncle's office as a clerk, and went to London in 1760 as the firm's representative. In England he witnessed the pageantry unfurled for the new king, George III, but he was not enthralled by life in the imperial capital and returned to his Boston mansion. In 1763 Hancock became a partner in his uncle's prosperous importing and provisioning business.
When his uncle died in 1764, Hancock inherited property worth almost £70, 000. As a merchant prince, he naturally resisted Britain's attempt to restrict colonial trading via the Stamp Act, which was later repealed. But Hancock's mercantile ventures soon led to evasive tactics that were, in fact, smuggling.
Pushed to prominence by more militant men, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1766. The British seizure of one of his smuggling vessels, the Liberty, became a cause célèbre and made him a popular hero. He received more votes than Samuel Adams in the next General Court election. Meanwhile, he was threatened by the Crown with fines of nearly £100, 000 for the Liberty affair. Though the fines were never collected, neither was Hancock's ship returned.
Growing Anti-British Sentiment
British military and revenue policies after 1768 were exploited by Samuel Adams and other anti-British agitators. The Boston Massacre of 1770 increased colonial animosity and established a tension that was nurtured by the militant patriots. Hancock, for a time, wavered. However, when the tide of public opinion became clear, he announced that he was totally committed to the patriot cause, even if it cost him his life and his fortune. This took some courage.
In the rush of later events, as the Boston Tea Party of 1773 brought on more coercive laws and, finally, the Boston Port Bill of 1774, Hancock's reputation mounted. By 1775 his name was synonymous with American radicalism. How much of this was thoughtful leadership on his part and how far he had been pushed by Adams is uncertain. Hancock and Adams were, after all, the only two Americans denied amnesty when British general Thomas Gage belatedly decided to try for peaceful relations.
Hancock was elected president of the Continental Congress in May 1775. He longed for command of the army around Boston and was undoubtedly disappointed when George Washington was selected. He voted for, and was the first delegate to sign, the Declaration of Independence. Then Hancock resigned as president in October 1777, pleading ill health.
Meanwhile, Hancock had married Dorothy Quincy in August 1775. Though he stayed on as part of the congressional delegation, he still longed for military glory. However, his one opportunity—in the Rhode Island campaign of 1778—was undistinguished.
Hancock was embarrassed in 1777, when Harvard College sought to regain its account books and funds. Hancock had been named treasurer of the college in 1773, and he now refused to give accounts or release funds in his care. He was forced to surrender £16, 000 in 1777. In 1785 Hancock admitted that he still owed his alma mater £1, 054—a sum eventually paid by his heirs.
Like most public men, Hancock had enemies. Though his detractors insisted that Hancock was a shallow man who lacked conviction and was merely an opportunist, they could not prevent his election as the first governor of Massachusetts, in 1780. He was reelected repeatedly, until an impending financial crisis coincided with his voluntary retirement in 1785. Though he claimed that his retirement was based on illness, Hancock's enemies asserted that he had seen the coming storm, which was caused in part by his ineptitude in fiscal matters. After Shays' Rebellion (1786), Hancock was reelected governor.
In 1788, elected president of the Massachusetts State Convention to ratify the new Federal Constitution, Hancock was approached by Federalists who recommended a set of amendments, hinting that—if he presented them, and if Washington declined the presidency—Hancock himself might be in line for the nation's first office. Perhaps the story is unfair, but more than one witness attested to its truth. Hancock did offer the amendments, and Massachusetts ratified the Constitution. Perhaps Hancock waited for a call that never came.
Thereafter, Hancock remained as Massachusetts governor, his popularity unchallenged. He died in office on Oct. 8, 1793.
The best biography of Hancock is Herbert S. Allan, John Hancock: Patriot in Purple (1948). William T. Baxter, The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724-1775 (1945), is a specialized study. For general background John Richard Alden, A History of the American Revolution (1969), is recommended. Hancock's own preserved papers are few. □
HANCOCK, JOHN. (1737–1793). Signer. Massachusetts. Born on 12 January 1737 in Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of a minister, John Hancock was orphaned early in life and adopted by his uncle, Thomas Hancock, the richest merchant in Boston. He graduated from Harvard College in 1754 and inherited his uncle's business at the age of twenty-seven in 1764, just as the economy sank into a depression after the end of the final French and Indian War. Four years later the Liberty affair rocketed Hancock into prominence as a victim of the overzealous enforcement of imperial customs regulations. He was elected a Boston selectman (1765–1774) and a member of the General Court (1766–1774), roles in which he displayed a keen political sense that made him a leader who could be trusted to be radical only when reason had failed. He could be a rabble-rouser when necessary (on 5 March 1774 he delivered the annual oration commemorating the victims of the Boston "Massacre") but generally used his considerable economic clout and social position in more subtle ways to support American rights.
He was elected the first president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in October 1774 and was also chairman of the Committee of Safety, which had authority to call out the militia. He and Samuel Adams were specifically excluded from General Thomas Gage's offer of amnesty to rebels (12 June 1775) because their offenses were "of too flagitious a nature." Hancock was a member of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1780 and its president from 24 May 1775 until 29 October 1777. Vanity led him to seek appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and he felt insulted when the delegates chose Washington instead. But his inclination to suffer politically convenient bouts of ill health would have limited his effectiveness in the field, and he had to take consolation in the fact that, as presiding officer of Congress, he signed the Declaration of Independence first and most prominently. After resigning the presidency for reasons of health, he lost interest in Congress (which had elected the able Henry Laurens to succeed him) and spent much of his time thereafter in Boston. As major general of the Massachusetts militia, he commanded six thousand Massachusetts troops in the operations against Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1778, where he played only a minor role in the failure of the Franco-American attack.
On 1 September 1780 he became the first governor of Massachusetts under the new state constitution. In the throes of a sinking postwar economy and rising popular unrest, he resigned the governorship after a well-timed attack of gout on 29 January 1785, and was out of office during Shays's Rebellion in the winter of 1785–1786. He returned to the governorship in 1787 and pardoned the Shaysites. Although elected president of the state convention to ratify the federal Constitution in 1788, Hancock withdrew with another attack of gout. Despite some reservations about the extent of federal power, Hancock favored ratification, and with the issue in doubt, he returned to the convention and spoke in support of the document, thus playing a major role in winning ratification by a vote of 187 to 176. As William Fowler writes, "this was Hancock's finest moment, for without the support of Massachusetts the entire constitutional effort might have failed" ("John Hancock," American National Biography). Reelected governor, he was in his ninth term when he died at the age of 56.
"A moderate man who loved to court popularity," as Fowler describes him, Hancock was a pivotal figure promoting unity and harmony at the center of American politics from the start of the resistance to Britain to the establishment of the new republic.
Allan, Herbert S. John Hancock, Patriot in Purple. New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Baxter, William T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724–1775. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1945.
――――――. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.
revised by Harold E. Selesky
John Hancock, 1737–93, political leader in the American Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Braintree, Mass. From an uncle he inherited Boston's leading mercantile firm, and naturally he opposed the Stamp Act (1765) and other British trade restrictions. In 1768 his ship Liberty was seized as a smuggler and confiscated by the crown. A riot ensued, and later the ship was burned. Hancock was hailed as a martyr and elected (1766) to the legislature, where he joined Samuel Adams in advocating resistance to England. In 1775, Gen. Thomas Gage issued a warrant for their arrest, but they escaped. Hancock was a member (1775–80, 1785–86) and president (1775–77, 1785–86) of the Continental Congress. His name appears first (and largest) on the Declaration of Independence, and the term
is often used to mean a signature. He was governor of Massachusetts (1780–85, 1787–93).
See biographies by L. Sears (1912, repr. 1972), W. T. Baxter (1945), H. S. Allan (1948), and F. Wagner (1964).