John Hancock: Wikis


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John Hancock

Portrait by John Singleton Copley, c. 1770–72, Massachusetts Historical Society

In office
1774 – 1775

In office
May 24, 1775 – October 31, 1777

In office
October 25, 1780 – January 29, 1785
May 30, 1787 – October 8, 1793

Born January 23, 1737(1737-01-23)
Quincy, Massachusetts
Died October 8, 1793 (aged 56)
Quincy, Massachusetts
Spouse(s) Dorothy Quincy

John Hancock (January 23, 1737 – October 8, 1793) was a merchant, statesman, and prominent Patriot of the American Revolution. He served as president of the Second Continental Congress and was the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He is remembered for his large and stylish signature on the United States Declaration of Independence, so much so that "John Hancock" became, in the United States, a synonym for "signature".

Before the American Revolution, Hancock was one of the wealthiest men in the Thirteen Colonies, having inherited a profitable shipping business from his uncle. Hancock began his political career in Boston as a protégé of Samuel Adams, an influential local politician, though the two men would later become estranged. As tensions between colonists and Great Britain increased in the 1760s, Hancock used his wealth to support the colonial cause. He became very popular in Massachusetts, especially after British officials seized his sloop Liberty in 1768 and charged him with smuggling. Although the charges against Hancock were eventually dropped, he has often been described as a smuggler in historical accounts, but the accuracy of this characterization has been questioned.

Hancock was one of Boston's leaders during the crisis that led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775. He served more than two years in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and as president of Congress was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. Hancock returned to Massachusetts and was elected as governor of the Commonwealth for most of his remaining years. He used his influence to ensure that Massachusetts ratified the United States Constitution in 1788.


Early life

John Hancock was born on January 23, 1737; according to the Old Style calendar then in use, the date was January 12, 1736.[1] His birthplace was Braintree, Massachusetts, in a part of town which eventually became the separate city of Quincy.[2] He was the son of the Reverend John Hancock of Braintree and Mary Hawke Thaxter, who was from nearby Hingham. As a child, Hancock became a casual acquaintance of young John Adams, whom the Reverend Hancock had baptized in 1734.[3] The Hancocks lived a comfortable life, and owned one slave to help with household work.[4]

After Hancock's father died in 1744, John was sent to live with his uncle and aunt, Thomas Hancock and Lydia (Henchman) Hancock. Thomas Hancock was the proprietor of a firm known as the House of Hancock, which imported manufactured goods from Britain and exported rum, whale oil, and fish.[5] Thomas Hancock's highly successful business made him one of Boston's richest and best-known residents.[6] He and Lydia lived in Hancock Manor on Beacon Hill, an imposing estate with several servants and slaves. The couple, who did not have any children of their own, became the dominant influence on John's life.[7]

After graduating from the Boston Latin School in 1750, Hancock enrolled in Harvard University and received a bachelors degree in 1754.[8] Upon graduation, he began to work for his uncle, just as the French and Indian War (1754–1763) had begun. Thomas Hancock had close relations with the royal governors of Massachusetts, and secured profitable government contracts during the war.[9] John Hancock learned much about his uncle's shipping business during these years, and was trained for eventual partnership in the firm. Hancock worked hard, but he also enjoyed playing the role of a wealthy aristocrat, and developed a fondness for expensive clothes.[10]

From 1760 to 1761, Hancock lived in England while building relationships with customers and suppliers. Back in Boston, Hancock gradually took over the House of Hancock as his uncle's health failed, becoming a full partner in January 1763.[11] He became a member of the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew in October 1762, which connected him with many of Boston's most influential citizens.[12] When Thomas Hancock died in August 1764, John inherited the business, Hancock Manor, two or three household slaves, and thousands of acres of land, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the colonies.[13] The household slaves continued to work for John and his aunt, but were eventually freed through the terms of Thomas Hancock's will; there is no evidence that John Hancock ever bought or sold slaves.[14]

Growing imperial tensions

After its victory in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the British Empire was deep in debt. Looking for new sources of revenue, the British Parliament sought, for the first time, to directly tax the colonies, beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764.[15] The act provoked outrage in Boston, where it was widely viewed as a violation of colonial rights. Men such as James Otis and Samuel Adams argued that because the colonists were not represented in Parliament, they could not be taxed by that body; only the colonial assemblies, where the colonists were represented, could levy taxes upon the colonies. Hancock was not yet a political activist, however: he criticized the tax for economic, rather than constitutional, reasons.[15]

Around 1772, Hancock commissioned John Singleton Copley to paint this portrait of Samuel Adams, Hancock's early political mentor.[16]

Hancock emerged as a leading political figure in Boston just as tensions with Great Britain were increasing. In March 1765, he was elected as one of Boston's five selectmen, an office previously held by his uncle for many years.[17] Soon after, Parliament passed the 1765 Stamp Act, a wildly unpopular measure in the colonies that produced riots and organized resistance. Hancock initially took a moderate position: as a loyal British subject, he thought that the colonists should submit to the act, even though he believed that Parliament was misguided.[18] Within a few months, Hancock had changed his mind, although he continued to disapprove of violence and the intimidation of royal officials by mobs.[19] Hancock joined the resistance to the Stamp Act by participating in a boycott of British goods, which made him popular in Boston. After Bostonians learned of the impending repeal of the Stamp Act, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in May 1766.[20]

Hancock's political success benefited from the support of Samuel Adams, the clerk of the House of Representatives and a leader of Boston's "popular party", also known as "Whigs" and later as "Patriots". The two men made an unlikely pair. Fifteen years older than Hancock, Adams had a somber, Puritan outlook that stood in marked contrast to Hancock's taste for luxury and extravagance.[21] Some traditional stories suggest that Adams masterminded Hancock's political ascendancy so that the merchant's great wealth could be used to further Adams's agenda. In some of these tales, Hancock is portrayed as shallow and vain, easily manipulated by Adams.[22] In other versions, Hancock is moderate and reasonable, while Adams is radical and dangerous.[23] Historian William M. Fowler, who wrote biographies of both men, argued that these stories contain a grain of truth, but are mostly folklore. Fowler characterized the relationship between the two as symbiotic, with Adams as the mentor and Hancock the protégé.[24]

Townshend Acts crisis

After the repeal of the Stamp Act, Parliament took a different approach to raising revenue, passing the 1767 Townshend Acts, which established new duties on various imports and strengthened the customs agency by creating the American Customs Board. The British government believed that a more efficient customs system was necessary because many colonial American merchants had been smuggling. Smugglers violated the Navigation Acts by trading with ports outside of the British Empire and avoiding import taxes. Parliament hoped that the new system would reduce smuggling and generate revenue for the government.[25]

Colonial merchants, even those not involved in smuggling, found the new regulations oppressive. Other colonists protested that new duties were another attempt by Parliament to tax the colonies without their consent. Hancock joined other Bostonians in calling for a boycott of British imports until the Townshend duties were repealed.[26] In their enforcement of the customs regulations, the Customs Board targeted Hancock, Boston's wealthiest Whig. They may have suspected that he was a smuggler, or they may have wanted to harass him because of his politics, especially after Hancock snubbed Governor Francis Bernard by refusing to attend public functions when the customs officials were present.[27]

On April 9, 1768, two customs employees (called tidesmen) boarded Hancock's brig Lydia in Boston Harbor. Hancock was summoned, and finding that the agents lacked a writ of assistance (a general search warrant), did not allow them to go below deck. When one of them later managed to get into the hold, Hancock's men forced the tidesman back on deck.[28] Customs officials wanted to file charges, but the case was dropped when Massachusetts Attorney General Jonathan Sewell ruled that Hancock had broken no laws.[29] Later, some of Hancock's most ardent admirers would call this incident the first act of physical resistance to British authority in the colonies and credit Hancock with initiating the American Revolution.[30]

Liberty affair

The next incident proved to be a major event in the coming of the American Revolution. On the evening of May 9, 1768, Hancock's sloop Liberty arrived in Boston Harbor, carrying a shipment of Madeira wine. When custom officers inspected the ship the next morning, they found that it contained 25 pipes of wine, just one fourth of the ship's carrying capacity.[31] Hancock paid the duties on the 25 pipes of wine, but officials suspected that he had arranged to have additional pipes of wine unloaded during the night to avoid paying the duties for the entire cargo.[32] They did not have any evidence to prove this, however, since the two tidesmen who had stayed on the ship over night gave a sworn statement that nothing had been unloaded.[33]

Portrait of Hancock by John Singleton Copley, c. 1765

One month later, while the British warship HMS Romney was in port, one of the tidesmen changed his story: he now claimed that he had been forcibly held on the Liberty while it had been illegally unloaded.[34] On June 10, customs officials seized the Liberty, which had since been loaded with new cargo, and towed it out to the Romney. Bostonians, already angry because the captain of the Romney had been impressing sailors in Boston Harbor, began to riot.[35] The next day, customs officials, claiming that they were unsafe in town, relocated to the Romney, and then to Castle William, an island fort in the harbor.[36]

Hancock was involved in two lawsuits stemming from the Liberty incident: an in rem suit against the ship, and an in personam suit against himself. As was the custom, any penalties assessed by the court would be awarded to the governor, the informer, and the Crown, each getting a third.[37] The first suit, filed on June 22, 1768, resulted in the confiscation of the Liberty in August. Customs officials then used the ship to enforce trade regulations until it was burned by angry colonists in Rhode Island the following year.[38]

The second trial began in October 1768, when charges were filed against Hancock and five others for allegedly unloading 100 pipes of wine from the Liberty without paying the duties.[39] If convicted, the defendants would have had to pay a penalty of triple the value of the wine, which came to £9,000. With John Adams serving as his lawyer, Hancock was prosecuted in a highly publicized trial by a vice admiralty court, which had no jury and did not always allow the defense to cross-examine the witnesses.[40] After dragging out for nearly five months, the proceedings against Hancock were dropped without explanation.[41]

The Liberty incident created two popular images of Hancock: supporters celebrated him as a martyr to the Patriot cause, while critics portrayed him as a scheming smuggler. Historians have been similarly divided. "Hancock's guilt or innocence and the exact charges against him", wrote historian John W. Tyler in 1986, "are still fiercely debated."[42] Historian Oliver Dickerson argued that Hancock was the victim of an essentially criminal racketeering scheme perpetrated by Governor Bernard and the customs officials. Dickerson believed that there is no reliable evidence that Hancock was guilty in the Liberty case, and that the purpose of the trials was to punish Hancock for political reasons and to plunder his property.[43] Opposed to Dickerson's interpretation were Kinvin Wroth and Hiller Zobel, the editors of John Adams's legal papers, who argued that "Hancock's innocence is open to question", and that the British officials acted legally, if unwisely.[44]

Aside from the Liberty affair, the degree to which Hancock was engaged in smuggling, which was widespread in the colonies, has been questioned. Given the clandestine nature of smuggling, records are naturally scarce.[45] If Hancock was a smuggler, no documentation of this has been found. John W. Tyler identified 23 smugglers in his study of more than 400 merchants in revolutionary Boston, but found no written evidence that Hancock was one of them.[46] Biographer William Fowler concluded that while Hancock was probably engaged in some smuggling, most of his business was legitimate, and his reputation as the "king of the colonial smugglers" is a myth without foundation.[47]

Massacre to Tea Party

Paul Revere's 1768 engraving of British troops arriving in Boston was reprinted throughout the colonies.[48]

The Liberty affair reinforced a previously made British decision to suppress unrest in Boston with a show of military might. The decision had been prompted by Samuel Adams's 1768 Circular Letter, which was sent to other British American colonies in hopes of coordinating resistance to the Townshend Acts. Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies, sent four regiments of the British Army to Boston to support embattled royal officials, and instructed Governor Bernard to order the Massachusetts legislature to revoke the Circular Letter. Hancock and the Massachusetts House voted against rescinding the letter, and instead drew up a petition demanding Governor Bernard's recall.[49] When Bernard returned to England in 1769, Bostonians celebrated.[50]

The British troops remained, however, and tensions between soldiers and civilians eventually resulted in the killing of five civilians in the so-called Boston Massacre of March 1770. Hancock was not involved in the incident, but afterwards he led a committee to demand the removal of the troops. Meeting with Bernard's successor, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and the British officer in command, Colonel William Dalrymple, Hancock claimed that there were 10,000 armed colonists ready to march into Boston if the troops did not leave.[51] Hutchinson knew that Hancock was bluffing, but the soldiers were in a precarious position when garrisoned within the town, and so Dalrymple agreed to remove both regiments to Castle William.[52] Hancock was celebrated as a hero for his role in getting the troops withdrawn.[53] His reelection to the Massachusetts House in May was nearly unanimous.[54]

This portrait of Hancock was published in England in 1775.[55]

After Parliament partially repealed the Townshend duties in 1770, Boston's boycott of British goods ended.[56] Politics became quieter in Massachusetts, although tensions remained.[57] Hancock tried to improve his relationship with Governor Hutchinson, who in turn sought to woo Hancock away from Adams's influence.[58] In April 1772, Hutchinson approved Hancock's election as colonel of the Boston Cadets, a militia unit whose primary function was to provide a ceremonial escort for the governor and the General Court.[59] In May, Hutchinson even approved of Hancock's election to the Council, the upper chamber of the General Court, whose members were elected by the House but subject to veto by the governor. Hancock's previous elections to the Council had been vetoed, but now Hutchinson allowed the election to stand. Hancock declined the office, however, not wanting to appear to have been co-opted by the governor. Nevertheless, Hancock used the improved relationship to resolve an ongoing dispute. To avoid hostile crowds in Boston, Hutchinson had been convening the legislature outside of town; now he agreed to allow the General Court to sit in Boston once again, to the relief of the legislators.[60]

Hutchinson had dared to hope that he could win over Hancock and discredit Adams.[61] To some, it seemed that Adams and Hancock were indeed at odds: when Adams formed the Boston Committee of Correspondence in November 1772 to advocate colonial rights, Hancock declined to join, creating the impression that there was a split in the Whig ranks.[62] But whatever their differences, Hancock and Adams came together again in 1773 with the renewal of major political turmoil. They cooperated in the revelation of private letters of Thomas Hutchinson, in which the governor seemed to recommend "an abridgement of what are called English liberties" to bring order to the colony.[63] The Massachusetts House, blaming Hutchinson for the military occupation of Boston, called for his removal as governor.[64]

Even more trouble followed Parliament's passage of the 1773 Tea Act. On November 5, Hancock was elected as moderator at a Boston town meeting that resolved that anyone who supported the Tea Act was an "Enemy to America".[65] Hancock and others tried to force the resignation of the agents who had been appointed to receive the tea shipments. Unsuccessful in this, they attempted to prevent the tea from being unloaded after three tea ships had arrived in Boston Harbor. Hancock was at the fateful meeting on December 16, where he reportedly told the crowd, "Let every man do what is right in his own eyes."[66] Hancock did not take part in the Boston Tea Party that night, but he approved of the action, although he was careful not to publicly praise the destruction of private property.[67]

Over the next few months, Hancock was disabled by gout, which would trouble him with increasing frequency in the coming years. By March 5, 1774, he had recovered enough to deliver the fourth annual Massacre Day oration, a commemoration of the Boston Massacre. Hancock's speech denounced the presence of British troops in Boston, who he said had been sent there "to enforce obedience to acts of Parliament, which neither God nor man ever empowered them to make".[68] The speech, probably written by Hancock in collaboration with Adams, Joseph Warren, and others, was published and widely reprinted, enhancing Hancock's stature as a leading Patriot.[69]

Revolution begins

Parliament responded to the Tea Party with the Boston Port Act, one of the so-called Coercive Acts intended to strengthen British control of the colonies. Hutchinson was replaced as governor by General Thomas Gage, who arrived in May 1774. On June 17, the Massachusetts House elected five delegates to send to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which was being organized to coordinate colonial response to the Coercive Acts. Hancock did not serve in the first Congress, possibly for health reasons, or possibly to remain in charge while the other Patriot leaders were away.[70]

Gage soon dismissed Hancock from his post as colonel of the Boston Cadets.[71] In October 1774, Gage canceled the scheduled meeting of the General Court. In response, the House resolved itself into the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a body independent of British control. Hancock was elected as president of the Provincial Congress and was a key member of the Committee of Safety.[72] The Provincial Congress created the first minutemen companies, consisting of militiamen who were to be ready for action on a moment's notice.[73] A revolution had begun.

Wary of returning to Boston, Hancock was staying at this house in Lexington when the Revolutionary War began.

On December 1, 1774, the Provincial Congress elected Hancock as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress to replace James Bowdoin, who had been unable to attend the first Congress because of illness.[74] Before Hancock reported to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the Provincial Congress unanimously reelected him as their president in February 1775. Hancock's multiple roles gave him enormous influence in Massachusetts, and as early as January 1774 British officials had considered arresting him.[75] After attending the Provincial Congress in Concord in April 1775, Hancock and Samuel Adams decided that it was not safe to return to Boston before leaving for Philadelphia. They stayed instead at Hancock's childhood home in Lexington.[76]

On April 14, 1775, Gage received a letter from Lord Dartmouth advising him "to arrest the principal actors and abettors in the Provincial Congress whose proceedings appear in every light to be acts of treason and rebellion".[77] On the night of April 18, Gage sent out a detachment of soldiers on the fateful mission that would spark the American Revolutionary War. The purpose of the British expedition was to seize and destroy military supplies that the colonists had stored in Concord. According to many historical accounts, Gage also instructed his men to arrest Hancock and Adams, but, as historian John Alden pointed out in 1944, the written orders issued by Gage made no mention of arresting the Patriot leaders.[78] Gage apparently decided that he had nothing to gain by arresting Hancock and Adams, since other leaders would simply take their place, and the British would be portrayed as the aggressors.[79]

Although Gage had evidently decided against seizing Hancock and Adams, Patriots initially believed otherwise. From Boston, Joseph Warren dispatched messenger Paul Revere to warn Hancock and Adams that British troops were on the move and might attempt to arrest them. Revere reached Lexington around midnight and gave the warning.[80] Hancock, still considering himself a militia colonel, wanted to take the field with the Patriot militia at Lexington, but Adams and others convinced him to avoid battle, arguing that he was more valuable as a political leader than as a soldier.[81] As Hancock and Adams made their escape, the first shots of the war were fired at Lexington and Concord. Soon after the battle, Gage issued a proclamation granting a general pardon to all who would "lay down their arms, and return to the duties of peaceable subjects"—with the exceptions of Hancock and Samuel Adams.[82] Singling out Hancock and Adams in this manner only added to their renown among Patriots.[83]

President of Congress

Dorothy Quincy, by John Singleton Copley, c. 1772

With the war underway, Hancock made his way to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia with the other Massachusetts delegates. On May 24, 1775, he was unanimously elected President of the Continental Congress, succeeding Peyton Randolph after Henry Middleton declined the nomination. Hancock was a good choice for president for several reasons.[84] He was experienced, having often presided over legislative bodies and town meetings in Massachusetts. His wealth and social standing inspired the confidence of moderate delegates, while his association with Boston radicals made him acceptable to other radicals. His position was somewhat ambiguous, because the role of the president was not fully defined, and it was not clear if Randolph had resigned or was on a leave of absence.[85] Like other presidents of Congress, Hancock's authority was limited to that of a presiding officer.[86] He also had to handle a great deal of official correspondence, and he found it necessary to hire clerks at his own expense to help with the paperwork.[87]

In Congress on June 15, 1775, Massachusetts delegate John Adams nominated George Washington as commander in chief of the army then gathered around Boston. Many years later, Adams wrote that Hancock had shown great disappointment at not getting the command for himself. If true, Hancock did not let his disappointment interfere with his duties, and he always showed admiration and support for General Washington,[88] even though Washington politely declined Hancock's request for a military appointment.[89]

When Congress recessed on August 1, 1775, Hancock took the opportunity to wed his fiancée, Dorothy "Dolly" Quincy. The couple was married on August 28 in Fairfield, Connecticut.[90] John and Dorothy would have two children, neither of whom survived to adulthood. Their daughter Lydia Henchman Hancock was born in 1776 and died ten months later.[91] Their son John George Washington Hancock was born in 1778 and died in 1787 after falling down and hitting his head while ice skating.[92]

Hancock served in Congress through some of the darkest days of the Revolutionary War. The British drove Washington from New York and New Jersey in 1776, which prompted Congress to flee to Baltimore, Maryland.[93] Hancock and Congress returned to Philadelphia in March 1777, but were compelled to flee six months later when the British occupied Philadelphia.[94] Hancock wrote innumerable letters to colonial officials, raising money, supplies, and troops for Washington's army.[95] He chaired the Marine Committee, and took pride in helping to create a small fleet of American frigates, including the USS Hancock, which was named in his honor.[96]

Signing the Declaration

Hancock was president of Congress when the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. He is primarily remembered by Americans for his large, flamboyant signature on the Declaration, so much so that "John Hancock" became, in the United States, an informal synonym for signature.[97] According to legend, Hancock signed his name largely and clearly so that King George could read it without his spectacles, but this fanciful story did not appear until many years later.[98]

Hancock's signature as it appears on the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence

Contrary to popular mythology, there was no ceremonial signing of the Declaration on July 4, 1776.[99] After Congress approved the wording of the text on July 4, a copy was sent to be printed. As president, Hancock may have signed the document that was sent to the printer, but this is uncertain because that document is lost, perhaps destroyed in the printing process.[100] The printer produced the first published version of the Declaration, the widely distributed Dunlap broadside. Hancock, as President of Congress, was the only delegate whose name appeared on the broadside, which meant that until a second broadside was issued six months later with all of the signers listed, Hancock was the only delegate whose name was publicly attached to the treasonous document.[101] Hancock sent a copy of the Dunlap broadside to George Washington, instructing him to have it read to the troops "in the way you shall think most proper".[102]

Hancock's name was printed, not signed, on the Dunlap broadside; his iconic signature appears on a different document—a sheet of parchment that was carefully handwritten sometime after July 19 and signed on August 2 by Hancock and those delegates present.[103] Known as the engrossed copy, this is the famous document on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Return to Massachusetts

In John Trumbull's famous painting The Declaration of Independence, Hancock, as presiding officer, is seated on the right as the drafting committee presents their work.

In October 1777, after more than two years in Congress, President Hancock requested a leave of absence.[104] He asked George Washington to arrange a military escort for his return to Boston. Although Washington was short on manpower, he nevertheless sent fifteen horsemen to accompany Hancock on his journey home.[105] By this time Hancock had become estranged from Samuel Adams, who disapproved of what he viewed as Hancock's vanity and extravagance, which Adams believed were inappropriate in a republican leader. When Congress voted to thank Hancock for his service, Adams and the other Massachusetts delegates voted against the resolution, as did a few delegates from other states.[86][106]

Back in Boston, Hancock was reelected to the House of Representatives. As in previous years, his philanthropy made him popular. Although his finances had suffered greatly because of the war, he gave to the poor, helped support widows and orphans, and loaned money to friends. According to biographer William Fowler, "John Hancock was a generous man and the people loved him for it. He was their idol."[107] In December 1777, he was reelected as a delegate to the Continental Congress and as moderator of the Boston town meeting.[108]

Hancock rejoined the Continental Congress in Pennsylvania in June 1778, but his brief time there was unhappy. In his absence, Congress had elected Henry Laurens as its new president, which was a disappointment to Hancock, who had hoped to reclaim his chair. Hancock got along poorly with Samuel Adams, and missed his wife and newborn son.[109] On July 9, 1778, Hancock and the other Massachusetts delegates joined the representatives from seven other states in signing the Articles of Confederation;[110] the remaining states were not yet prepared to sign, and the Articles would not be ratified until 1781.

Hancock returned to Boston in July 1778, motivated by the opportunity to finally lead men in combat. Back in 1776, he had been appointed as the senior major general of the Massachusetts militia.[111] Now that the French fleet had come to the aid of the Americans, General Washington instructed General John Sullivan of the Continental Army to lead an attack on the British garrison at Newport, Rhode Island, in August 1778. Hancock nominally commanded 6,000 militiamen in the campaign, although he let the professional soldiers do the planning and issue the orders. It was a fiasco: French Admiral d'Estaing abandoned the operation, after which Hancock's militia mostly deserted Sullivan's Continentals.[112] Hancock suffered some criticism for the debacle but emerged from his brief military career with his popularity intact.[113]

After much delay, the new Massachusetts Constitution finally went into effect in October 1780. To no one's surprise, Hancock was elected Governor of Massachusetts in a landslide, winning over 90% of the vote.[114] He governed Massachusetts through the end of the Revolutionary War and into an economically troubled postwar period. Hancock took a hands-off approach to governing, avoiding controversial issues as much as possible. According to William Fowler, Hancock "never really led" and "never used his strength to deal with the critical issues confronting the commonwealth".[115]

Hancock was easily reelected to annual terms as governor,[116] until his surprise resignation on January 29, 1785. Hancock cited his failing health as the reason, but he may also have been aware of growing unrest in the countryside and wanted to get out of office before the trouble came.[117] Hancock's critics often suspected that he suffered from "political gout", which is when an official allegedly uses an illness to avoid a difficult political situation.[118] The turmoil that Hancock avoided became known as Shays' Rebellion, which Hancock's successor James Bowdoin had to deal with. After the uprising, Hancock was reelected in 1787, and he promptly pardoned all the rebels.[119] Hancock was reelected to annual terms as governor for the remainder of his life.

Final years

Hancock's memorial in Boston's Granary Burying Ground, erected in 1896.[120]

When he had resigned as governor in 1785, Hancock was again elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress, known as the Confederation Congress after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781. Congress had declined in importance after the Revolutionary War, and was frequently ignored by the states. Congress elected Hancock to serve as its president, but he never attended because of his poor health and because he was not interested. He sent Congress a letter of resignation in 1786.[121]

In 1787, in an effort to remedy the perceived defects of the Articles of Confederation, delegates met at the Philadelphia Convention and drafted the United States Constitution, which was then sent to the states for ratification or rejection. Hancock, who was not present at the Philadelphia Convention, had misgivings about the new Constitution's lack of a bill of rights and its shift of power to a central government.[122] In January 1788, Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts ratifying convention, although he was ill and not present when the convention began.[123] Hancock mostly remained silent during the contentious debates, but as the convention was drawing to close, he gave a speech in favor of ratification. For the first time in years, Samuel Adams supported Hancock's position.[124] Even with the support of Hancock and Adams, the Massachusetts convention narrowly ratified the Constitution by a vote of 187 to 168. Hancock's support was probably a deciding factor in the ratification.[125]

Hancock was put forth as a candidate in the 1789 U. S. presidential election. As was the custom in an era where political ambition was viewed with suspicion, Hancock did not campaign or even publicly express interest in the office; he instead made his wishes known indirectly. Like everyone else, Hancock knew that George Washington was going to be elected as the first president, but Hancock may have been interested in being vice president, despite his poor health.[126] Hancock received only four electoral votes in the election, however, none of them from his home state; the Massachusetts electors all voted for another native son, John Adams, who became the vice president.[127] Hancock was disappointed with his poor showing, but he remained as popular as ever in Massachusetts.[128]

His health failing, Hancock spent his final few years as essentially a figurehead governor. With his wife at his side, he died in bed on October 8, 1793, at fifty-six years of age.[129] By order of acting governor Samuel Adams, the day of Hancock's burial was a state holiday; the lavish funeral was perhaps the grandest given to an American up to that time.[130]


Hancock's famous signature on the stern of the destroyer USS John Hancock

Many places and things in the United States have been named in honor of John Hancock. The U.S. Navy has named vessels USS Hancock and USS John Hancock; a World War II Liberty ship was also named in his honor.[131] Ten states have a Hancock County named for him;[132] other places named after him include Hancock, Massachusetts; Hancock, Michigan; Hancock, New York; and Mount Hancock in New Hampshire.[132] The John Hancock Insurance company, founded in Boston in 1862, was also named for him; it had no connection to Hancock's own business ventures.[133] The insurance company has passed on the name to famous office buildings such as the John Hancock Tower in Boston and the John Hancock Center in Chicago, and the John Hancock Student Village at Boston University.



  1. ^ According to the New Style calendar, Hancock was born on January 23, 1737 (Allan, Patriot in Purple, 22, 372n48). Not all sources fully convert Hancock's birth date to the New Style, and so the date is also given as January 12, 1736 (Old Style), January 12, 1737 (partial conversion), or January 12, 1736/7 (dual dating).
  2. ^ Hancock was born in the North Precinct of Braintree, which was later incorporated as Quincy (Allan, Patriot in Purple, 22).
  3. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 8; Unger, Merchant King, 14.
  4. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 8.
  5. ^ Fowler, "Thomas Hancock", American National Biography.
  6. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 11–14; Unger, Merchant King, 16.
  7. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 18.
  8. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 31; Allan, Patriot in Purple, 32–41.
  9. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, 61.
  10. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, 58–59; Unger, Merchant King, 50.
  11. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 46; Allan, Patriot in Purple, 74; Unger, Merchant King, 63.
  12. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, 85.
  13. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 48–59; Unger, Merchant King, 66–68.
  14. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 78.
  15. ^ a b Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 53.
  16. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 153.
  17. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 55.
  18. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 56.
  19. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 58–60.
  20. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 63–64.
  21. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 109; Fowler, Samuel Adams, 96.
  22. ^ Adams, "Empty Barrel", 428.
  23. ^ According to journalist Harlow Unger, for example, Hancock joined Adams out of fear, essentially paying Adams off to protect himself from the Adams-controlled mob (Merchant King, 95), but biding his time until he could "seize patriot leadership from the radicals" (122). Unger embraces the traditional "Tory interpretation" of Adams as a Machiavellian radical—calling him, for example, a "sinister, power-hungry plotter" (151)—a view now regarded as an inaccurate stereotype by many academic historians; see James M. O'Toole, "The Historical Interpretations of Samuel Adams", New England Quarterly 49 (March 1976), 82–96.
  24. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 64–65; Fowler, Samuel Adams, 73.
  25. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 71–72.
  26. ^ Tyler, Smugglers & Patriots, 111–14; Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 73.
  27. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 82; Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 527–28.
  28. ^ Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 530; Allan, Patriot in Purple, 103; Unger, Merchant King, 118. The exact details and sequence of events in the Lydia affair varies slightly in these accounts.
  29. ^ Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 530–31; Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 82; Unger, Merchant King, 118–19.
  30. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, 103. Allan does not fully endorse this view.
  31. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 119; Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 84. For uncertainty of how much wine the Liberty held, see Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 525.
  32. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 84; Wroth and Zobel, Adams Legal Papers, 2:174.
  33. ^ Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 521–22; Unger, Merchant King, 119.
  34. ^ Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 522; Unger, Merchant King, 120; Wroth and Zobel, Adams Legal Papers, 2:175.
  35. ^ The riot may have arisen because observers thought that sailors and marines coming ashore to seize the Liberty were a press gang; Reid, Rebellious Spirit, 92–93.
  36. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 85; Unger, Merchant King, 120. Whigs insisted that the customs officials were exaggerating the danger to convince London to send troops; Reid, Rebellious Spirit, 104–20.
  37. ^ Wroth and Zobel, Adams Legal Papers, 186.
  38. ^ Wroth and Zobel, Adams Legal Papers, 179–80; Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 90; Unger, Merchant King, 124.
  39. ^ Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 534; Wroth and Zobel, Adams Legal Papers, 180–81.
  40. ^ Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 535–36.
  41. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 100; Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 539; Wroth and Zobel, Adams Legal Papers, 183.
  42. ^ Tyler, Smugglers & Patriots, 114.
  43. ^ Dickerson, "Notorious Smuggler", 518–25.
  44. ^ Wroth and Zobel, Adams Legal Papers, 185–89, quote on page 185.
  45. ^ Tyler, Smugglers & Patriots, 13.
  46. ^ Tyler, Smugglers & Patriots, 5, 16, 266.
  47. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 82.
  48. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 95–96.
  49. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 86–87.
  50. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 112; Allan, Patriot in Purple, 109.
  51. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 124; Allan, Patriot in Purple, 120.
  52. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 124.
  53. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 145; Allan, Patriot in Purple, 120.
  54. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 131; Brown, Middle-Class Democracy, 271.
  55. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, following 176.
  56. ^ Tyler, Smugglers & Patriots, 140.
  57. ^ Brown, Middle-Class Democracy, 268–69.
  58. ^ Brown, Middle-Class Democracy, 289–90. See also Brown, Revolutionary Politics, 61n7.
  59. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 136; Allan, Patriot in Purple, 124-27.
  60. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 136–42.
  61. ^ Brown, Middle-Class Democracy, 285.
  62. ^ Brown, Revolutionary Politics, 57–60.
  63. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 150–52.
  64. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 152.
  65. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 156–57.
  66. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 161; Unger, Merchant King, 169.
  67. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 159–62.
  68. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 163.
  69. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 165–66.
  70. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 176; Unger, Merchant King, 181.
  71. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 174.
  72. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 177.
  73. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 177; Unger, Merchant King, 185.
  74. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 177; Unger, Merchant King, 187.
  75. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 179.
  76. ^ Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride, 94, 108; Unger, Merchant King, 190.
  77. ^ Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride, 76; Alden, "March to Concord", 451; Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 181.
  78. ^ Alden, "March to Concord", 453.
  79. ^ Alden, "March to Concord", 452; Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride, 85.
  80. ^ Fischer, Paul Revere's Ride, 110; Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 183.
  81. ^ Fisher, Paul Revere's Ride, 177–78; Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 184.
  82. ^ The text of Gage's proclamation is available online from the Library of Congress.
  83. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 193.
  84. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 190; Unger, Merchant King, 206.
  85. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 191.
  86. ^ a b William M. Fowler. "Hancock, John"; American National Biography Online, February 2000.
  87. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 205; Unger, Merchant King, 237.
  88. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 192.
  89. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 215.
  90. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 197; Unger, Merchant King, 218.
  91. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 214, 218.
  92. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 229, 265; Unger, Merchant King, 309.
  93. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 248.
  94. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 255.
  95. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 216–22.
  96. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 198–99; Unger, Merchant King, 245.
  97. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, vii; see also Merriam-Webster online and
  98. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 241. See also "John Hancock and Bull Story", from
  99. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 213.
  100. ^ Boyd, "Mystery of the Lost Original", 450.
  101. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, 230–31.
  102. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 242.
  103. ^ Boyd, "Mystery of the Lost Original", 464–65.
  104. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 219; Unger, Merchant King, 256.
  105. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 220; Unger, Merchant King, 256–57.
  106. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 207, 220, 230.
  107. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 225–26.
  108. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 225.
  109. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 230–31.
  110. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 270.
  111. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 207.
  112. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 232–34; Unger, Merchant King, 270–73.
  113. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 234–35; Unger, Merchant King, 274–75.
  114. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 243–44.
  115. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 246–47.
  116. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 255.
  117. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 258–59.
  118. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, 222; J. T. Adams, "Empty Barrel", 430. Adams wrote that Hancock's "two chief resources were his money and his gout, the first always used to gain popularity, and the second to prevent his losing it."
  119. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 265–66; Unger, Merchant King, 311.
  120. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, viii.
  121. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 264.
  122. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 267–69.
  123. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 268.
  124. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 270.
  125. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 271; Allan, Patriot in Purple, 331–32.
  126. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 274.
  127. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 275.
  128. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 275.
  129. ^ Fowler, Baron of Beacon Hill, 279; Unger, Merchant King, 330.
  130. ^ Allan, Patriot in Purple, 358; Unger, Merchant King, 331.
  131. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 355.
  132. ^ a b Gannett, Place Names, 148.
  133. ^ Unger, Merchant King, 337.


  • Adams, James Truslow. "Portrait of an Empty Barrel". Harpers Magazine 161 (September 1930), 425–34.
  • Alden, John R. "Why the March to Concord?" The American Historical Review 49 (1944), 446–54.
  • Allan, Herbert S. John Hancock: Patriot in Purple. New York: Macmillan, 1948.
  • Boyd, Julian P. "The Declaration of Independence: The Mystery of the Lost Original". Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 100, number 4 (October 1976) , 438–67. Available online from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  • Brown, Richard D. Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772–1774. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970. ISBN 0-393-008-10-X.
  • Brown, Robert E. Middle-Class Democracy and the Revolution in Massachusetts, 1691–1789. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1955.
  • Dickerson, O. M. "John Hancock: Notorious Smuggler or Near Victim of British Revenue Racketeers?" The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 32, no. 4 (March 1946), 517–40. This article was later incorporated into Dickerson's The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951).
  • Fischer, David Hackett. Paul Revere's Ride. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-19-508847-6.
  • Fowler, William M., Jr. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. ISBN 0-395-27619-5.
  • ———. Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan. New York: Longman, 1997. ISBN 0-673-99293-4.
  • Gannett, Henry. The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1973. ISBN 0806305444.
  • Nobles, Gregory. "Yet the Old Republicans Still Persevere: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and the Crisis of Popular Leadership in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1775–90" in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds., The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995, 258–85.
  • Proctor, Donald J. "John Hancock: New Soundings on an Old Barrel". The Journal of American History 64, no. 3 (December 1977), 652–77.
  • Reid, John Phillip. In a Rebellious Spirit: The Argument of Facts, the Liberty Riot, and the Coming of the American Revolution. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-271-00202-6.
  • Tyler, John W. Smugglers & Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986. ISBN 0-930350-76-6.
  • Wroth, L. Kinvin and Hiller B. Zobel, eds. Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965.
  • Unger, Harlow Giles. John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. New York: Wiley & Sons, 2000. ISBN 0-471-33209-7.

Further reading

  • Baxter, William T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724–1775. 1945. Reprint, New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. Deals primarily with Thomas Hancock's business career.
  • Brandes, Paul D. John Hancock’s Life and Speeches: A Personalized Vision of the American Revolution, 1763–1793. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1996. ISBN 0810830760. Contains the full text of many speeches.
  • Brown, Abram E. John Hancock, His Book. Boston, 1898. Mostly extracts from Hancock's letters.
  • Sears, Lorenzo. John Hancock, The Picturesque Patriot. 1912. The first full biography of Hancock.
  • Wolkins, George G. "The Seizure of John Hancock's Sloop Liberty". Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 55 (1923), 239–84. Reprints the primary documents.

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress
Succeeded by
Joseph Warren
Preceded by
Peyton Randolph
President of the Continental Congress
May 24, 1775 – October 31, 1777
Succeeded by
Henry Laurens
Preceded by
William Howe
(Provincial governor)
Governor of Massachusetts
October 25, 1780 – January 29, 1785
Succeeded by
Thomas Cushing
Preceded by
James Bowdoin
Governor of Massachusetts
May 30, 1787 – October 8, 1793
Succeeded by
Samuel Adams

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

JOHN HANCOCK (1737-1793), American Revolutionary statesman, was born in that part of Braintree, Massachusetts, now known as Quincy, on the 23rd of January 1737. After graduating from Harvard in 1754, he entered the mercantile house of his uncle, Thomas Hancock of Boston, who had adopted him, and on whose death, in 1764, he fell heir to a large fortune and a prosperous business. In 1765 he became a selectman of Boston, and from 1766 to 1772 was a member of the Massachusetts general court. An event which is thought to have greatly influenced Hancock's subsequent career was the seizure of the sloop "Liberty" in 1768 by the customs officers for discharging, without paying the duties, a cargo of Madeira wine consigned to Hancock. Many suits were thereupon entered against Hancock, which, if successful, would have caused the confiscation of his estate, but which undoubtedly enhanced his popularity with the Whig element and increased his resentment against the British government. He was a member of the committee appointed in a Boston town meeting immediately after the "Boston Massacre" in 1770 to demand the removal of British troops from the town. In 1774 and 1775 he was president of the first and second Provincial Congresses respectively, and he shared with Samuel Adams the leadership of the Massachusetts Whigs in all the irregular measures preceding the War of American Independence. The famous expedition sent by General Thomas Gage of Massachusetts to Lexington and Concord on the 18th-19th of April 1775 had for its object, besides the destruction of materials of war at Concord, the capture of Hancock and Adams, who were temporarily staying at Lexington, and these two leaders were expressly excepted in the proclamation of pardon issued on the 12th of June by Gage, their offences, it was said, being "of too flagitious a nature to admit of any other consideration than that of condign punishment." Hancock was a member of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1780, was president of it from May 1775 to October 1 777, being the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, and was a member of the Confederation Congress in 1785-1786. In 1778 he commanded, as major-general of militia, the Massachusetts troops who participated in the Rhode Island expedition. He was a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1779-1780, became the first governor of the state, and served from 1780 to 1785 and again from 1787 until his death. Although at first unfriendly to the Federal Constitution as drafted by the convention at Philadelphia, he was finally won over to its support, and in 1788 he presided over the Massachusetts convention which ratified the instrument. Hancock was not by nature a leader, but he wielded great influence on account of his wealth and social position, and was liberal, public-spirited, and, as his repeated election - the elections were annual - to the governorship attests, exceedingly popular. He died at Quincy, Mass., on the 8th of October 1793.

See Abram E. Brown, John Hancock, His Book (Boston, 1898), a work consisting largely of extracts from Hancock's letters.

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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary




Wikipedia has an article on:


Named for John Hancock, the first person to sign the w:United States Declaration of Independence. According to legend, he signed his name largely and clearly to be sure King George III could read it, causing his name to become an eponym for "signature". However, other examples show that Hancock always wrote his signature this way.



John Hancock

John Hancocks

John Hancock (plural John Hancocks)

  1. (idiomatic) One's signature.
    Please put your John Hancock on the dotted line to close the deal.

Simple English

John Hancock (January 12, 1737 (O.S.)October 8, 1793 (N.S.)) was President of the Second Continental Congress and of the Congress of the Confederation; first Governor of Massachusetts; and the first person to sign the United States Declaration of Independence. He had no brothers or sisters. The Hancock family moved to the English colonies in 1652. As a child John Hancock was quite wealthy and had a promising future.

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