John Hancock is best known for his flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence. The term “John Hancock” became slang for “signature”. What is not well known is how much Hancock contributed to the American Revolution, both financially and politically. He was a very wealthy man, which placed him in a society that was mainly loyalist and who were considered suspect by the working class; however, Hancock enjoyed significant support from the workers. Because of his wealth and mobility, he could have easily remained aloof from the revolutionary zeal. Instead he participated in Boston revolutionary politics and was President of the Second Continental Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence. Following the Revolution, he became the first Governor of Massachusetts. John Hancock was a very interesting man who lived lavishly, loved life, loved public attention, and was undoubtedly an American hero.
John Hancock was born in Braintree (today Quincy), Massachusetts on 12 January 1737. His father was a clergyman who died when John was a child. He was then adopted by an uncle, Thomas Hancock, who was a wealthy Boston merchant. John Hancock was raised in luxury and attended Harvard College graduating when he was 17 years old with a business education. He then worked for his uncle who was impressed with his work ethic and honesty, leading him to send John to London on a business mission in 1760.
While in London, he interacted with some of the leading British businessmen of the day, establishing business relations with many. He also witnessed the coronation of George III, whose future actions sparked the underlying desire of American colonists to be free, and eventually led to the American Revolution.
In 1763 Thomas Hancock died, and John Hancock inherited what was believed to be the greatest accumulation of wealth in New England. This put him in a very exclusive strata of society that possessed considerable clout in New England. These very affluent people were mainly staunch loyalists and were generally not trusted by the common people. Hancock was the exception because he was well liked and respected by common people.
John Hancock lived a lavish lifestyle; however, he also became known for his generosity and for using his wealth for public projects. Hancock became very involved in revolutionary politics early and from the start his sentiments were in favor of complete independence from Britain. This put him in the company of John and Samuel Adams and other leaders of the New England republican movement. Some of these revolutionaries, especially Samuel Adams, were critical of Hancock’s openly lavish lifestyle. Some of these critics were very puritanical, and some were simply jealous. It doesn’t appear that the criticism bothered Hancock as he continued his journey into open rebellion in style and comfort.
In 1765 Hancock was elected to a Boston political position and the next year to the Massachusetts Colonial Legislature. This was also the time that King George III and the British Parliament began tightening the screws on the colonists with new regulations and new taxes. The colonists resisted and during the next ten years that resistance increased and eventually led to the American Revolutionary War. Open rebellion was in the air, particularly in Boston, which was dubbed the “Cradle of Liberty”.
One of Hancock’s merchant ships, the “Liberty” was impounded by the Crown’s custom officials in Boston Harbor in 1768 on charges of importing cargo without paying the required taxes. As noted before, Hancock was a popular figure in Boston, and a large number of residents stormed the customs post. They burned the government boat and beat the officers who had to take refuge on a ship offshore.
Hancock was rapidly becoming more deeply involved in revolutionary politics by joining the ongoing campaign to poke a finger in the eye of the Crown as often as possible, and by inciting fellow colonists to resist. He also used part of his great wealth throughout the revolutionary era to assist the “Glorious Cause” which George Washington called our revolution. For instance, he aided the participants of the 1773 Boston Tea Party. In 1774 Hancock delivered a public oration to commemorate the 1770 Boston Massacre, an incident that had resulted in five colonists being killed by cornered and panicked British soldiers. This speech was blatantly and purposely inflammatory and did not endear him to the British authorities.
In 1774 John Hancock was elected to the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts and was also selected as one of the Massachusetts delegates to the Second Continental Congress. This congress was convened in Philadelphia to consider and formalize complete independence from Great Britain.
Despite his political activity, Hancock managed to find the time in 1775 to marry Dorothy Quincy, the daughter of a Boston merchant and magistrate. The union resulted in two children, a boy and a girl, but neither child survived to adulthood.
Also in 1775, increased American revolutionary activities resulted in the Crown issuing an order for the arrest of several individuals, including John Hancock. He and fellow revolutionary, Samuel Adams, narrowly avoided capture when they were both in Lexington, Massachusetts. They escaped when warned by the famous ride of Paul Revere.
When the President of the Continental Congress, Peyton Randolph, resigned in 1776, John Hancock assumed the position. He served until 1777 when he resigned for health reasons. This congress appointed George Washington commander of the Continental Army. Some believe Hancock had hoped to be selected for this position, but I found no evidence that he actively campaigned for it. He definitely had no qualifications for military command of that magnitude. The Second Continental Congress produced the Declaration of Independence and was the “national” government throughout the Revolutionary War with a very spotty record of responsibility and effectiveness.
John Hancock has been remembered by every school child for his famous and flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence. American legend has it that he signed with such a large signature so that “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward” or “There, I guess King George will be able to read that.” These stories are undocumented and probably untrue; however, they are part of our national lore. The fact is that Hancock signed first because he was President of the Congress and the signature was a reflection of his love of attention.
After his resignation from Congress in 1777 Hancock did receive a military commission and led 5,000 Massachusetts troops to recapture Newport, Rhode Island from the British. The mission failed but he remained a very popular figure. Hancock went on to participate in the framing of the Massachusetts Constitution, which was adopted in 1780. That same year he was elected Massachusetts Governor by a wide margin.
Hancock’s tenure as governor was not easy. It was marked by sharp inflation, and many farmers ended up in Debtor’s Prison. Hancock resigned in 1785 , again due to health reasons.The next year Massachusetts farmers conducted an armed insurrection known as Shay’s Rebellion. This rebellion ended in 1787 and Hancock was reelected Governor that same year. He did not attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but he presided over the 1788 Massachusetts convention to ratify the new United States Constitution. He supported the Constitution and gave a speech to that body in favor of ratification. Massachusetts ratified the Constitution on 6 February 1788 with a vote of 187 for and 168 against.
In 1789 Hancock was a candidate in the first US presidential election but received only four electoral votes out of 138 cast. George Washington received 69 votes and John Adams received 36 so Washington was elected President and Adams elected Vice President.
John Hancock remained Governor of Massachusetts until his death on 8 October 1793. True to his lavish lifestyle and love of attention, his funeral was a very extravagant affair. He was buried in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground. His wife, Dorothy, survived until 1830.
Few figures were more well-known or more popular than John Hancock. In his 56 years, he gained immense wealth, participated in rebellion, signed the document that laid out the reasons for that rebellion, and used some of his personal fortune to support it. He served in colonial, state, federal, and military positions, helping to establish and stabilize the very young United States of America. John Hancock was an American hero.