From his famous ornate signature, we are all aware that John Hancock had something to do with the Declaration of Independence. For many, that is likely the point at which awareness of Hancock ends.
But John Hancock’s influence on the founding of the United States was as significant as any familiar founding father and in many cases much more so. He was a reluctant radical who risked his fortune and his life in the cause of liberty. He invested 100,000 pounds of his own money to equip the Revolutionary American army. He was a voice of reason and compromise as president of the Continental Congress, helping to keep what was a ragged coalition focused on the prize of independence. His influence continued after the the war, when the fate of his country swayed precariously in the fury of disagreement among the new states. America might very well have become something other than one nation with a Constitution had it not been for John Hancock.
He was born January 12, 1737. His father, John, was the eldest son of a minister also named John Hancock, known as the Bishop of Lexington. Hancock’s uncle Thomas was a self-made wealthy merchant, who built one of the largest fortunes in the Colonies. Among other things, Thomas invented the department store, building up his empire from a modest bookshop. He and his wife, Lydia, wanted children, but couldn’t have them. When John’s father died, Thomas and Lydia adopted their nephew John, when the boy was seven years old. Thomas set about sculpting John to become the successor of the “House of Hancock,” giving him the best education, sending him to Europe, showing him how every aspect of the business worked. Yes, John was fortunate, but he was also very, very adept at business.
Thomas Hancock died in 1764 and John inherited the Hancock empire. Like his uncle, he was not a man of moderate tastes. He loved his finery, good wine and lavish meals. He rode back and forth to his places of business in a sumptuous coach. Outwardly he seemed the least likely man in America to thumb his nose at the will of London. As the disputes between Parliament and the colonies began to fester, John became more and more convinced that something needed to change. He continually wrote to his agents in England, imploring them to lobby for the repeal of this act or that. Some of that was self-interest, but much of it was simply that he understood the temper of his neighbors, and knew trouble was brewing. Samuel Adams lured Hancock into siding with the rebels. Adams’s beef with the British* and those of his neighbors siding with them was personal. In his forties, he blamed the British power structure for his failures, which were many, and for his father’s ruin, when a land bank scheme was deemed illegitimate and the elder Adams lost everything. But Adams found his forte as a rabble rouser, and he needed Hancock to fund the activities of the Sons of Liberty.
Hancock on the other hand liked Britain, and even aspired to be named a lord and live in a fine estate in England. But he had a strong sense of moral justice and was persuaded that Parliament was enacting bad laws that harmed the Colonists, and that this was not right.
The Tea Act of 1773 seems to have pushed him permanently to the side of the patriots. There is even some evidence he was the organizer of the Boston Tea Party. Whether that is true or not, Hancock and Samuel Adams became the symbols of the rebellious colonies when King George III branded them traitors and put a 500 pound bounty on each.
Hancock would now likely be hanged if captured by the British forces, his fortune seized. As war broke out with the fighting at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the British army confiscated his beautiful mansion on Beacon Hill. He accepted the loss and the risks without a tremor of doubt. When elected one of Massachusetts’ representatives to the Continental Congress, he journeyed to Philadelphia, where he was chosen President. Hancock was a perfect choice. He had become a hero to New Englanders, but he was also trusted by southern planters who saw him as a social equal.
Samuel Adams resented that Hancock had risen higher in the leadership of the Revolution than he had, and he thought Hancock was too moderate. Hancock understood it would take measured, thoughtful action to defeat the British, not rash, emotional statements that Adams was prone to. Hancock mostly ignored the many ways Adams and his cousin John tried to undermine his leadership, staying the course and keeping the colonies (and then the states) working together.
A year into the war, the Congress concluded that the only way forward — the only way they could enlist aid from France — was to declare independence from Britain. Hancock appointed the committee to draft the document that stated the Colonies’ intentions. On July 4, 1776, the document was approved and with the rest of Congress retired for the day, Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, and ordered copies be made and distributed to the states and the army. The rest of Congress would not sign it for another month. Hancock had held the Congress together to this seminal moment, his signature boldly penned on one of history’s most important documents, but it must have crossed his mind that he had also signed his own death warrant.
To remain an independent nation, The United States would need to win the war. Hancock and Congress worked feverishly to handle the affairs of a new nation, much of which required raising money to pay for the army. The Congress had no power to enforce requests to the states for funds, men and arms. It often came down to Hancock’s ability to persuade. He spent his days presiding over Congress, then wrote correspondence deep into the night. His schedule took a toll on his health, but he never wavered.
Two years later, Congress had ironed out the Articles of Confederation, establishing the first framework for the new nation. After signing the document, Hancock returned to Boston to assume command of the Massachusetts militia, which would take part in a military action to expel a British garrison in Newport, Rhode Island. Hancock was elated to be able to contribute in the field. The plan was for a French fleet commanded by Admiral Comte d’Estaing to sail into Narraganset Bay to land 5000 French troops, who would join the combined forces of General John Sullivan, which included Hancock’s militia, on an assault of the British position.
But when the British fleet threatened to entrap his ships in Narragansett Bay, d’Estaing withdrew his navy and never landed the troops. This enraged Sullivan, who blamed the French for the failure. For his part d’Estaing thought the American army a bunch of amateur rubes. He planned to encourage the King to abandon the American cause as unworthy of the loss of French lives. Hancock, who now recognized he was no soldier, hurried back to Boston, where d’Estaing’s fleet had put in to refit for the voyage home.
Bostonians largely still feared and disliked the French from decades of battling them on the frontier and in two wars — their hatred of Catholics played a part in this disdain. The naval craftsmen refused to work on the French ships, until Hancock interceded as a peacemaker and informal diplomat. He hosted lavish parties, at his own expense, wining and dining d’Estaing and his officers, mending relations. He held gatherings where the French could meet Boston’s leading citizens. Soon the French ships were being repaired, and the French were spending money — much needed hard currency — at Boston shops, and buying supplies, injecting an economic boon to the town not seen since before the war.
When the his navy was ready to sail home, d’Estaing pledged the French would never let the American cause down again. This turn around was due entirely to Hancock’s efforts. He may have been a bad general, but he was an effective diplomat and negotiator.
After Yorktown assured an American victory, John Hancock would still have an important role in shaping the new nation. He was elected the first governor of Massachusetts, a post he served in most of the last ten years of his life, despite suffering painfully from gout.
In September 1787, the Constitutional Convention approved a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. It was a controversial document, establishing a strong, central federal government. Its approval by the states was far from a certainty.
Massachusetts’ ratifying convention began in January. The outcome would determine the fate of the Constitution. Four states had voted to ratify, the remainder were tottering. If Massachusetts, the tinderbox of the Revolution, voted no, then it is most likely the Constitution would have been rejected. If Samuel Adams had his way, that’s what would happen.
At the time of the state convention, Hancock was bedridden with gout, but he followed the debate closely. He had his reservations about the Constitution, but he felt the country would not hold together if the document was not ratified. In the afternoon of Thursday, January 31, Hancock painfully pulled himself out of bed to go before the convention. Adams’s coalition had built a majority in opposition. Only Hancock could bring the convention around to approval.
One of his biographers calls this speech the crowning achievement of Hancock’s life. He made the case for the importance of a unifying law, but he also recognized the defects in the Constitution and endorsed the idea of nine Conciliatory Amendments — amendments that would become the Bill of Rights. He gave his consent to the Constitution and urged that all citizens unite behind it. The convention approved ratification, and soon all the states would follow suit.
Hancock’s personal life had its share of tragedies. He married during the war. His wife, Dolly, gave birth to a daughter who soon died. A year or so later, the couple’s second child, a boy named John, of course, was born. But young John died at the age of nine after injuring his head ice-skating. John and Dolly had no other children.
John Hancock was far from perfect, of course. He was foppish and enjoyed the adulation of the people. But it was easy for his neighbors to love him. Everyone understood what he was risking to oppose London. He lived a lavish lifestyle that might have caused resentment, but his generosity with the community overcame those sentiments with most people, other than Samuel Adams’s inner circle, of course, even though Adams was the recipient of Hancock’s generosity, when the latter paid over 1000 pounds to keep Adams out of prison for embezzlement.
Today we apply a litmus test to our founding fathers: their relationship to the institution of slavery. There is no evidence that the House of Hancock ever engaged in the slave trade. Thomas Hancock did own slaves, who were eventually freed under the terms of his estate when his wife (John’s aunt) died. There is no evidence that John Hancock owned or bought slaves. Hancock’s attitude about slavery may be revealed in two incidents that occurred after the war, while he was governor of Massachusetts. He refused to return runaway slaves to southern states, and was steadfast in that refusal when South Carolina sued. And when three free black people were kidnapped in Boston Harbor and sold as slaves in French Martinique, Hancock interceded on their behalf, successfully returning the trio to Boston and freedom.
Some criticize Hancock as a fence-sitter who waited to see which side would prevail in a dispute before announcing his position. This seems absurd when you consider that Hancock gladly slipped his head into a metaphorical noose to help lead the Revolution, at a time when the outcome of that conflict was far from certain. That is not the action of someone who fears the opinion of the masses.
In a prolog to the opening volleys of the war, Hancock was asked to provide an oration on March 5th, the annual commemoration of the Boston Massacre, which had occurred on that day five years earlier. In his speech, Hancock asked the audience, “Is the present system, which the British administration have adopted for the government of the colonies, a righteous government? or is it tyranny?”
He then went on to issue the first public call for independence for American colonies and the forming of a new nation. He urged all Massachusetts towns to organize militia to be prepared to fight if need be.
Not exactly the words of a fence-sitter.
The same detractors also suggest that he conveniently used his affliction with gout as an excuse to avoid tenacious confrontations on issues. This is another artificial smear, begun by Adams and his cronies as political jousts to discredit Hancock. Gout was not a smoke screen for Hancock. The disease had taken his uncle’s life.
On Tuesday, October 8, 1793, gout took John Hancock’s life. He was just 57 years old. Boston grieved. One paper said of Hancock that “He lived in the smiles of his Fellow-Citizens; and his urn is washed with the tears of a whole people, flowing from a native force, deep sorrow, lively gratitutde, and sincere affection.” More than 20,000 people from the region joined the procession bringing Governor Hancock to his unmarked grave at Granary Burying Ground. Thirteen volleys issued from the muskets of minutemen to mark the unlikely union Hancock had played such an instrumental role in creating.
But Hancock’s contributions to the founding of America seemed to slip out of historic consciousness, hidden in the shadow of other more noted founders. It wasn’t until a century after his death that Massachussets funded a “suitable monument” for John Hancock at his grave site. The cost was not to exceed $3000.
*I am using “British” to stand for Parliament and King George III, although the Colonists wouldn’t have used that term as they all thought of themselves as British.