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  John Hancock (1737–1793), by John Singleton Copley, 1765 John Hancock (1737–1793), by John Singleton Copley, 1765
Hancock, John (1737–1793), merchant and revolutionary politician in America, was born on 12 January 1737 in Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of John Hancock (1702–1744), a Congregational minister, and Mary Thaxter Hawke, who later married Daniel Perkin, and who outlived her son. Upon the death of his father his mother sent him to live in Boston with his childless aunt Lydia Hancock (1714–1776) and his uncle, , perhaps the richest merchant in New England. After attending the Boston Latin school, John went to Harvard College in 1750 and graduated AB in 1754. Upon Thomas's death in 1764 he inherited a fortune of about £70,000. Aged thirty-eight, Hancock surprised his acquaintances by marrying, on 28 June 1775, Dorothy (Dolly) Quincy (1747–1830), who was living as the ward of his aunt Lydia. Dolly was probably his mistress before they married, for they had travelled to the continental congress together. They had two children, Dorothy, who died in infancy (1776–1777), and John George Washington Hancock, who lived to be eight (1778–1787).

Hancock was no businessman: he left most of his commercial affairs in the capable hands of his secretary Ezekiel Price, who managed to keep Hancock's wealth from shrinking despite his extraordinary largess. (Price also doubled as secretary of the Boston Sons of Liberty.) Hancock turned his attention to politics, forging an alliance with Samuel Adams and the opponents of British policy in the Boston town meeting around the time the Stamp Act was passed in 1765. He spent money lavishly: he gave £1000 to the Congregational Brattle Street Church which he attended, bought the town of Boston a new fire engine, and hosted innumerable parties and patriotic celebrations. He ingratiated himself with the people in a time of economic depression by treating them familiarly, in contrast to most members of the élite, and hiring workers to extend Hancock's Wharf and build the first house on Beacon Hill. (This beautiful mansion later fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1863 after a futile campaign to persuade the state legislature to purchase it.)

Such generosity, along with the £39,000 Hancock and his aunt had out on loan and seldom sued to collect, assured his rise in resistance circles, although he was not a writer, a speechmaker, or an organizer of the calibre of John and Samuel Adams. Hancock was first elected a representative to the Massachusetts assembly from Boston in 1765, a post in which he served until he was elected to the continental congress in 1774. Elected to the provincial council in 1768, he was criticized by the governor, Francis Bernard, for his resistance activity, although he did serve as a councillor in 1772 during a brief rapprochement with Governor Thomas Hutchinson.

Like his uncle and many Boston merchants, Hancock earned much of his fortune in illegal trade, notably the importation of rum and wine. In June 1768, the newly arrived American board of customs commissioners seized one of his ships, symbolically named Liberty, for failing to declare a cargo of Madeira wine. The Boston crowd rose on Hancock's behalf, if not at his request, dragged the customs house boat in front of Hancock's house, burned it, roughed up the commissioners, and chased them out of town. They responded by informing their superiors of their mistreatment, which caused British soldiers to be sent to Boston. After a complicated case characterized by intimidation of the witnesses against Hancock, the customs officers dropped the prosecution the following March.

Although he flirted with the loyalist faction headed by Hutchinson during the early 1770s, Hancock irrevocably committed himself to the resistance in May 1773. He announced that the Massachusetts house of representatives had come into possession of some (stolen) letters of governors Bernard and Hutchinson which convinced the house that they had intended to overthrow Massachusetts's representative government and establish arbitrary power. Hancock next moderated the town meetings which protested against the shipment of East India Company tea and plotted the famous Boston tea party of 16 December 1773. According to some witnesses he joined the festivities himself, poorly disguised as a Mohawk Indian.

Hancock's influence in Boston was such that the Impartial Administration of Justice Act, which parliament passed in 1774 to respond to the tea party, singled him out, along with Samuel Adams, as the two individuals to be brought to Britain for trial, possibly for treason. Hancock thereupon fled with Adams to Concord, a farming town 17 miles north-west of Boston. The American War of Independence was sparked on 18 April 1775, when British troops were sent to seize these two men along with illegally stockpiled munitions in Concord.

Having been unanimously elected president of the first continental congress in 1774, Hancock foolishly hoped that body would select him, despite his total lack of military experience, to lead the revolutionary army. Although disappointed in this hope, Hancock at first performed the largely ceremonial functions of his office well, for he craved personal popularity, enjoyed pomp and ceremony, and conciliated many delegates because he had no strong political ideas. His florid signature beneath the Declaration of Independence—which according to folklore he inscribed so large that King George could read it without his spectacles—is so famous in the United States that ‘John Hancock’ has become a synonym for ‘signature’. As he continued to preside over congress, Hancock found himself increasingly attracted to the lavish-spending delegates of the southern and middle states and alienated from his moralistic and parsimonious fellow New Englanders. He grew increasingly lackadaisical in the performance of his duties. When in October 1777 he asked to be restored to office following a two-month leave of absence, only two delegates supported him. His own state of Massachusetts joined a majority of six (to four) which refused even to thank him for his services.

Hancock returned to Massachusetts, and made sure that his popularity with the people remained undiminished. He continued to spend great sums of money, reimbursing Massachusetts troops in silver out of his own pocket in exchange for their paper money, accepting inflated continental paper money at par in his business dealings, donating firewood to the Boston poor, and riding about town in a beautiful coach escorted by fifty horsemen since he commanded the Massachusetts militia. He continued to bridge the gap between classes by treating lower-class people as equals, welcoming them into his mansion and finding employment for them. On 25 October 1780 he became the first governor of the state of Massachusetts under its new constitution.

Hancock was annually re-elected governor, with little opposition, for the rest of his life, except for the years 1785 and 1786, during the tumultuous period of Shays's rebellion, when he decided not to run. Although many of the élite deplored his familiar relations with the people, and the ministers condemned his extravagance and irreligiosity, Hancock retained power by continuing to spend money and avoiding offensive political positions. Following the suppression of Shays's rebellion by his successor Governor James Bowdoin, he benignly pardoned almost all the protesters and conciliated their followers.

Although he personally favoured a strong central government, Hancock hedged his support of the proposed United States constitution, coming down with the gout which he made sure habitually incapacitated him when he had to make a controversial decision. When his supporters persuaded him that he would be a logical choice as president or vice-president, however, his influence narrowly carried the constitution in the Massachusetts ratifying convention by 187 to 168. Disappointed that he was elected to neither national office, he pleaded gout when President George Washington visited New England. He had fancied that Washington would call upon him first and thus acknowledge the precedence of state governors. When Washington refused, Hancock had himself swathed in bandages to emphasize his discomfort and ceremoniously carried to meet the president. In the early 1790s Hancock was reconciled with his old friend Samuel Adams—they had been estranged throughout most of the 1780s. Adams became his lieutenant-governor and then governor upon his death; they won repeatedly despite their anti-federalism in an otherwise staunchly federalist state.

Hancock's opponents, first loyalists and then élite federalists who despised his personality and lack of strong principles, criticized him as superficial and a mere seeker of popularity. They were right about his weaknesses, but they were blind to his virtues. He deserves credit for keeping the resistance movement in Boston alive for much of the decade 1765 to 1775. Unlike many revolutionaries who used public office to enrich themselves, Hancock spent his seemingly bottomless fortune on the people of Massachusetts. He also served invaluably as a genial and impartial symbol of nationalism around which the continental congress in the mid-1770s and the people of Massachusetts in the 1780s could rally. If he did not become president, as he wished, he fulfilled a role similar to that of George Washington by being a figure around whom people of different opinions could rally.

Hancock died in Boston after a protracted illness on 8 October 1793, and was buried at Boston's Park Street churchyard. He left a fortune approximately equal to the one he inherited and his wife, who later married the retired captain of one of his ships, inherited over £12,000, enough to live in comfort for the rest of her days. One of Hancock's extra-political roles was that of treasurer of Harvard College: he lost the books, which were recovered in his stables and elsewhere, some as late as 1936. That he had taken them to Philadelphia when he went to serve in congress and forgotten about them symbolizes the paradoxical mixture of indifference to money, self-centredness, and disinterested patriotism which characterized this fascinating historical figure.

William Pencak

Sources  

W. T. Baxter, The house of Hancock: business in Boston, 1724–1775 (1945) · W. M. Fowler, The baron of Beacon Hill: a biography of John Hancock (1980) · H. S. Allen, John Hancock, patriot in purple (1953) · J. Tyler, Patriots and smugglers (1986) · W. Pencak, War, politics and revolution in provincial Massachusetts (1981) · L. Sears, John Hancock: the picturesque patriot (1913) · W. M. Fowler, ‘Hancock, John’, ANB · C. K. Shipton, ‘John Hancock’, Sibley's Harvard graduates: biographical sketches of those who attended Harvard College, 13 (1965), 416–46 · J. T. Adams, ‘Hancock, John’, DAB · A. E. Brown, ed., John Hancock: his book (1898) · Boston tax list, 1771, Massachusetts archives, Old Court House, Boston, vol. 132 · grave, Park Street churchyard, Boston

Archives  

New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, papers


Likenesses  

J. S. Copley, oils, 1765, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston [see illus.] · J. S. Copley, portrait, repro. in F. W. Bayley, Five colonial artists (1929) · C. W. Peale, miniature, priv. coll. · E. Savage, portrait, Library of Corcoran Gallery, Washington; repro. in Art in America (autumn 1952) · J. Trumbull, oils, Yale U. Art Gallery

Wealth at death  

£70,000: Allen, John Hancock