John Hancock, A Biographical Sketch
By Charles A. Goodrich, 1829
John Hancock died October 8, 1793 at the age of 55, six years before George Washington and Patrick Henry. Two shameful events have occurred since his death. There was no national outpouring of grief at his death and, except for commemoration of his bold sweeping signature on the Declaration of Independence, historians have done little to recognize his extraordinary sacrifices and contributions to America's independence.
Hancock was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1737. Both his father and grandfather were clergymen. His parents died while he was young and he was adopted and raised by his paternal uncle, Thomas Hancock, the most successful and enterprising merchant in New England. Thomas Hancock founded a professorship at Harvard College, now Harvard University. John attended Harvard and graduated in 1754.
There are two possible reasons that historians have ignored John Hancock. The first is that he was not a distinguished scholar, and second, he was plagued with poor health throughout most of his later life. Although elected as a member, he was too ill to attend the convention in Philadelphia which is the reason that he is not a signer to the U.S. Constitution.
John joined his uncle's business directly out of college and spent 1760-1764 in England involving himself with the company's customers and suppliers. During this time he established excellent rapport with distinguished Englishmen and demonstrated complete devotion to the British crown.
Shortly after returning to America his uncle died and John inherited the business and huge fortune becoming the wealthiest man in Massachusetts. Although only 27 years old he did not allow wealth to influence his sense of dedication and continued his course of regularity, industry, and moderation. Many depended upon him for employment and he was kind and generous. He quickly gained a wide reputation for honor and integrity. From this position he had the support of both the British and the colonist and was able to serve effectively in the legislature of Massachusetts where he became associated with such men as Otis, Cushing, and Samuel Adams.
In 1768 Hancock's life took a dramatic turn. One of his ships arriving from England was seized by British customs officers as being loaded contrary to revenue laws and it was placed under guard of the British ship Romney in Boston harbor. The citizens, who depended on imports for their supplies, rioted and assaulted the revenue officers forcing them to retreat to the Romney for safety. In the melee a boat belonging to the tax collector was destroyed and several houses belonging to British loyalist were torn down.
Hancock was not involved in any of this but the colonist rallied to his name. More instances of retaliation against the collectors led to the British appointed governor requesting soldiers for protection. The troops were the first instance of British military forces being used against an American colony.
Hancock watched the early developments and strongly denounced the acts of violence. Finally he consulted with Samuel Adams, John Adams, and others to understand what was taking place. He soon realized that even his own employees were suffering under the taxation and administrative policies of the British. From that point he placed his energies in support of the rebels. Secretly at first through the Sons of Liberty organization, then openly after the Boston Massacre in March 1770.
Although provocation for the massacre was instigated by citizens, the whole town was simultaneously aroused. At the instigation of Samuel Adams and Hancock, an assembly of citizens convened the following day and a committee was formed demanding that the governor remove the troops. Hancock was named chairman of the committee and at the funeral of those killed in the massacre he delivered a blistering speech condemning the British.
Prior to the funeral address a few rebels had doubts about Hancock's patriotism and had gossiped about his great wealth. They had criticized the gold and silver embroidery of his clothing, his carriage and horses, servants, and his splendid mansion.
In Hancock's speech he had been so explicit and so patriotic that even the most dubious became convinced of what his close associates already knew -- Hancock was for real. The speech renewed his popularity.
The speech also convinced the British that he was a rebel.
Hancock became a marked man. For this reason, on the day of the battles of Lexington and Concord the British were seeking to arrest Hancock and Samuel Adams. Following those battles Massachusetts governor Gage issued a proclamation granting a general pardon to all who would demonstrate a proper penitence to the crown -- EXCEPT Hancock and Samuel Adams.
The British attempted to arrest Hancock many times before the Declaration of Independence was signed. With the flourish of his pen above the others on that document he offered his very life for the cause. Had he been arrested after July 4, 1776, he would have been hanged.
In October 1774 Hancock had been unanimously elected president of the provincial congress of Massachusetts. The following year he was elected to the Continental Congress. In that body were men of superior genius and of still greater experience than Hancock. There were Franklin, Jefferson, Dickinson, and many others. Men of pre-eminent abilities and superior political wisdom but none more virtuous. Hancock was chosen president and continued in that capacity until bad health forced his resignation in October 1777.
In 1780 he was elected the first governor of Massachusetts under the new state constitution. He was re-elected governor each year through 1785 when he resigned, again for health reasons, but after a two-year recovery he was re-elected in 1787 and remained governor until his death in 1793. It was written that "multitudes... thronged his house while his body lay in state, and... followed his remains to the grave."(1)
Unfortunately, the display of mourning was not national because he had not signed the constitution, he had not been a U. S. Senator, he had not been President, and he had not been a U. S. congressman. Yet, no founding father displayed greater virtue and resolution towards independence and none spent more of their personal wealth toward that effort. During the War of Revolution it was mostly Hancock's money which armed and fed the volunteers from Massachusetts. General Washington, in many of his request to congress for clothing, arms, and supplies, often compared his ragtag armies to the well equipped soldiers of Massachusetts Bay.
As for personal character:
"...he avoided excessive indulgence and dissipation. His habits, through life, were uniformly on the side of virtue. In his disposition and manners, he was kind and courteous. He claimed no superiority from his advantages, and manifested no arrogance on account of his wealth... Many examples of the generosity of his character are recorded. Hundreds of families, it is said, in times of distress, were daily fed from his munificence..."(1)
Indeed, the historical record of John Hancock is filled with passages such as the one above and this:
"An instance of his public spirit, in 1775, is recorded, much to his praise. At that time, the American army was besieging Boston, to expel the British, who held possession of the town. To accomplish this object, the entire destruction of the city was proposed by the American officers. By the execution of such a plan, the whole fortune of Mr. Hancock would have been sacrificed. Yet he immediately acceded to the measure, declaring his readiness to surrender his all, whenever the liberties of his country should require it."(1)
(1) The quoted texts in this article are excerpted from the 1829 book, "Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence," by the Rev. Charles A. Goodrich.
See The History Professor, for timeline-oriented original documents and factual materials of historical figures and events that led to the founding of America, the evolution of the Constitution, and the political system of the USA.