With the flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock is a name easily remembered. But what do we know of Hancock’s life?
John Hancock was born on 23 January 1737 in Baintree, Massachusetts (now known as Quincy, Massachusetts), to Mary Hawke and John Hancock (the elder), clergyman. Mr. Hancock died when John was a child of seven, and for a period, Mary moved in with in-laws in the Lexington, Massachusetts, area. Eventually, she sent John to live with his wealthy aunt and uncle, Lydia and Thomas Hancock, who adopted him.
First, Hancock attended the Boston Latin School, a long-established public school, and later, Harvard College, graduating at the age of 17. After his schooling, he apprenticed with his uncle, who owned a large shipping business. As Hancock proved quite efficient, the uncle sent him on a business mission to England in 1760. There, he witnessed the coronation of King George III. When his uncle died in 1763, Hancock inherited a great wealth: an import-export business and a home on Beacon Hill.
The newfound fortune placed him in the company of the loyalists and social position, and Hancock earned a reputation for his exorbitance. He also was known for his philanthropy: assisting those who encounter disasters, etc.
According to Signing Their Lives Away (Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnest, page 39), “He funded his alma mater, paid for street lamps and concert halls, and helped impecunious friends such as Samuel Adams feed their families. But he also had flaws. He was impossibly vain and imagined scenarios and roles for himself that he could not reasonably attain or fulfill. For example, he became peeved when Congress chose George Washington to led the Continental Arm. His frustration appears misplaced when one realizes he had no real military experience, unless one counts the time he ran the honor guard for the Massachusetts royal governor. He and his ceremonial troops would march around in fancy uniforms that Hancock, of course, had bought for all his men. Dapper and small, Hancock loved elegant clothing. In this he did not conform to one’s image of a Yankee Puritan, and he would later class famously with dour, plain, and perhaps brighter congressmen such as John Adams.”
However, Hancock kept his revolutionary ideas. Soon he advocated America’s separation from England. He was elected to the Boston Assembly in 1766 and became a member of the Stamp Act Congress.
When the custom officials in Boston Harbor seized one of his ships on the charge of running contraband goods, a group of citizens stormed the customs office, burned the government boat, and beat the officers. Likely, Hancock had smuggled in good to avoid unreasonable taxation. Samuel Adams successfully defended Hancock against the charges and the ship was seized as a royal asset, which was the impetus for the riot. Unfortunately, the ship was burned. After this incident with the Liberty and the Boston Massacre, Hancock encouraged others to participate in the Boston Tea Party.
The Boston Massacre was a street fight that occurred on March 5, 1770, between a “patriot” mob, throwing snowballs, stones, and sticks, and a squad of British soldiers. Several colonists were killed and this led to a campaign by speech-writers to rouse the ire of the citizenry. Hancock was among those to speak out.
Elected to the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts and the Continental Congress in 1774, he became the President with the resignation of Peyton Randolph. “In 1774, Hancock was made leader of the Massachusetts delegate to the second Continental Congress, which would convene the following year in Philadelphia. Yet Hancock and [Samuel] Adams were hunted by British general Thomas Gage. The two were warned by Paul Revere during his famous April 18, 1775 night ride shouting out that British forces were on their way. Hancock and Adams fled Lexington, where they were staying, and eventually made their way to Philadelphia.
“The Congress met in May, 1775. George Washington was appointed leader of the Continental Army while Hancock was appointed congress president. Hancock would give the coming American war effort financial support while his presidential role was more of a figurehead position, with congressional decisions generally achieved through committee. In August of the same year, he wed Dorothy Quincy, who came from a merchant family as well. Hancock’s business fortune by this time had significantly dwindled.” (Biography.com)
He retired in 1777 after suffering with gout, but remained in the role of public service in Massachusetts. Eventually, he became governor for five years. Stepping away again, Hancock was persuaded to accept the governorship once more in 1787. There he stayed until his death in 1793.
“The dignity and character of John Hancock, celebrated by friend and enemy alike, did not suffer for his love of public attention. He was a populist in every sense, who held great confidence in the ability of the common man. He also displayed a pronounced contempt for unreasoned authority. A decree had been delivered from England in early 1776 offering a large reward for the capture of several leading figures. Hancock was one of them. The story, entirely unfounded, is that on signing the Declaration, Hancock commented, ‘The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward.” An alternate story, also unfounded has him saying, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!’ He was the first to sign and he did so in an entirely blank space.” (USHistory.org)
“It was his task to help unify a group of quarreling, self-important men. In the end, Hancock, as president of Congress, was the first to stick his neck out for the cause. He and the secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson, were the only men to sign the original document on July 4 before it went out to the printer, John Dunlap. Hancock reportedly announced that he signed his name in large letters so that King George could read his signature without spectacles. Then he dared England to double the £500 reward already on his head. Hancock’s flamboyant signature probably says more about his overall character than that specific intent. Though John Adams resented Hancock’s election to the presidency, it’s unlikely that Adams could have hobnobbed and charmed the southerners as well s did his charming and fashion-conscious friend. They probably bonded over things like tie wings, imported silks, and the latest button designs.” (Kiernan and D’Agnest, page 47).