No, John Hancock did not sell insurance. Or teach penmanship. But the man with probably the most famous signature in American history. He was, however, a very successful and wealthy man who became a leading Patriot.
Some say he was the richest man in the colonies. Probably not. There were huge semi-feudal land owners in New York, Philadelphia merchants, and Virginia planters like George Washington—who had the good fortune to marry a very rich widow—who probably had greater net worth. But Hancock, a merchant, ship owner, and successful smuggler was certainly the richest man in Boston in the years leading up the Revolution. And unlike the New York and Virginia gentry whose wealth was tied up in land and slaves, Hancock had plenty of cold, hard cash,
Hancock was born in comfortable circumstances in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts on January 12, 1737. His father was a respected minister who baptized a young neighbor named John Adams. When his father died in 1744 he was adopted by his childless uncle, a wealthy merchant with a mansion on Boston’s Beacon Hill attended by a number of slaves. He was educated at Harvard and into his uncle’s business as a clerk. He did not have to labor long in such a capacity. He was sent to England on firm business, met many of the most powerful merchants in the country, and was on hand to personally observe the coronation of George III. His uncle died in 1763 leaving him the House of Hancock, a counting house—a sort of combination bank and merchant firm with a small fleet of ships engaged in profitable trade importing cloth and manufactured goods from England and exporting rum, cod, and naval stores. Nobody is sure just who found who, or who tutored the other, but Hancock fell in with a shirt tail relative of his old Braintree neighbor. Samuel Adams was already putting together a political operation based on the gangs of apprentices, younger journeymen, and day laborers who held rival Pope’s Day parades and brawled against each other. Adams united the North and South Boston gangs in ways that resembled the latter creation of urban political machines. As tensions rose with the British over the Stamp Act, Adams began to mold this group into the Sons of Liberty.
Not yet 30 years old, Hancock decided he wanted a political career. He could have one easily. With his wealth and position he could count on favor and appointment if he joined most of his rich friends in the party in support of the Royal Governor Francis Bernard. Instead, Hancock took another way.
Nobody is sure just who found who, or who tutored the other, but Hancock fell in with a shirt tail relative of his old Braintree neighbor. Samuel Adams was already putting together a political operation based on the gangs of apprentices, younger journeymen, and day laborers who held rival Pope’s Day parades and brawled against each other. Adams united the North and South Boston gangs in ways that resembled the latter creation of urban political machines. As tensions rose with the British over the Stamp Act, Adams began to mold this group into the Sons of Liberty.
Hancock became their patron and an advisor. He and Adams often met in the mansion on Beacon Hill—the rich man in silk small clothes and the shabby operative who was so poor that years later when he was elected to the Continental Congress a subscription had to be raised to buy him a decent suit of clothes.
In 1765 Hancock was first elected as one of five Boston Selectmen and in 1768 to the Massachusetts Assembly. As a supporter of the Adams, the Clerk of the House, he was soon an acknowledged leader of the anti-Bernard faction the Whigs.
Merchants, including Hancock had grown wealthy under the Stamp Act illegally importing goods from non-British ports and off loading at minor ports with no customs officials. The practice was widespread and looked upon as good business by the merchants and as smuggling by the British. When the Stamp Act was repealed Parliament imposed the Townsend Act which established an American Customs Board, increased appointment of customs agents, tightened trading restrictions levying new duties on a number of items.
Hancock led the public protest against the Townsend Act in Boston and called for a public boycott of British goods until “taxation without representation” ended. Customs official responded by giving special attention to the ships of the city’s most important Whig.
On April 9, 1768 two customs official boarded Hancock’s Lydia at dockside and demanded to expect the hold. Hancock was personally called to the ship and refused to allow the tax men to search because they did not have a legal writ of assistance (search warrant.) When one of the men tried to enter the hold, Hancock had him seized bodily and thrown off the ship. Attempts to charge Hancock with a crime failed when the Massachusetts Attorney General ruled that he had done nothing wrong. Hancock was hailed a hero by citizens of Boston.
A month later on May 9 another Hancock vessel, the Liberty arrived in port with a cargo of Madera wine. Hancock paid duties on the cargo but was charged with secretly unloading more of it by night. The case fell apart when the customs men who had spent the night on board reported that they had seen nothing. But when the British ship Rodney entered port the next month on a mission of customs enforcement, one of the customs men was taken on board where he changed his story and claimed that he had been held against his will while the crew unloaded the contraband.
On June 10 the Liberty, just loaded with an outbound cargo, was seized and towed to be moored alongside the Rodney in the harbor. The incident set off rioting in town and customs agents were physically assaulted. They fled in fear for their lives to the Rodney for protection.
Cases were brought against both the ship and Hancock personally. In August the ship and its cargo were officially confiscated. The Liberty was put in service as a customs enforcement ship until she was burned a year later by a mob in Rhode Island. The case against Hancock personally was prosecuted in a vice admiralty court where normal civil trial rights, including the ability to cross examine witnesses, were limited. If convicted Hancock and his partners could have been fined three times the value of the original cargo, estimated at £9,000, a huge sum in cash that might have even broken him. Hancock was stubbornly and ably defended by John Adams. After five months the case was dropped with no explanation.
In response to the violent man handling of the customs men and Sam Adams’s circular letters promoting a unified resistance to the Townsend Duties across the colonies, the Ministry in London determined to send troops to Boston. Bernard was instructed to get the colonies to rescind recognition of Adams’s Circular Letter. Led by Hancock, the Massachusetts House refused to do so. Bernard was recalled to England.
With New England born Thomas Hutchinson now acting Governor, tensions between Boston townsfolk and British troops in the city ran high. After a snow ball assault on a Red Coat sentry blew up into the Boston Massacre in 1770, Hancock personally informed Hutchinson and the English commander that 10,000 patriots were ready to march on Boston to compel the withdrawal of troops. Despite the obvious bluff, Hutchinson agreed to withdraw the two regiments that were quartered on the town to a garrison at Castle William. Once again Hancock was hailed as a hero.
In an attempt to ease tensions, Parliament revoked most of the Townsend duties, although it left some duties in place, largely to assert its right to do so. Tensions eased in Boston and Hutchinson attempted to lure Hancock to his side with an appointment as Colonel of the Boston Cadets, a militia unit whose primary function was to provide a ceremonial escort for the governor and the General Court. Hutchinson even approved for the first time after several previous elections, of Hancock's elevation to the Council, the Governor’s official advisors. Fearing that it would appear that he had been compromised.
After the passage of the Tea Act in 1773 imposing a heavy duty on imported tea, Hancock was the moderator of a Town Meeting which resolved that anyone supporting or paying the tea duties was an, “Enemy to America.” When three ships bearing East India Company tea arrived in the harbor, Sam Adams, Joseph Warren and other patriot leaders conferred with Hancock at his mansion to plan a response. Hancock was chair of a mass meeting on December 16 where he declared, “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes.” That evening a small mob, some thinly disguised as Indians, boarded the ships and dumped hundred of crates tea into the harbor. Hancock was not personally at the Boston Tea Party, but it was clear to everyone that he was part of the leadership that made it possible.ed, Hancock refused the appointment.
Hancock took a low profile for the next few months, both because of public outrage at the destruction of private property and because he was experiencing a painful episode of gout. But he was well enough to give a rousing speech on the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre which circulated as a broadside across the colonies.
After Hutchinson was replaced by General Thomas Gage as governor, the Assembly elected delegates to the First Continental Congress. Hancock stayed home while other leaders headed to Philadelphia. When Gage refused to let the General Court convene as scheduled in October 1774, Hancock led the move to declare the body the Massachusetts Provincial Congress independent of control by the Governor. He was elected President the Congress and was a leading member of the Committee on Public Safety which recommended the creation of Minutemen militia companies to be on call for rapid deployment.
In December he was elected a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Tensions in Boston rose over the winter and early spring. Hancock and Sam Adams got word that they were to be arrested. After attending a meeting of the Provincial Congress in Concord the two decided to stay in Lexington instead of returning to Boston. On April 18 British troops were sent to arrest the two men and seize cannon at an arsenal in Concord. Paul Revere spirited the two men away from Lexington as the British approached the Green and the opening battle of the Revolution.
Still wanted in Massachusetts Hancock and other delegates from the colony arrived in Philadelphia in May. Now one of the most famous Patriots, he was elected President of the Congress. John Adams promoted George Washington as commander of the new Continental Army. Years later he wrote that Hancock was disappointed not to have been selected. That may be, although there is no corroborating evidence and the two men had become estranged by that time. At any rate, Hancock fully supported Washington once he received the commission.
Hancock’s time as President of Congress was not without controversy. Even his old ally Sam Adams was shocked by his display of wealth. Unlike many of the delegates Hancock was welcome in the most fashionable home in Philadelphia. Many of his hosts were suspected Tories. He attended congress in an elegant carriage emblazoned with his arms and often attended by a mounted guards and servants.
After Congress recessed for the year Hancock married his long-time fiancé Dolly Quincy.
Returning to Congress, Hancock served in the bleakest days of the Revolution. After Washington was driven from New York he worked tirelessly in correspondence with the individual colonies to raise money and troops. With other members, he had to flee Philadelphia when the city was occupied by the British. As secretary of the Marine Committee he had a leading role in the creation of a Navy with the commission of six frigates, one of which was named in his honor.
Of course, Hancock is most famous for his signature on the Declaration of Independence. As President he had not participated in the debate, although he was known to be an ardent Patriot. When the Declaration was adopted the first printed copies, widely circulated as a broadside, contained only Hancock’s name. For six months his name was the only one publicly associated with the document until a new broadside was printed with the names of other delegates. There was no ceremonial signing. Those delegates still in town signed a specially drafted hand written copy on August 2. Hancock was the first to sign the large blank space left for signatures. His signature was large, legible, and written with a flourish. Years after the fact stories would circulate that Hancock has said something about signing to large the “even King George” could read it. Other delegates, including some not present for the vote on Independence added their names to what became the official copy over the next several months.
It was the panicle of Hancock’s public career, but hardly the end. In 1777 he took leave of Congress to return to Boston where he was re-elected to the legislature, as Moderator of the Boston Town Meeting, and to another term in Congress. Returning to Philadelphia in 1778 he was disappointed that he could not be re-elected President, southerner Henry Laurens having taken his place. He did not enjoy the diminished role. He did sign the Articles of Confederation before returning to Boston to finally get a long coveted chance at military glory.
He had been, on paper, the senior Major General of the Massachusetts militia since 1776. Now in August 1778 he took actual command of 6,000 ill trained men who joined Continental Regulars on an ill conceived attack on New Port, Rhode Island. The operation under General John Sullivan was a disaster. The militia broke and ran exposing the Continental to withering fire. That ended his military career, but scarcely damaged his political popularity at home.
When the new Massachusetts Constitution went into effect in 1780, Hancock was elected Governor by a landslide with more than 90% of the vote. He continued to be re-elected to annual terms until he unexpectedly resigned in January 1785 as tensions over taxation mounted in the western part of the state. His successor was left to put down Shay’s Rebellion. With the crisis past, he was re-elected in 1787, his hands unsullied by the blood of rebellious farmers. He pardoned the remaining Shay’s defendants. He remained Governor the rest of his life, although he took an increasingly hands off approach as the years went on.
He was also elected to the new Congress under the Articles of Confederation and offered the presidency of congress, but he declined, citing health issues. He never took his seat, probably recognizing the weakness of Congress in the post Revolutionary era.
In 1788 as chair of the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention he threw his support to the new Constitution, once again in alliance with his long estranged former ally Sam Adams. His final speech on the subject was credited with the narrow victory for adoption by a vote of 187 to 168.
In the election of the first President by the Electoral College, Hancock allowed his name to be put forward. He knew that Washington would be the unanimous choice, but hoped to win the vice-presidency. Custom and decorum prevented him from campaigning or even acknowledging that he was interested. In the end he got only 4 votes and his home state electors unanimously supported the eventual winner, John Adams. It was a disappointment but did not affect his popularity as governor.
After years of failing health, Hancock died with his wife at his side on October 8, 1793 at the age of 56. His only two children had died before adulthood. He was succeeded as governor by his old ally and later nemesis Sam Adams who declared a state holiday for the burial. The funeral and burial procession was the most lavish seen in America up to that time.