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Hancock, John (1737-1793)

John Hancock (1737-1793)

Merchant and statesman

Sources

The House of Hancock. John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, a son of the Reverend John Hancock and the former Mary Hawke. When his father died, the boy was adopted by his childless uncle, Thomas, Bostons richest merchant. After graduating from Harvard College in 1754, John entered his uncles mercantile firm. Like many young merchants being groomed to take over the family business, John was sent for a short period to England to complete his commercial education. John returned to Boston in 1761 and two years later became a partner in Thomas Hancock and Company. In 1764 Thomas Hancock died, leaving the twenty-seven-year-old John as head of the firm and heir to the bulk of his uncles £70,000 fortune.

Revolutionary Leader. The wealthy young merchant led a life of ease and luxury. He traveled with six horses and several servants, set a fine table, and was partial to imported goods such as Madeira wine. Like many commercial men, he became involved in Massachusetts politics, which in the 1760s revolved around the colonys discontent with Parliament. In 1765 Hancock protested to his English correspondents against the Stamp Act. When Parliaments new commissioners arrived in late 1767 to tighten enforcement of the customs laws, Hancock refused to allow the militia unit that he commanded to participate in the welcoming ceremonies. He became even more of a public patriotic figure in 1768, when Massachusetts was in the midst of mob violence following the imposition of the Townshend duties. Tensions with the customs officials worsened, and in April, Hancock had his men forcibly remove two minor officials from his brig Lydia for going below decks without a warrant. In response the commissioners instructed the Massachusetts attorney general to file a criminal charge against Hancock, but the charges were eventually dropped. Meanwhile customs officials, harassed by the colonial mobs, had sent a plea to England for military help. When the British warship Romney arrived in June, the officials saw their chance to send a clear message that they would no longer tolerate smuggling and other acts of noncompliance. The authorities tried to make an example of Hancock by seizing another of his ships, the Liberty and charging him with a technical violation of the Sugar Act of 1764. Instead of subduing the colonists, however, the action provoked one of the worst riots in Bostons history. A mob of several hundred roamed the towns streets hunting for and harassing customs officials. Hancock refused to capitulate. He was defended in court by his friend John Adams, and the suit was dropped after a few months. The incident convinced Parliament to send troops into Boston; it also enhanced Hancocks prestige among patriots. In 1769 Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts General Court and following the Boston Massacre in 1770 was appointed head of the town committee. As relations with Britain improved in the early 1770s, Hancocks radicalism subsided somewhat. But in 1773 the Tea Act once again threw Boston into an uproar. Hancock was one of the few substantial merchants who supported radical action, and he was elected chairman of the town meeting protesting the new tax. In 1774 Hancock was chosen to deliver the oration on the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. He exhorted his listeners if necessary to fight and even die for the prosperity of our Jerusalem. Later that year Hancock was elected president of the new Massachusetts provincial Congress and chairman of the committee of safety.

Congress. In late 1774 Hancock was made a delegate to the Second Continental Congress that was to meet in Philadelphia the following June. Hancocks radicalism marked him as a serious troublemaker in the eyes of the British, and in April 1775 Gen. Thomas Gage attempted to seize him and Samuel Adams for high treason. Both men were staying in Thomas Hancocks former home in Lexington, Massachusetts, along with Dorothy Quincy, whom John Hancock married later that year. Warned by Paul Revere, Hancock and Adams escaped just as the battles of Lexington and Concord began. They made their way to Philadelphia to attend the Second Continental Congress and were cheered as heroes in towns along the way. Adams and Hancock had become so notorious that General Gage specifically exempted them from the British offer of general amnesty, part of an attempt to restore peace. Hancock later became president of Congress, and he was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. He did it boldly and with characteristic flourish, and today his signature is recognized the world over as a symbol of the American Revolution. Hancock hoped to be made commander in chief of the army, but Congress chose George Washington instead. Feeling slighted and perhaps sensing that other political figures were overshadowing him, Hancock resigned as president in October 1777 and was succeeded by Henry Laurens of South Carolina.

Massachusetts Politics. Hancock had ceased to be actively involved in his firms business upon being elected to the Massachusetts provincial congress in 1774. After resigning from the Continental Congress in 1777, he began to spend much of his time in Boston devoting himself to Massachusetts politics and expending his money on public works. In 1780 he was a member of the Massachusetts constitutional convention and later that year was elected the first governor of the state. He served until early 1785, when an attack of gout forced him to resign just when rural debtors were revolting against the government. Hancock stood for the governorship again after the trouble subsided, eventually serving a total of nine terms. In 1788 he presided at the state convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution. Hancock had been reluctant to support the Constitution, but at a crucial moment he offered amendments that satisfied the AntiFederalists, and Massachusetts ratified. Hancock never matched the business talents of his uncle. Upon his death the fortune left to him by Thomas Hancock was considerably diminished by years of inattention to the firms business. Yet it was a respectable fortune, having been considerably augmented by large tracts of frontier land given to John Hancock in recognition of his services to the new country. He was serving as governor of Massachusetts when he died in 1793 at age fifty-six.

Sources

W. T. Baxter, The House of Hancock. Business in Boston, 1724-1775 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1945);

William M. Fowler, The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).

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Hancock, John

John Hancock

Born: January 23, 1737
Braintree, Massachusetts
Died: October 8, 1793
Boston, Massachusetts

American statesman, politician, and governor

John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence and was a leader of the movement toward revolution in the American colonies. He later served as a president of the Continental Congress, and he was elected governor of Massachusetts for nine terms.

Early life

John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on January 23, 1737. His parents were John Hancock, a Harvard graduate and minister, and Mary Hawke. After the death of his father when Hancock was seven, he was adopted by his uncle, a wealthy Boston merchant. Hancock graduated from Harvard in 1754, served for a time in his uncle's office as a clerk, and went to London in 1760 as the firm's representative. He spent a year there. In 1763 Hancock became a partner in his uncle's thriving business.

When his uncle died in 1764, Hancock inherited the business. He was one of many who was opposed to Great Britain's passing of the Stamp Act in 1765, since the act taxed the kinds of transactions, or business dealings, his company was involved with. As a result, to avoid having to pay these taxes, Hancock ignored the law and began smuggling (bringing in secretly) goods into the colonies.

Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1766 at the suggestion of other colonists who were against British interference in the colonies. Hancock had attracted attention as something of a hero after one of his smuggling ships, the Liberty, was seized by the British. He received more votes than Samuel Adams (17221803), one of the most famous American Revolutionary leaders, in the next General Court election. Meanwhile, Hancock was threatened with large fines by Britain for the Liberty affair. Though the fines were never collected, Hancock never got his ship back.

Growing anti-British sentiment

Every time the British made a move that affected the American colonies, especially anything involving taxes, Samuel Adams and other anti-British agitators (people who stir up public feeling on political issues) spoke out against it. The Boston Massacre of 1770 (when British soldiers fired into a crowd of people who had been throwing snowballs and sticks at them, killing five) increased colonial anger toward Britain and established a tension that continued to grow. Hancock wavered for a time, but when the strength of public opinion became clear, he made the courageous announcement that he was totally committed to making a stand against the actions of the British governmenteven if it cost him his life and his fortune.

During the Boston Tea Party of 1773, Boston colonists disguised as Native Americans dumped three shiploads of British tea into the harbor as a protest against the British government. After the Boston Tea Party, the British passed the Boston Port Bill of 1774. The bill ordered the closing of the port of Boston until the cost of the tea was repaid. Hancock's reputation grew during this time to the point where he became one of the main symbols of anti-British radicalism (extreme actions trying to force change). How much of this was planned by him, and how far he had been pushed by Samuel Adams, is uncertain. What is known is that when British General Thomas Gage finally decided to try to achieve peaceful relations with the colonies, Hancock and Adams were the only two Americans to whom he refused to even consider giving amnesty (a pardon).

Continental Congress

Hancock was elected president of the Continental Congress in May 1775 and married Dorothy Quincy in August of the same year. He hoped to be named to command the army around Boston and was disappointed when George Washington (17321799) was selected instead. Hancock voted for, and was the first representative to sign, the Declaration of Independence. Although Hancock resigned as president of the Continental Congress in October 1777, saying that he was in poor health, he stayed on as a member.

Hancock still wanted to prove himself as a military leader. However, when given the opportunity to command an expedition into Rhode Island in 1778, he did nothing to distinguish himself. Hancock was also embarrassed in 1777 when Harvard College, which he had served as treasurer since 1773, accused him of mismanaging university funds and demanded repayment. Hancock was forced to pay £16,000 (approximately $22,000). In 1785 Hancock admitted that he still owed £1,054 (approximately $1,500) to Harvard. This sum was eventually paid out of his estate after his death.

Elected to office

Like most public figures, Hancock had enemies. His opponents spread the word that he was a shallow man who lacked strong beliefs and was only interested in helping himself. Nevertheless, they could not prevent his election as the first governor of Massachusetts, in 1780. He was reelected several times until retiring in 1785 just before Massachusetts went through a financial crisis. Although he claimed that his retirement was based on illness, Hancock's enemies claimed that he had seen the coming storm, which was caused in part by mistakes he had made in handling the state's money. After Shays's Rebellion (a 178687 uprising by farmers and small property owners in Massachusetts who demanded lower taxes, court reforms, and a revision of the state constitution), Hancock was reelected governor.

In 1788, Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts State Convention to ratify, or approve, the new Constitution. He was approached by members of the Federalist Party (an early political group that supported a strong central government) who wanted a set of amendments added to the document. They supposedly hinted that if Hancock presented the amendments, they would help him to be named president if Washington declined the job. The truth of this story has never been confirmed. In the end, Hancock did offer the amendments, and Massachusetts ratified the Constitution. Washington accepted the presidency, and Hancock remained as Massachusetts governor, his popularity unchallenged. He died in office on October 8, 1793.

For More Information

Gaines, Ann. John Hancock: President of the Continental Congress. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.

Koslow, Philip. John Hancock: A Signature Life. New York: Watts, 1998.

Unger, Harlow G. John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

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Hancock, John

HANCOCK, JOHN


Although many saw John Hancock (17371793) as nothing but a vain and pompous merchant, he was nonetheless a key figure in securing American independence and creating the republic of the United States. His capacity to sidestep controversy made him an ideal presiding officer. He displayed this skill in the Provincial Conventions, the Continental Congress, and as governor of Massachusetts. Though he was largely an uninspired leader, generally lacking personal style, Hancock became famous for the enormous signature he affixed to the Declaration of Independence as one of the nation's founding fathers.

John Hancock was born in Braintree (present-day Quincy), Massachusetts, in 1737, the son of John and Mary Hancock. Hancock's father was a minister who died when his son was only seven. His widowed mother took him and her two other children to live in Lexington, Massachusetts, with her father-in-law. In 1795 Hancock was sent to live with his uncle and aunt, Thomas and Lydia Hancock, in Boston. His uncle was one of Boston's wealthiest businessmen, and so John Hancock grew up in wealth, living in the Beacon Hill area.

Hancock attended Harvard College as part of the class of 1754; after graduating, he returned to Boston and joined his uncle's import-export business. Hancock's return to the family business coincided with the outbreak of the French and Indian War (17541763) for the next six years the House of Hancock, as the business was called, became busy fulfilling government contracts. During this time Hancock learned a great deal about the business. In 1759, to cement business ties and to introduce the young Hancock to a wider world, his uncle sent him to England for a year. On his return in 1761 Hancock found his uncle in poor health and began to take more responsibility in the business and, when his uncle died in 1764, Hancock assumed full responsibility.

Although the young man began life with many advantages, he was not a gifted businessman, and Hancock lost the House of Hancock business eleven years later in 1775. Despite the fact that his uncle had left him a thriving business which Hancock was unable to adequately manage, the loss was not completely his fault. English rule made it very difficult for anyone to run a profitable import-export business.

It may be said that the business world's loss was a gain for the movement of rebellion in America. Hancock subsequently immersed himself in politics and won election to the General Court of Massachusetts. He blamed British colonial rule for his business disasters and, in 1768, when British troops stationed in Boston Harbor seized his ship (the Liberty ) for smuggling, Hancock was drawn deeper into the movement for independence. He increasingly adopted the revolutionary perspectives of Samuel Adams (17221803) and Thomas Paine (17371809).

By 1775 Hancock had become such an irritation to the British that they tried to seize him along with Samuel Adams. Hancock avoided arrest and escaped to Philadelphia as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. He was elected president of the Congress and held that position for three years. But in spite of his prominence in that service, Hancock contributed little of note to its efforts. Most of the Congress' work was accomplished through committees, which created a patchwork of enormous inefficiencies.

Hancock's greatest moment as a member of the revolutionary movement came on July 4, 1776, when he was asked with others to sign the Declaration of Independence. With his characteristic flair for the grand gesture Hancock signed the document first, with an oversized signature.

Hancock was becoming an annoyance to other members of the Continental Congress, as well as to his constituents back home. In 1777 he announced that, for reasons of health, he was returning to Boston. Still, he delayed his return until the summer of 1778. Back in Massachusetts, Hancock worked in concert with the French navy to commanded 5,000 Massachusetts militiamen in an attempt to capture Newport, Rhode Island, from the British in 1778. The expedition was a failure.

Hancock was elected as the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts after the American Revolution (17751783). He continued as governor until 1785, when he retired purportedly because of poor health. Insiders knew that Hancock's mismanagement of Massachusetts' finances had put the state in financial peril. Hancock left in time to avoid the uprising of small farmers (including many revolutionary veterans) who, during the post-war depression, were losing their land for non-payment of taxes. Hancock's successor had the unhappy task of suppressing the rebellion.

In spite of his fiscal and governmental misadventures Hancock was elected delegate to the state ratifying convention for the new Constitution, which was written in 1787. He made public speeches in favor of ratifying the new Constitution. Many felt that without his support the Constitution might never have been ratified. Perhaps this was Hancock's finest moment in a life otherwise filled with failures and missteps. With the ratification of the Constitution, George Washington (17891797) was elected president. Contrary to his hopes Hancock was not elected as Vice President. John Adams (17351826) was instead awarded the post.

Hancock served as governor of Massachusetts from 1780 to 1793 (with the exception of two years, 1785 to 1787). He died in Boston in October of 1793.

See also: American Revolution

FURTHER READING

Baxter, William T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945.

Becker, Carl L. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.

Fehrenbach, T.R. Greatness to Spare: The Heroic Sacrifices of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1968.

Fowler, William M. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

Magill, Frank N., ed. Great Lives from History. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1990. s.v. "John Hancock."

Sears, Lorenzo. John Hancock, the Picturesque Patriot. Boston, MA: Gregg Press, 1972.

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John Hancock

John Hancock

John Hancock (1737-1793) signed the Declaration of Independence and was a leader of the movement toward revolution in the American colonies. Later prominent in the Continental Congress, he was elected Massachusetts governor for nine terms.

Born at Braintree, Mass., on Jan. 23, 1737, John Hancock was reared in the piety and penury of a Congregational minister's household. He was 7 when his father died and he became a ward of his uncle, a prominent Boston merchant. Hancock graduated from Harvard in 1754, served for a time in his uncle's office as a clerk, and went to London in 1760 as the firm's representative. In England he witnessed the pageantry unfurled for the new king, George III, but he was not enthralled by life in the imperial capital and returned to his Boston mansion. In 1763 Hancock became a partner in his uncle's prosperous importing and provisioning business.

When his uncle died in 1764, Hancock inherited property worth almost £70, 000. As a merchant prince, he naturally resisted Britain's attempt to restrict colonial trading via the Stamp Act, which was later repealed. But Hancock's mercantile ventures soon led to evasive tactics that were, in fact, smuggling.

Pushed to prominence by more militant men, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1766. The British seizure of one of his smuggling vessels, the Liberty, became a cause célèbre and made him a popular hero. He received more votes than Samuel Adams in the next General Court election. Meanwhile, he was threatened by the Crown with fines of nearly £100, 000 for the Liberty affair. Though the fines were never collected, neither was Hancock's ship returned.

Growing Anti-British Sentiment

British military and revenue policies after 1768 were exploited by Samuel Adams and other anti-British agitators. The Boston Massacre of 1770 increased colonial animosity and established a tension that was nurtured by the militant patriots. Hancock, for a time, wavered. However, when the tide of public opinion became clear, he announced that he was totally committed to the patriot cause, even if it cost him his life and his fortune. This took some courage.

In the rush of later events, as the Boston Tea Party of 1773 brought on more coercive laws and, finally, the Boston Port Bill of 1774, Hancock's reputation mounted. By 1775 his name was synonymous with American radicalism. How much of this was thoughtful leadership on his part and how far he had been pushed by Adams is uncertain. Hancock and Adams were, after all, the only two Americans denied amnesty when British general Thomas Gage belatedly decided to try for peaceful relations.

Continental Congress

Hancock was elected president of the Continental Congress in May 1775. He longed for command of the army around Boston and was undoubtedly disappointed when George Washington was selected. He voted for, and was the first delegate to sign, the Declaration of Independence. Then Hancock resigned as president in October 1777, pleading ill health.

Meanwhile, Hancock had married Dorothy Quincy in August 1775. Though he stayed on as part of the congressional delegation, he still longed for military glory. However, his one opportunity—in the Rhode Island campaign of 1778—was undistinguished.

Hancock was embarrassed in 1777, when Harvard College sought to regain its account books and funds. Hancock had been named treasurer of the college in 1773, and he now refused to give accounts or release funds in his care. He was forced to surrender £16, 000 in 1777. In 1785 Hancock admitted that he still owed his alma mater £1, 054—a sum eventually paid by his heirs.

Like most public men, Hancock had enemies. Though his detractors insisted that Hancock was a shallow man who lacked conviction and was merely an opportunist, they could not prevent his election as the first governor of Massachusetts, in 1780. He was reelected repeatedly, until an impending financial crisis coincided with his voluntary retirement in 1785. Though he claimed that his retirement was based on illness, Hancock's enemies asserted that he had seen the coming storm, which was caused in part by his ineptitude in fiscal matters. After Shays' Rebellion (1786), Hancock was reelected governor.

In 1788, elected president of the Massachusetts State Convention to ratify the new Federal Constitution, Hancock was approached by Federalists who recommended a set of amendments, hinting that—if he presented them, and if Washington declined the presidency—Hancock himself might be in line for the nation's first office. Perhaps the story is unfair, but more than one witness attested to its truth. Hancock did offer the amendments, and Massachusetts ratified the Constitution. Perhaps Hancock waited for a call that never came.

Thereafter, Hancock remained as Massachusetts governor, his popularity unchallenged. He died in office on Oct. 8, 1793.

Further Reading

The best biography of Hancock is Herbert S. Allan, John Hancock: Patriot in Purple (1948). William T. Baxter, The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724-1775 (1945), is a specialized study. For general background John Richard Alden, A History of the American Revolution (1969), is recommended. Hancock's own preserved papers are few. □

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Hancock, John

John Hancock, 1737–93, political leader in the American Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Braintree, Mass. From an uncle he inherited Boston's leading mercantile firm, and naturally he opposed the Stamp Act (1765) and other British trade restrictions. In 1768 his ship Liberty was seized as a smuggler and confiscated by the crown. A riot ensued, and later the ship was burned. Hancock was hailed as a martyr and elected (1766) to the legislature, where he joined Samuel Adams in advocating resistance to England. In 1775, Gen. Thomas Gage issued a warrant for their arrest, but they escaped. Hancock was a member (1775–80, 1785–86) and president (1775–77, 1785–86) of the Continental Congress. His name appears first (and largest) on the Declaration of Independence, and the term "John Hancock" is often used to mean a signature. He was governor of Massachusetts (1780–85, 1787–93).

See biographies by L. Sears (1912, repr. 1972), W. T. Baxter (1945), H. S. Allan (1948), and F. Wagner (1964).

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