of the most powerful and influential of the Founding Fathers who never became President, but just might
have if he had lived longer. He was also
one of if not the richest man of his time, a shrewd businessman who often skirted
the law, and in his own way true celebrity of his age. But he also dedicated himself to elective
public service on the local, state, and national level.
No, Hancock did not sell insurance. Or teach penmanship. But the man with probably the most famous signature in American history 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 landowners
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,
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 came 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 company 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.
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 adviser. 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
In 1765 Hancock was first elected as one of five Boston Selectmen and in 1768 to the Massachusetts Assembly. As a supporter of 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 officials 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 as a hero by citizens
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 manhandling 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 Assembly refused
to do so. Bernard was recalled to
With New England-born
Thomas Hutchinson now acting
Governor, tensions between Boston townsfolk and British troops in the city
ran high. After a snowball 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.
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 advisers.
Fearing that it would appear that he had been compromised,
Hancock refused the appointment.
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 hundreds 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.
Hancock kept 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 was fought.
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 homes in Philadelphia. Many of his hosts were suspected Tories. He attended Congress in an elegant
carriage emblazoned with his arms and often attended by mounted guards
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 pinnacle 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 Newport,
Rhode Island. The operation under General John Sullivan was a disaster. The militia broke and ran exposing
the Continentals 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
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
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 procession were the most lavish seen in America up to that time.