Founding Fathers Friday: John Hancock
by Derrick G. Jeter
Ask any American what first comes to their mind when thinking about the Declaration of Independence and they will give you one of three answers: the famous second sentence about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Thomas Jefferson, or John Hancock’s bold signature. Part of the myth of Hancock’s John Hancock was that he signed in such large letters so King George III could read it without his spectacles. Whether Hancock really said something like this or not, one thing is true—King George, or anyone for that matter, could read Hancock’s signature without glasses.
Today, we should be thankful that Hancock penned his name in such large letters. After more than two hundred years, the Declaration has become so faded that his name is one of the very few legible pen strokes on the document. But unfortunate for John Hancock the man, his bold signature has overshadowed his other many accomplishments for our country.
The son of a minister, Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts on January 12, 1737. At the age of seven, his father died and he was sent to live with Thomas Hancock, a childless and rich uncle, who was a shipping tycoon. (In reality, Thomas was a smuggler.) Hancock moved into uncle Thomas’s mansion on Beacon Hill, overlooking the Commons. Today, the state house dominates Beacon Hill, sitting on land where Hancock’s mansion once sat. Hancock attended Boston Latin School—the oldest continuously operating public schools in the country—and graduated from Harvard. After college, Hancock learned the export/import business (smuggling). He traveled to England on business and while there in September 1761, attended the coronation of King George III. In 1764, Thomas died, leaving young John with the shipping business, the mansion on Beacon Hill, and money—lots of money, some seventy thousand pounds sterling or more—making him the richest man in Massachusetts. And he wasn’t even yet thirty years old.
Two years after Thomas’s death, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts House, with the help of his friend Samuel Adams. Hancock, like many colonists in Boston, resented Parliament’s Stamp Act, the measure requiring the purchase of a royal stamp affixed to all documents before business transactions could be made. So outraged were the colonists in Massachusetts, and elsewhere, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766. When news reached Boston in mid-May, the patriots, who had fought against the tax, broke out in celebration with bell ringing, gunfire, drums and singing, flag waving, drinking and eating, and bonfires.
With the repeal of the Stamp Act, the Sons of Liberty—a radical political organization formed by Sam Adams—seemed ready to disband. But the removal of one tax didn’t mean that Parliament was through taxing its American colonies. In 1767 a new power exerted influence in Parliament, his name was Charles Townshend. Under Townshend, new taxes were imposed, known as the Townshend Acts, which taxed the colonies “indirectly” instead of “directly.” The colonists weren’t amused, including Hancock. The Sons of Liberty didn’t disband, but grew with the financial backing of their “milch cow,” John Hancock.
Eventually, the Townshend Acts were repealed, except for the one on imported tea from the East India Tea Company. Americans didn’t want to continue paying the tax on British tea so they bought Dutch smuggled tea instead, even though the British tea was cheaper to buy. One of those smugglers was Hancock. At one point one of Hancock’s ships, the aptly named Liberty, was seized by the British. Hancock was accused of smuggling, and though successful defended by John Adams, the crown refused to return the ship and pressed it into service in royal navy. A riot ensued and the ship was burned.
By this time Hancock was a firm patriot and Son of Liberty. When England sent troops into the city and closed Boston Harbor, Hancock had already been involved in raising militia units, known as Minutemen, as part of his responsibilities as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. By April 19, 1775, Hancock had a bounty of £500 on his head. Meeting with Sam Adams in Lexington, Hancock was warned by Paul Revere that British Regulars were marching into the village to seize weapons and gunpowder, and, if possible, to bag Hancock and Adams. While both men fled, the Minutemen engaged the British army on Lexington Green, starting the American Revolution.
In May of 1775 both Adams and Hancock, along with Sam’s cousin, John, Elbridge Gerry, and Robert Treat Paine represented Massachusetts in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Elected as president, Hancock served in that post from 1775 through 1777. When the vote for independence was finally cast on July 2, 1776, and the language to the Declaration of Independence was formalized on July 4, 1776, John Hancock became the first and only representative to affix his name (along with the secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson). A month later, on August 2, 1776, the engrossed document—the one on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.—was signed by the majority of Congressional members. Once again, Hancock signed first and with his iconic flourish.
Hancock resigned as president of the Congress at the end of 1777, but remained a representative until 1780, when he was elected as the first governor of the State of Massachusetts, a post he held until 1793. Hancock died on October 8, 1793. He was fifty-six years old. He had expressed in his will that he wanted a quiet funeral, but Sam Adams, his friends and now governor wouldn’t hear of it. Hancock’s funeral was a lavish affair. A procession of pomp and circumstance wound its way through the street so Boston. Bells rang out. Soldiers marched. Stores closed their doors. And flags flew. It was a grand spectacle. And John Hancock would have loved it!