The Man Behind the Signature


Due in part to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s celebrated poem, Paul Revere’s midnight ride on April 18, 1775 is one of the American Revolution’s most iconic events. Leaving Boston, the daring patriot crossed the Charles River to Charlestown where he mounted his horse and tore off into the Massachusetts countryside. As he passed each house, he shouted for his countrymen to grab their muskets and prepare to resist the advancing Redcoats. Sounding the alarm was not his only mission, however. He was also desperate to reach Lexington and alert the colony’s two leading patriots of the imminent peril. Both men had long topped Britain’s most wanted list and were, therefore, coveted prizes for the expedition. First and foremost was the fiery Sam Adams who had passionately defended American liberty for ten years and led Boston’s Sons of Liberty against Parliament’s repressive policies. British leaders considered him a rabble-rouser, but his fellow patriot was just as dangerous. Unlike Adams, he came from a well-to-do background and had initially been more moderate in opposition. As Britain cracked down though, he assumed a larger role in the patriot cause. His name was John Hancock. This is the story of how British oppression transformed him from a loyal British subject into a revolutionary American patriot.

By the climactic spring of 1775, John Hancock had risen from humble origins to become one of Boston’s wealthiest inhabitants. He was born in January 1737 in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, outside of Boston, to a Congregational minister. He enjoyed an idyllic childhood traversing the fields alongside future President John Adams. At age seven, however, his father died, and he faced an uncertain future. Yet, it was at this bleak moment fortune smiled down on young John with the arrival of his Uncle Thomas, a successful merchant who operated Boston’s prestigious House of Hancock. With his mother’s agreement, he travelled to Thomas’s mansion on Beacon Hill and quickly adjusted to the trappings of wealth — riding in a gilt-laden carriage and wearing velvet breeches and a satin shirt with lace ruffles. He also mastered social etiquette and behaved as if he had been born into high society. In fall 1745 Hancock entered Boston’s Public Latin School where he perfected the sweeping handwriting that later made him famous. He then attended Harvard University and spent four years gaining valuable business and social skills. When he graduated in 1754, he was ready to join the House of Hancock.

Taking his place beside his uncle, Hancock devoted himself to becoming a worthy heir and partner. He spent hours pouring over account books and toiling in the firm’s stores, and at other times he traversed the city’s wharves visiting with ship captains or strolled Faneuil Hall’s market stalls conversing with fellow merchants. John gradually assumed greater responsibility, particularly as the French and Indian War raged throughout the 1750s and the House of Hancock served as a major military supplier. He gathered wagons and additional supplies for expeditions against the French, and with his uncle involved in crafting military strategy, his name appeared on supply orders with increasing regularity. His success persuaded Thomas Hancock John was ready to become his senior partner. In 1760, therefore, John visited London and met his uncle’s agents. He also cultivated relationships with British merchants. Returning to Boston in October 1761, he managed the House of Hancock’s daily operations while his uncle remained nominally in charge. That changed three years later, when on August 1, 1764, Thomas Hancock died of a stroke, leaving his nephew to carry on his legacy.

Now one of Boston’s most prominent citizens, John Hancock took to his position with all the dignity and grace expected of him. He forged tighter bonds with Boston’s business and royal elite, often hosting them at lavish dinner parties at the Beacon Hill mansion he inherited from his uncle. Despite enjoying an active social life, however, he also devoted himself to expanding his business empire by contracting with Nantucket whalers to dominate the whale oil industry. He filled his ships with the lucrative commodity and sent them to Britain in hopes of winning the highest bids. He also sent to London for merchandise to stock his stores in expectation of future sales. But it was not to be. The colonies already suffered an economic slump with the end of the French and Indian War, and that slump soon turned into a full-scale depression. There was little need for British goods, as shown by the low turnout at his annual Christmas sale. Adding to his troubles, faster ships carrying cheaper whale oil beat his to London and won the best bids. The House of Hancock was in dire straits, and John desperately sought to prevent bankruptcy, which had already occurred to many of his colleagues. He called in debts owed to his uncle, sold goods on credit and even did the unthinkable — canceled orders for spring and summer goods. It was at this critical moment that he learned of Britain’s intent to levy direct taxes on the colonies.

Even though colonists were suffering economic hardship, British officials determined to raise funds to provide for Redcoat garrisons across North America. Royal authorities also sought to crack down on trade violations. To accomplish these objectives, Parliament adopted the 1764 Sugar Act, which placed a three pence tax on British West Indian molasses while prohibiting the importation of foreign molasses. The act also required colonists to purchase foreign goods from British merchants at higher prices, and it strengthened customs officials’ authority by tightening ship inspections and registration procedures. When he learned of the new legislation, Hancock immediately saw the act as a threat to colonial trade. More personally, the higher prices and the enforcement of customs duties took their toll on his business, and by early 1765, he had only two thousand pounds sterling to cover fourteen thousand pounds of debt. He retained his personal wealth by keeping separate accounts, but he knew he could not last long under current circumstances. In desperation, Hancock warned his London agent of the devastation new laws like the Sugar Act could wreak on the colonies, and he begged for relief. Instead, Parliament passed even more repressive laws such as the Stamp Act, requiring all paper documents to bear a royal stamp, which carried with it an associated tax.

Caught up in the political firestorm engulfing the colonies, Hancock labeled all incoming stamps as the “most disagreeable commodity that were ever imported,” and he wrote how the act “will entirely stagnate trade here, for it is universally determined here never to submit to it.” To prove his opposition, he led 250 Boston merchants in boycotting British goods. When his ships arrived from London, he unloaded them but gave instructions for no more goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. His agents, like other British merchants, lost a tremendous amount of capital and pressured Parliament until the government relented and repealed the despised measure. Hancock himself announced the news when word reached Boston in May 1766. The twenty-nine-year-old merchant was as jubilant as anyone and anticipated carrying on his affairs without further interference. He increased exports to Britain, built more retail stores, and ordered eight thousand pounds worth of merchandise to stock the shelves. Despite his grand hopes, however, British leaders remained determined to assert royal authority over the colonies. Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend convinced Parliament to levy taxes on imported glass, lead, paint, paper and tea — the Townshend Acts.

Upon learning of the new taxes, Hancock bristled with outrage. No matter how fervently he and others protested, British officials seemed intent on nothing less than the subjugation of the colonies. He resolved to take action against the mother country and immediately persuaded Bostonians to declare commercial independence by adopting nonimportation and nonconsumption agreements. Due to this resistance, customs commissioners struggled to collect duties on taxable goods, and they increasingly saw Hancock as the source of their troubles. The animosity was mutual. He expressly denied officials permission to board his ships, and he even refused to speak or share the same room with such men. Then in April 1768 tensions reached a tipping point when one official boarded his brig Lydia to search for tea, paper and other such commodities. Hancock was waiting for him and asked to see the writ of assistance, or search warrant, allowing him to conduct the search. Told there was no writ, Hancock ordered the ship’s mate and boson to seize the official and dangle him over the water. The terrified commissioner said he had no interest in searching the ship and quickly returned ashore. Commissioners appealed to the attorney general, but he determined that Hancock had acted “within the bounds of the law.” In response, customs officials awaited the opportunity to strike back.

The chance came in June after British forces began arriving in Boston to quell the rising passions. With the backing of the world’s strongest military, customs commissioners declared Hancock had not provided a correct inventory for his ship Liberty and had offloaded valuable cargo at night — though no such signs were apparent when the ship had arrived a month earlier. They declared the Liberty government property and ordered Royal Marines to seize it. Though deeply distressed, Hancock accepted the financial loss and assumed the role of martyr for the patriot cause. His humiliation was not over yet, however. In November Royal Governor Francis Bernard charged Hancock with smuggling, along with encouraging assault and imprisonment of a British agent. (In reality, Bernard sought to bankrupt Hancock and by extension the patriot movement.) During the three-month trial, the public cheered the well-to-do Hancock as a champion for colonial resistance.

Although he still maintained a moderate outlook, it was clear Hancock was approaching a personal break with Britain. In 1772 he signed a series of resolutions denouncing King George III’s decision to pay colonial judges directly rather than through the legislatures. He also vilified Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson for advocating an “abridgement of what are called English liberties.” Most important of all, however, was Parliament’s passage of the 1773 Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to colonial consumers — bypassing colonial merchants like Hancock. Adding insult to injury, Governor Hutchinson’s two sons and Richard Clarke, father-in-law to one son, were appointed distribution agents. Consequently, Hancock was convinced of a plot to drive him and his associates out of business and provide Hutchinson a trade monopoly. He enthusiastically joined in calling for the three men to resign and for the tea to remain unloaded when the ships arrived in late November. While he likely did not directly participate in the December 16th Boston Tea Party, he did send his own tea back to Britain in an open act of rebellion. He had made his choice, and on March 5, 1774, the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre, he severed all ties with Britain when he delivered a spellbinding oration. He viciously denounced British tyranny before calling on patriotic citizens to arm themselves and “be ready to take the field whenever danger calls.” He even suggested a union of the thirteen colonies into an independent nation.

Now committed to the “glorious cause,” John Hancock devoted himself to the struggle for freedom. In late 1774 he was chosen president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, prompting British troops to threaten his life and property. In April 1775, therefore, he departed Boston for nearby Lexington. When Paul Revere warned of the advancing Redcoats on the morning of April 19th, Hancock desired to stand and fight, but Sam Adams persuaded him to travel on to Philadelphia and the Continental Congress. Elected president of that august body, he chaired congressional debates and corresponded with colonial leaders. Of course, his greatest accomplishment occurred on July 4, 1776 when he signed, with a stroke bold enough for even a king to see, the Declaration of Independence — in effect becoming president of the United States. Often overlooked is the fact that for almost a month, until August 2nd when the rest of Congress signed, Hancock’s was the only signature affixed to the openly seditious document. Though he briefly entertained the notion that he might be named commander of the new Continental Army, an honor that quickly went to George Washington, he remained head of Congress for another year, mediating state differences and ensuring passage of the Articles of Confederation. He left Congress in late 1777 due to overwork, but he still served his nation by strengthening social ties with French officers and commanding Massachusetts’ militia with the rank of major general. In 1780 he was elected governor and remained in office through the end of the Revolution in 1783, supporting George Washington to the end. Hancock retired from office in 1785, only to return in 1787 after an uprising by disgruntled farmers known as Shays’ Rebellion. Convinced the U.S. was in jeopardy, he supported the new Constitution and led the fight for ratification. Due to his efforts, Massachusetts was the eighth state to approve America’s new plan of government, and Hancock fervently supported the union until his death in October 1793. His funeral was the largest the country ever saw — befitting the man who had led its inhabitants from subjects of an empire to citizens of a new and sovereign country.

From the very beginning of the American Revolution, John Hancock played a vital role in leading his countrymen to freedom. He was one of the richest and most influential men in Boston, yet he willingly sacrificed his fortune and business interests in the name of the greater good. His countrymen understood this, and they followed him to freedom. By the time he signed the Declaration of Independence, he was more than just the president of Congress — he was the head of a republic. Sam Adams and others are remembered as Sons of Liberty, but it was John Hancock who was one of the true Fathers of the new nation.

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One response to “The Man Behind the Signature

  1. Technically the first President. Wow! Well written and extremely interesting Take on a guy who we all thought we knew. Many thanks for all your time and effort putting Hancock’s story out there. Keep ’em coming Jake!

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