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prince, he naturally resisted Britain's attempt to restrict colonial trading via the Stamp Act, which was later repealed.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.
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.
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.
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.