The life of John Hancock
John Hancock was born on January 23, 1737 in Braintree, Massachusetts, present day the City of Quincy. His father was Reverend John Hancock and his mother Mary Hawke Thaxter. His paternal grandfather was also a clergyman.
When John was 7 years old his father died and his mother remarried years later. He was adopted by his paternal uncle, Thomas Hancock, and his wife, Lydia Henchman. The couple did not have children and treated John as their own child. Thomas Hancock was a successful businessman who owned the House of Hancock, a trading firm importing and exporting goods from and to Britain. Old Hancock was a wealthy individual, one of the richest in the colonies.
John Hancock grew up in this house in Beacon Hill with his uncle Thomas Hancock and his wife Lydia Henchman.
John Hancock went to Boston Latin School and after his graduation in 1750 he was accepted in Harvard College where he graduated in 1754. He worked for his uncle right after graduation being groomed to take over the family business. Later he spent four years in England furthering his studies in commerce. He acquired a taste for expensive clothing but he worked hard, he had a natural talent for forging relationships and translate it into business.
As his uncle’s health weakened John gradually took over the business and in 1764 Thomas Hancock died leaving the House of Hancock to John. He also inherited a number of properties and several thousand acres of land. At 27 John Hancock became one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts.
On August 28, 1775 while attending the Continental Congress Hancock married Dorothy Quincy. They had two children. The couple had their first child in 1776, a daughter named Lydia, who died as an infant. In 1778 they had a son, John Hancock, who died in 1787 from a head injury.
His political career started in 1765 when he took his first public post as a Boston selectman. That year the Stamp Act, a tax affecting all paper documents, was approved and he joined forces with Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty by boycotting British goods which made him more popular. In 1766 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Read more…
In 1767 the Townshend Acts went into effect in the colonies. The new regulations were oppressive for many colonial merchants and Hancock called for a non-importation agreement and a boycott of non essential British goods. In 1767 Hancock’s political views took a turning point when he was targeted by the new Board of Customs Commissioners. They may have suspected him of smuggling or it was retaliation for his political views. His resistance at an attempt to seize a cargo in his brig Lydia without a writ of assistance and the capture of his sloop Liberty, made Hancock a popular hero. Read more…
The invasion of British troops led to increased tension between soldiers and citizens which led to the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. During this incident five citizens died including a mulatto named Crispus Attucks who is considered to be the first martyr of the American Revolution. After the massacre Hancock met with Governor Thomas Hutchinson demanding the removal of the troops or risking more violence. The troops were immediately removed to Castle Williams and Hancock’s soaring popularity was reflected in his nearly unanimous reelection to the House of Representatives. Read more…
Tea Act and Boston Tea Party
The approval of the Tea Act in 1773 brought a renewal of the sense of independence. As a moderator of the Boston Town meeting John Hancock approved of tactics to intimidate agents selected to sell tea in the colonies telling the crowd on the evening of December 16, 1773 “let every man do what is right in his own eyes”. That evening the crowd who attended the Boston Town meeting congregated in Boston Harbor and disguised as American Indians boarded ships containing tea cargo, proceeding to dump 342 chests of tea that belonged to the East India Company into the sea. Hancock did not take part in the Boston Tea Party but approved the action. Furthermore, he was aware that as a public figure he could not publicly commend the action of his fellow citizens. Read more…
President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress
The colonial response to the Intolerable Acts of March 1774 was the creation of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In October, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was created as an autonomous body from Britain and John Hancock was elected President. Hancock’s and Samuel Adams’ revolutionary activities made them the most wanted men by British authorities. In April 1775 as they were attending the now independent Provincial Congress in Concord British authorities were actively looking to arrest both men. Feeling it was not safe to return to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia they went into hiding in Hancock’s house in Lexington. The night of April 18, 1775 Paul Revere embarked in his famous “Midnight Ride” to warn Hancock and Adams of the plans to arrest them and to seize arsenal from the militia. The Independence War started with the first shots at Lexington and Concord. Read more…
President of Second Continental Congress
On May, 1775 Hancock was unanimously elected President of the Continental Congress. He presided Congress while the country was at war until 1777 when he resigned. He used his own money and influence in society to raise funds for George Washington’s army, to buy supplies, arms and uniforms. As president of Congress he was the first one signing the Declaration of Independence. His iconic signature was the largest on the document and it is at display at the National Archives in Washington D.C. Read more…
Hancock was the Major General of the Massachusetts militia back in 1776. He resigned from Congress in order to revive his military career and in 1778 he was appointed to lead 6,000 soldiers to recapture Newport. The venture was humiliating as his men abandoned the operation. Hancock was criticized for his failure to command his troops and it was the end of his military career however he remained a popular political and social figure.
Governor of Massachusetts
Hancock was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1780, capturing more than 90% of the votes. He served as governor until 1785 when he resigned due to an onset of gout or as some historians agree, to avoid a difficult political situation, his successor was James Bowdoin. The following year unrest in the countryside developed into what is known as the Shay’s Rebellion. In 1787 he was elected governor again and reelected until his death in 1793.
In 1789 Hancock was a candidate for the first presidential election joining George Washington and John Adams as candidates. Hancock received only four electoral votes, it was a disappointing result for him, but he remained popular in Massachusetts, perhaps the second most popular politician after John Adams who captured all the electoral votes in their home state. George Washington was elected president and John Adams Vice President.
Hancock spent his last years as a figurehead Governor of Massachusetts. He was affected by gout and remained in poor health through his last years. He died at 56 years of age, on October 8, 1793. He was survived by his wife Dorothy.
Samuel Adams became the acting governor after Hancock’s death. His funeral was organized by his longtime friend Samuel Adams who declared Hancock’s burial day a state holiday. John Hancock is buried in at Boston’s Granary Burying Ground.