Born on January 12, 1737, in Quincy/Braintree, Massachusetts, John Hancock began life in deprivation, but during his childhood, things changed for the better. Orphaned at a young age, John was adopted by Boston’s most opulent merchant, Thomas Hancock, a paternal uncle who was childless. Thomas was the most innovative gentleman in all of New England and highly distinguished due to his generosity to several institutions, primarily Harvard College. There Thomas founded a professorship and was later remembered when the college placed his name on its library.
Uncle Thomas’s pioneering methods were imprinted upon John at an early age. He received a well-rounded education, completing his schooling at Harvard from which he graduated in 1754. During his college years, though his grades were respectable, there were no actions or events which set him apart or gave hint to the prominence he would achieve later in life.
His first post-graduation employment was that of a clerk in Uncle Thomas’ counting house (bank). He maintained this position until 1760, at which time he traveled to England on a mission of business for Thomas. While there, he became personally acquainted with a vast array of his uncle’s friends and business associates. He also witnessed the funeral of George II and coronation of George III.
John returned to America in 1764. Shortly afterwards, Uncle Thomas died and left his vast estate to John. This inheritance included an extensive mercantile enterprise. The estate was said to be the largest in the whole of New England at that time. Inheriting such an immense fortune at the age of 27 could easily have put John in a position of ruin had he lacked the knowledge to manage it correctly. Thankfully though, the tutorage he received from his uncle over the years imparted the necessary wisdom to prevent him from becoming either extravagant or arrogant.
The position Hancock now held in society placed him among a group of men referred to as ‘loyalists,’ towards whom the working population harbored great mistrust. Hancock’s tempered behavior, however, allowed those who now depended on him, as they previously had his uncle for employment, to rest assured their occupations were safe and in good hands. John proved to be a kind and broadminded employer who maintained an outstanding reputation for nobility. The combination of wealth and honorable character enhanced Hancock’s influence in the community.
Hancock’s popularity soon led him to become friends with Samuel Adams and other like-minded patriots. These friendships provided the opportunity for John’s masterminded skills to quickly take root. Before long he became a prominent member within the group. Though still somewhat inferior to a number of his colleagues regarding experience, his excellent abilities and the purity of the principals by which he lived resulted in his nomination to a number of committees whose activities had a major impact on the community as a whole and played a part in giving birth to the American Revolution.
In 1768, one of Hancock’s ships, the “Liberty,” arrived loaded with merchandise now considered to be contraband by the British. When the goods were confiscated by customs officials, it infuriated local citizens. This resulted in the revenue officers being assaulted and a boat belonging to the collector destroyed. Hancock was not involved in this scuffle, but the event served to amplify the community’s awareness of him and his popularity increased when he showed full support for the Boston Tea Party.
After a number of similar occurrences transpired, the governor took notice and installed several British regiments in the area in an effort to maintain law and order. His peacekeeping efforts did not sit well with the colonists and before long a number of skirmishes took place between citizens and troops, later growing into larger acts of violence.
On the evening of March 5, 1770, a unit of British soldiers came under attack by a group of Bostonians who pelted them with snowballs and an assortment of non-lethal weapons. The soldiers, in response to their commanding officer’s order, opened fire on the citizens, killing some and wounding others. This skirmish would later become known as the Boston Massacre. The citizens of Boston became irate and the following day an investigation into the matter began, with Hancock and Samuel Adams heading the inquiry and making demands to the governor for the removal of the British troops.
Prior to Hancock’s behavior following the massacre, a percentage of Boston’s citizens had begun to entertain concerns regarding where John’s true allegiance was directed; England or the colonies. The outward appearance John displayed due to his level of wealth paralleled that of an English nobleman. His mansion was magnificent in design, his garments were enhanced with gold and silver embroidery and the livery of his carriage, horses and servants was splendid. As a result, the provincial governor made numerous attempts to incorporate Hancock into the royal cause.
After the events of March 5, Hancock’s allegiance no long came under question, due to the fact the sentiments he expressed were explicit and undeniably patriotic to the colonial cause. This resulted in the royal governor developing as loathsome an opinion of Hancock as he already held for the majority of Boston’s citizenry.
A populist by all definitions, Hancock’s prestige and popularity in the community, combined with his articulated contempt for overbearing authority, increased the colonists’ admiration of him and caused the governor to now added John’s name to a list of “heads” he sought to lay claim to, which already included that of Samuel Adams.
His first attempt to acquire these heads took place in Concord and Lexington. After the battle, Governor Gage released a proclamation in which he stated a pardon would be extended to all who had been involved if they abided by certain conditions spelled out in the document. The proclamation made clear exception for specific individuals, among them Adams and Hancock, whose guilt was stated to have placed them beyond the extent of royal clemency. Instead, a sizeable reward was offered for their capture.
In 1775, John married Dorothy Quincy. The youngest of 10 children born to a Boston family, Dorothy was a cousin to famed author Louisa May Alcott. In her youth, Dorothy attracted the attention of numerous suitors who came to call, including an officer of the British Army and the dashing Aaron Burr. Her heart, however, was won by John Hancock, who nicknamed his wife “Dolly.” Two children were born to the couple, but neither lived to reach their teen years. Lydia Henchman Hancock died at the age of 10 months. In 1878, their son, John George Washington Hancock, went ice skating on a pond in Milton at the age of nine, slipped on the ice and soon died.
Hancock’s popularity continued to grow, resulting in his election in October 1774 as president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts. In 1775, he moved up the ranks when he became president of the Continental Congress. Within the congregation of men he now presided over were individuals whose experience in politics far exceeded his own; such notables as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Though their expertise overshadowed his, the remarks in Governor Gage’s proclamation regarding Hancock enhanced the respect he received from the congressional participants. Hancock retained this office until October 1777. At this time, he resigned due to ill health resulting from gout and returned home.
Because Hancock held the office of president of the Continental Congress when the Declaration of Independence was signed, he was the first to add his signature to the document. Rumor has it, Hancock was heard to say he signed his name the way he did in an effort to make it easy for George III to see it clearly without his spectacles.
In 1775, the colonial army laid siege to Boston in an effort to rid the city of British troops. In order to accomplish this, a plan was created by the American officers to destroy the whole of Boston. The result to Hancock would be the demise of his entire fortune. Though knowing the loss he stood to experience, Hancock declared his willingness to lose all if necessary to secure the independence his country desired.
In 1780, after assisting with the creation of Massachusetts’ state constitution, Hancock was elected to be the commonwealth’s first governor. Annual elections were held, which Hancock continued to win until 1785 when he resigned. He withdrew from politics for two years, and then was re-elected to the office of governor. He remained in office until he died.
John Hancock died at the age of 55 on October 8, 1793. In an outward expression of grief and affection for the man who had given much of himself to them, the city of Boston and the young republic, throngs of Bostonians visited his house to honor him as he lay in state and later followed his remains to Granary Burial Ground where he was laid to rest.
The character of John Hancock throughout his life was that of an honorable founding father, worthy of respect. Though a very wealthy man, his habits were virtuous. His mannerisms were courteous, kind and lacked arrogance. Though his enemies would accuse him of having an abundant desire for popularity, they failed to see it was his personal mannerisms and generosity which created his individual attractiveness. Not only did hundreds of families look to him for employment, he made great financial contributions to help promote the liberties his country sought to obtain.