John Hancock's Tragedy

Updated on January 30, 2018
harrynielsen profile image

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Portrait of John Hancock

Portrait of John Hancock done by John Singleton Copley around 1771
Portrait of John Hancock done by John Singleton Copley around 1771

A Prosperous and Wealthy Trader

Born in 1737, near Boston, John Hancock became involved in his uncle's prosperous trading business at a very young age. By the time, the health of his uncle, Thomas Hancock, finally failed in 1764, John knew enough of the business to take over the operation.

Almost overnight, John became one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, but since much of his trading activity was with Great Britain, the young Hancock often found himself in a precarious position, as he had to balance trade with the Motherland with the growing discount over Britain's tax laws in America.

Adams and Hancock

As the American Revolution approached, John Hancock and Samuel Adams became co-conspirators in the ouster of the British from Boston.
As the American Revolution approached, John Hancock and Samuel Adams became co-conspirators in the ouster of the British from Boston.

John Hancock and Samuel Adams

John Hancock and Samuel Adams had a lot in common. They both were sons of clergy, they both attended Harvard and they both became important players in the Boston attempt to cast off British rule.And let's not forget that after the Revolution they both were governor of the Bay State, Adams succeeding Hancock to the office, when Hancock died in 1793.

Still, they resembled the modern day odd couple in that even though both men came from the prosperous mercantile families, Hancock succeeded immensely at the art of making money, while Samuel Adams was a Colonial ne'er-der-well, whose one expertise was political speechmaking. In that regards, Sam Adams did quite well, for he often penned the fiery rhetoric that rallied many Bostonians against the British Occupation of Boston.

The Lydia Affair

The Liberty Affair

During the 1760s, it was common practice for New England shippers to bribe Boston ship inspectors or in some cases to offload, much of their cargo before entering the Boston Harbor, thereby just paying tariff on a small percentage of the goods being brought into the Colonies.

Finally, in May of 1768, the Britiish brought in an armed frigate, called The Romney, whose presence was to put teeth in the British effort to enforce the tariff laws. On June 9th of that same year, events came to a head, when British port authorities seized the Liberty, a ship owned by John Hancock.

That same day, a large crowd gathered in Boston, and seized one of the pleasure boats belonging to one of the tax collectors. Next, they dragged the ship into the city and burned it. To no one's surprise, more riots followed.

This chain of events may have helped radicalize John Hancock against the presence of the British in Boston..

John Hancock and the Continental Congress

Late in 1774, John Hancock was elected by the citizens of Massachusetts to represent the Bay colony at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He replaced James Bowdoin, who could not serve because of bad health On May 24th of the following year, Hancock was unanimously chosen President of the Congress by the other delegates.

Though Hancock was not the author of the Declaration, as president, he was the first to sign the document. And sign it, he did, using the unusually, the bold script that still stands out today.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

One of the reasons Paul Revere rode to Lexington on April 18, 1775 was to warn Hancock (and Sam Adams) the British were on the move towards Lexington to arrest the two rebels
One of the reasons Paul Revere rode to Lexington on April 18, 1775 was to warn Hancock (and Sam Adams) the British were on the move towards Lexington to arrest the two rebels

A Close Call

On the eve of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere had an important mission in the Massachusetts town of Lexington. He had to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams that British General Gage and a whole bunch of Army regulars were coming to town to arrest the two men.

Hancock and Adams just barely did make it out of town ahead of the British troops. Eventually, thetwo men resettled in Philadelphia for a while, at least until events quieted down.

John Hancock's Political Career Continues in Massachusetts

In 1777, while serving as President of the Second Continental Congress, John Hancock resigned for reasons of health. He had a nagging case of the gout.

However, in 1780, John Hancock became the first governor of Massachusetts. He held this post until 1785, when he resigned, possibly to avoid dealing with a farmer's rebellion, called Shay's Rebellion.

In 1787, after the rebellion had played out Hancock was again elected to the Governorship. This time he held the post until his death in 1793.

A Bruised Ego and a Failed Military Command

A few days after John Hancock was unanimously elected president of the Second Continental Congress, the body of representatives, met again to select their Commander in Chief. For some strange reason, John Hancock thought he might also be the best candidate, for this job, but not many agreed, as George Washington was selected to this post by a wide margin.

In 1778, during the early years of the Revolutionary, War John Hancock did receive the opportunity to lead a military unit into battle. In conjunction with French Naval forces and several American generals, Hancock lead a 5,000 man militia from Massachusetts in an attempt to retake the port city of Newport, Rhode Island back from the British. The operation was unsuccessful and John Hancock was never asked to lead a military force again.

John Hancock's Children

John Hancock and his wife, Dorothy Quincy had two children. Their daughter, named Lydia Henchman Hancock, was born in 1776 and died two months later. The couple's second child was a boy, born in 1787. His name was John George Washington Hancock and he only lived until age eight, when he drowned after an ice skating accident in Milton, Massachusetts. Sadly to say, the Hancocks would have no other children.

A Standout Signature

On the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock's signature stands out.
On the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock's signature stands out.

About John Hancock's Signature

Not only was John Hancock the first member of the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence, he was the most flamboyant. Not surprisingly his name has been forever linked to act of signing one's name to a document or deed. So much so, that in the United States, it is common vernacular to ask someone to "put their John Hancock down" , whenever the person is engaged in any kind of written legal activity, whether it be buying car insurance or purchasing a new home.

How To Make John Hancock's Signature

Hancock Tower, Tallest Building in New England

Today, the Hancock Bldg in Boston is the tallesy building in New England Here, it is viewed from the Charles River in Cambridge.
Today, the Hancock Bldg in Boston is the tallesy building in New England Here, it is viewed from the Charles River in Cambridge.

Sources

John Hancock, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hancock

John Hancock and Samuel Adams, https://www.salon.com/2014/05/31/john_hancock_and_samuel_adams_fascinating_alliance_family_economics_and_the_road_to_the_american_revolution/

The Liberty Affair, http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-liberty-affair-john-hancock-loses-a-ship-and-starts-a-riot/

The Real Story of Paul Revere's Ride, https://www.paulreverehouse.org/the-real-story/

The American Revolution, John Hancock, http://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/john-hancock

Questions & Answers

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      • harrynielsen profile image
        Author

        Harry Nielsen 2 months ago from Durango, Colorado

        Being a Patriot is not always the easy thing to do.

      • K S Lane profile image

        K S Lane 2 months ago from Melbourne, Australia

        I didn't realise he had such a rough time after the signing of the declaration. Thanks for enlightening me- great Hub.

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