John Hancock played a key role in the American Revolution . . . although not always by design. A reluctant hero, he is known as much for being one of the nation’s founding fathers as he is for his out-of-control spending. It should come as no surprise that his life outside of the Revolution was just as intriguing.
Born into a solidly middle-class family, he was adopted by a wealthy uncle at a young age. His position in life allowed him certain privileges not enjoyed by others and, ultimately, led to a strong anti-British sentiment. During the Boston Tea Party, he famously said, “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes”–a statement that quickly thrust him into the spotlight and a political role he didn’t necessarily desire.
This is how one spoiled rich boy ended up signing the Declaration of Independence and shaping America as we know it today:
Early years and family
John Hancock was born on January 23 (or January 12, according to the calendar used at the time), 1737, in Braintree, Massachusetts. His parents were John Hancock, a Harvard graduate and clergyman, and Mary Hawke. After the death of his father when John was just seven, he was adopted and raised by his merchant uncle, Thomas Hancock.
His adoptive parents, owners of a successful import-export business, were quite wealthy and he lived a well-to-do life in their Boston mansion. After graduating from Harvard in 1754, he worked for his uncle as a clerk.
The young man proved to be so capable and honest in the position that his uncle sent him on a business mission to England in 1760. It was there that Hancock witnessed the coronation of George III and engaged with some of the leading businessmen of London. His trip lasted a year and upon his return, he was made a partner in his uncle’s business.
Shortly after, his uncle died and Hancock inherited what was said to be the greatest body of wealth in New England. Although the newly-rich gentleman would eventually earn a reputation for being generous and using his wealth for the common good, he initially received a large amount of criticism for his opulent lifestyle and out-of-control spending.
Many years later, at the high point of his revolutionary career, Hancock married Dorothy Quincy, the daughter of a Boston merchant and magistrate. The couple had two children, neither of whom survived to adulthood.
Growing anti-British sentiment
Hancock’s position as one of the wealthiest men in New England (and, likely, all of the colonies combined) placed him in the company of men who consisted mainly of British loyalists. As a rule, they were generally disliked by most of the working population due to their extreme wealth and arrogance. It wasn’t long, however, before John became involved in revolutionary politics and his sentiments were clearly for independence from Great Britain.
Why? Like many people still today, he didn’t want to government touching his money.
Initially, he became involved in local politics when he was elected a Boston selectman (a term used to describe elected officials in New England towns) in 1765. The following year, he was elected to a new position on the Massachusetts colonial legislature. It was around the same time that the British Parliament started imposing a series of regulatory measures, including tax law, in an attempt to reign in the unruly American colonies.
The colonists, of course, opposed these measures–in particular, the new taxes. Their objection was not that the taxes were too high (they were actually fairly low), but that they had no representation in the Parliament. Dozens of well-known colonial men–including Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and Hancock himself–formed a secret group called the Sons of Liberty to help fight the new levies.
For many, the turning point was the Boston Tea Party in 1773. When Hancock’s sloop Liberty (which, in all fairness, he had been using to import contraband goods) was impounded by customs officials at Boston Harbor, all bets were off. A large group of private citizens stormed the customs office, burned the government boat, and beat the officers.
Shortly after, Hancock and several other Sons of Liberty aided in the destruction of an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company. As onlookers cheered, protestors (some dressed as Indians), boarded merchant ships and tossed chests of tea into the harbor.
Following the excitement of the Tea Party, Hancock gained quite the reputation. The British government viewed him as a trouble-maker and rabble-rouser, but the colonists viewed him as a man they could trust.
In 1774, he was elected president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which declared itself an autonomous government. Later that same year, he was chosen as a Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress, which served as the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution.
Hancock’s activities made him a target for British authorities, and in 1775, he and Samuel Adams were forced to flee Lexington in order to avoid arrest by British troops. Shortly after, on April 19, 700 British troops arrived in the city to find it guarded by 77 militiamen. Fighting broke out, resulting in 17 casualties on the American side and injury to only 1 British soldier.
In May, Hancock was elected president of the Continental Congress, although the role was really only a figurehead position. The next month, the Congress chose George Washington as commander of the Continental Army–a role, some say, Hancock had hoped to snag for himself. In the following years, the president-elect used his vast wealth to help fund the army and revolutionary cause.
On July 4, 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence–a document drafted by Thomas Jefferson, sometimes referred to as “the greatest breakup letter ever written.” It stated that the 13 American colonies were free from British rule and emphasized individual rights and freedoms. As president of the Continental Congress, Hancock was the first to sign. According to legend, when he affixed his famously large signature, he stated, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!”
In total, 56 delegates signed the document, including Samuel Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Benjamin Harrison. Eight delegates never signed, for various reasons. Thomas Willing and Charles Humphries, notably, voted against the resolution of independence and were absolved of their duties.
Hancock resigned as president of Continental Congress in 1777, citing issues with gout, though he remained a member. During the same year, he faced accusations from Harvard for mismanagement of institutional funds and was made to issue a significant repayment. Shortly after, in 1778, he led an unsuccessful campaign to recapture Newport, Rhode Island from the British.
Still, he remained a popular figure. He went on to help frame the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 and was elected governor of the state in that same year. Although his governorship was fraught with problems (including the infamous Shay’s Rebellion in 1787), he went on to become a candidate in the first U.S. presidential election in 1789. Sadly, he received only four electoral votes out of a total 138 cast.
Hancock remained governor of Massachusetts until his death at 56 in October 1793. He was buried at Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, where you can still visit his gravesite today.