American revolutionary politician John Hancock (1737 – 1793), who was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence. (Photo by Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images).
Ever wonder why a signature is referred to as a “John Hancock”? We have American patriot John Hancock to thank for the age-old term. His elegant signature on the Declaration of Independence inspired the classic nickname. While Hancock is most remembered for his fancy autograph, not much more is generally known about him. Take a look at John Hancock’s life beyond the signature to discover his role in the American Revolution.
Life of a patriot
Born on January 23, 1737, John Hancock was raised in Quincy, Massachusetts. When his minister father passed away during his childhood, John was brought up by his aunt and uncle in Boston. As a boy, Hancock lived with his relatives Thomas and Lydia Hancock in their Massachusetts mansion. In 1754, John received his college diploma from Harvard College. After his graduation, he was employed by his uncle’s successful merchant business at the start of the French and Indian War.
Since John’s uncle rubbed elbows with various Massachusetts governors, his company was granted lucrative contracts throughout the war. While he worked for Thomas, John learned a lot about the export company and planned to become a partner. Meanwhile, Thomas Hancock planned to give his exportation company to his nephew when he died because he had no children of his own.
By 1775, John had settled down with his wife Dorothy Quincy. Hancock had inherited his uncle’s business, home, several slaves, and over a thousand acres of territory upon his death. Thus, John became known as one of the wealthiest businessmen on the Northeast Coast. Hancock was known for his fabulous lifestyle and his taste for pricey clothing. Although John eventually gained a reputation for donating his riches to public projects, there were still critics that doubted his generosity. Even fellow patriot Samuel Adams reportedly questioned Hancock’s luxurious way of life.
A revolutionary man
Hancock was appointed as a Boston councilman in 1765. The next year, he was elected to the legislature of Massachusetts. Coincidentally, this occurred at the same time that the British Parliament established its anti-colonial tax laws. The residents of the 13 colonies were in opposition to the British mandates, declaring their legendary battle cry: “no taxation without representation”. For the next 10 years, the colonists began to resent their British rulers, which eventually resulted in the Revolutionary War.
By 1768, Hancock had a close call with the British. His cargo ship, the Liberty, was captured by customs in the Boston Harbor. British officers believed that Hancock had illicitly unpacked his packages without taking care of the necessary taxes. Since John was well-known in the Massachusetts area, locals were outraged by the arrest of his ship. In the following years, Hancock transformed into a prominent figure in Boston’s revolutionary movement.
John was appointed as the president of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress in 1774. By the end of the year, Hancock was selected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress for the state of Massachusetts. Ultimately, the Second Continental Congress governed America during the Revolutionary War. Since John had gotten involved with politics, the British government began to closely monitor his actions. Surprisingly, Hancock and Samuel Adams escaped being captured in Lexington, Massachusetts when Paul Revere historically shouted: “The British are coming!”
Hancock’s role was extremely vital to the American Revolution. John was chosen as the Continental Congress president in the spring of 1775. In June 1775, George Washington was selected as the Continental Army’s commander (a position that Hancock had alleged wanted for himself). For almost a decade, Hancock utilized his status as a wealthy businessman to contribute funds to the military and the revolutionary cause.
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence was penned by Thomas Jefferson and signed by the Founding Fathers. The American colonies declared their liberation from the English government on July 4, 1776. Since Hancock served as the president of the Continental Congress, he is believed to be the first person who signed the Declaration of Independence. Not only that, but his signature was so magnificent that it became a nickname for the word “signature.” According to legend, the reason behind Hancock’s inscription is because he wanted the King of England to read it without his glasses on.
When John left his position as the president of the Continental Congress in 1777, he took the opportunity to fulfill his military ambitions. In 1778, Hancock commanded 5,000 soldiers to take the city of Newport, Rhode Island away from the English forces. Despite his failure, Hancock was still viewed in a favorable light. He became instrumental in the establishment of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780. Later that year, Hancock was appointed as the Massachusetts governor. However, he stepped down from the political position in 1785 due to health issues.
Within the next year, the Massachusetts countrymen revolted in an event known as Shay’s Rebellion. By the time that the agrarian uprising ended, Hancock was selected as the Massachusetts governor again. Though John missed the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was present at the Massachusett’s state convention in 1788. In 1789, Hancock was even a candidate in the nation’s first election for president. However, he only received a small minority of the votes cast, with the presidency going to George Washington. Hancock served as the Massachusetts governor until he passed away in late 1793. After a lavish burial ceremony, John was laid to rest at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston.