Men Of The Revolution: 14. John Hancock

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Like Abou Ben Adhem, his name led all the rest. On the document proclaiming America’s independence it is inscribed boldly with flourishes, the mark of a confident, proud man; and the fact that it was written an inch longer than he customarily signed it gave rise to the legend that John Hancock had recorded his name large enough for George in to read without spectacles.

In fact the name was well known to the king by 1776. More than a year earlier Hancock and his friend and political tutor Samuel Adams were singled out as the only rebel leaders not to be included in an offer of amnesty—their offenses being “of too flagitious a nature.” Hancock had come unnaturally to this perilous eminence, led and cajoled toward sedition by Sam Adams, who knew a promising acolyte when he saw one.

The son of a Braintree pastor, Hancock was born in 1737; and at the age of nine, when his father died, he was plucked Cinderellalike from penury by his childless uncle, Thomas Hancock, the richest merchant in Boston, who lived in a looming two-story granite mansion on Beacon Hill. Here he became the focus of his Aunt Lydia’s attentions, “the object of her fondest affection on this side of heaven,” and was sent to Boston Latin School, to Harvard, and on to apprenticeship in Uncle Thomas’ commercial empire—an activity that eventually took him to London to transact affairs under the tutelage of a former governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Pownall, with the Hancock agents and admiralty officials. He had been back in Boston for three years when his uncle died in 1764, leaving him manager of what was reputedly the largest fortune yet assembled in New England, to which his doting aunt willingly added the responsibility of handling her interests.

John Singleton Copley’s portrait shows New England’s wealthiest young man shortly after he came into his princely estate, when he was, according to John Adams, “the delight of the eyes” of the entire town. Nearly six feet tall and slender, he was splendidly clad in the height of fashion, often in lavender suits, and made his way about Boston in a coach of brilliant yellow; whatever he wanted he ordered from London, and whatever he ordered was the best. For a decade Hancock had courted the daughter of Joseph Jackson, but in 1769 he sent her a “letter of dismission” and took as a mistress one Dorcas Griffith, keeper of a liquor shop near Hancock’s Wharf. When he finally married, in 1775, the bride was Dolly Quincy, favorite of his Aunt Lydia but a surprise to Hancock’s close associates. As John Adams remarked, it was “the most unlikely Thing within the whole Compass of Possibility.”

Money and prestige counted for much in the days before the Revolution, increasingly so as party lines were drawn more rigidly and Whig and Tory alike vied for all the support they could muster. No promising young Bostonian escaped the sharp eye of Samuel Adams, the shrewd manipulator of the street mobs and fomenter of rebellion, and few eluded his invitation to attend the Whig Club, where they were treated to much good fellowship and warned of the “hostile designs” of Britain against the colonies.

It was common knowledge that John Hancock lacked the acumen of his uncle, and in 1765, when Adams first began bringing him to the club, the consensus among Tories was that Sam’s new prize was a man whose “brains were shallow and pockets deep.” Even Whigs admitted that he was not one of the “rising geniuses” like Samuel’s cousin John, but Sam desperately needed allies—particularly one with the unparalleled resources and power young Hancock possessed—and after maneuvering his protégé into election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives he commented modestly to John Adams that Boston had done a wise thing by making “that young man’s fortune its own.” The king’s men were dismayed by the coup. Peter Oliver was certain that Adams had lured Hancock into Whiggery “in the same Manner that the Devil is represented seducing Eve, by a constant Whispering at his Ear.” Scornful Tories described Hancock as a “Milch cow to the Faction,” the “wretched and plundered tool of the Boston rebels,” as a “poor plucked gawky” picked bare by Samuel Adams, and their contempt ripened into outrage when they saw the direction in which Adams had led Hancock. The character of the Hancock commercial enterprises underwent a marked change: from the fairly simple though lucrative business of smuggling and more normal commerce Hancock moved into endeavors providing more employment, and soon he was importing English artisans, building dwellings, ordering new ships, until—as John Adams reported—“not less than a thousand families were, every day in the year, dependent on Mr. Hancock for their daily bread.” Since the Hancock employees had no wish to offend their benefactor, all could be counted on to vote as Sam Adams desired they should. The Hancock purse opened to the needy and the deserving, always where it would do the most good: a new fire engine for Boston, substantial contributions to churches throughout the area.

Nothing pleased John Hancock more than popularity and the bright light of public attention, and as resistance to Britain edged toward rebellion he found himself something of a hero. The populace acclaimed him for his denunciation of the Stamp Act, for his refusal to allow customs officials to board his vessels, for the part he was rumored to have played in the Tea Party (sworn testimony told how “Mr. Hancock was the first man that went on board the vessel, to destroy the tea”), for his oration on the 1775 anniversary of the “massacre” (which was almost certainly written by Samuel Adams). Boston sent him as a representative to the first Provincial Congress, of which he was named president.