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Men Of The Revolution: 14. John Hancock
When one of the wealthiest men in the Colonies sided with the Patriot cause, he was called a “wretched and plundered tool of the Boston rebels.”
February 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 2
Hancock, with his friend Sam Adams, was in Lexington when Thomas Gage sent an expedition to seize the rebels’ arms and ammunition in Concord and, it was hoped, to capture these two leading foes of the king, but they escaped and made their way to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in a triumphal progress that delighted Hancock. In May he was elected president to replace Peyton Randolph, who was returning to Virginia, and then occurred his break with Samuel and John Adams. Cocksure of himself and naively unaware of the complex problems facing the colonies, Hancock believed that he was the man to take command of the rebel army besieging Boston, and in June, when John Adams arose to nominate a commander in chief and spoke of the difficulties this paragon must face, Hancock smiled confidently until he heard Adams utter the name George Washington. Then, Adams observed, “I never remarked a more sudden and sinking Change of Countenance. Mortification and resentment were expressed as forcibly as his Face could exhibit them. Mr. Samuel Adams Seconded the Motion, and that did not soften the Presidents Phisiognomy at all.” And from that day, John Adams recalled, “Mr. Hancock … never loved me so well … as he had done before.” So with Samuel, although he and Hancock eventually patched up their quarrel.
Another contretemps developed over Hancock’s unwillingness to yield the presidency to Peyton Randolph when the latter returned from Virginia, even though most delegates had considered Hancock’s election a pro tern affair. The brace of Adamses dropped broad hints and when these failed, denounced Hancock; but not until 1777, when Hancock perceived an opportunity to boost his political fortunes in Massachusetts, did he give up the chair. On that occasion Sam Adams groaned through his farewell message, in which Hancock took leave of Congress “with almost as much Formality as if he was on his dying bed.” A motion was made to give Hancock a vote of thanks, but to his humiliation it was opposed by his colleagues from Massachusetts and by delegates from four other states. Although his peers considered Hancock a competent and industrious presiding officer, they could not stomach his vanity, his susceptibility to flattery, his continual playing to the crowd. As James Madison was to write of him, “Hancock is weak, ambitious, a courtier of popularity, given to low intrigue.”
When Massachusetts moved to form a state government in 1777. Hancock concluded that he could better himself by leaving Philadelphia, and his first public act upon reaching Boston was to donate a hundred and fifty cords of wood to the poor. (The man who supplied the wood was not paid for it until Hancock’s estate was settled nearly two decades later.) Elected governor by a huge majority in 1780, Hancock proceeded to turn the state into a private political fief and for all the anguished cries from his opponents became the most popular man in Massachusetts. His inauguration was celebrated with such a round of parties and balls as had not been seen, Sam Adams complained, since the salad days of royal governors and customs officials; and instead of the “Happy Era of Republicanism” Adams had fought for, he saw that “John Hancock … appears in public with all the pagentry of an Oriental prince. He rides in an elegant chariot. … He is attended by four servants dressed in superb livery, mounted on fine horses richly caparisoned, and escorted by fifty horsemen with drawn sabres—the one half of whom precede, and the other follow, his carriage.”
In consolidating his own power Hancock had taken pains to undermine that of Samuel Adams. Adams might rail against Boston’s new “rage for Ease, Luxurious Living, and Expensive Diversions,” its “scenes of Dissipation and Folly,” its “Torrent of Vice,” and the “Levity and Foppery” that were now “the ruling Taste of the Great,” but to no avail. What Sam contemptuously called the “mushroom Gentry” and the “Coxcombs and Coquettes” had taken over the town; nouveaux riches and arrivistes were in the saddle, supplanting the revolutionaries and the aristocrats who preceded them, and as Adams saw it, Hancock’s administration was no better than that of Governor Thomas Hutchinson, whom Sam had done so much to oust in 1774. John Adams by now had concluded that Hancock was no more than “an empty barrel,” but the people of Boston thought otherwise. They adored Hancock, seeing in him a true aristocrat who talked as convincingly about popular liberties as any man alive.