Men Of The Revolution: 14. John Hancock

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In 1785 Hancock announced his intention to retire from politics, pleading ill health (he had suffered on and off for years from gout). Clearly he wished to avoid the trouble he saw brewing in rural Massachusetts, which finally erupted in Shays’s Rebellion. His successor James Bowdoin guided the state through that storm of unrest; and when it was over, Hancock, his illness conveniently ended, ran again for governor and was re-elected. In 1788 he was also elected president of the Massachusetts Convention, which was called to vote on ratification of the Constitution, but Hancock did not put in an appearance when the delegates assembled. He retired to his Beacon Street sickroom with an attack of gout until he could see which way the wind was blowing. The governor faced a painful dilemma: on the one hand he was content with the status quo and was reluctant to vote in favor of creating an office more exalted than the one he held; on the other he had no desire to be left behind if the rising tide of Federalism prevailed. To smoke him out Federalists at the convention hit on the device of offering to back him for the office of President of the United States if he would support ratification. By convincing him that Virginia would not ratify—which would effectively remove George Washington from consideration as President—they intimated that the way would be open for Hancock. His gout miraculously disappeared, and he emerged from the sickroom to preside in triumph over Massachusetts’ ratification of the Constitution.

When Virginia followed suit, Hancock’s hopes were dashed, but a few months later he saw an opportunity to give the new Chief Executive his comeuppance. President Washington was on a tour of New England, and when he and his party reached the Boston town line, they were kept waiting in the raw weather while the governor and his council discussed arrangements for meeting them. Hancock was determined that Washington should pay the first call on him. Washington was equally determined not to do so, maintaining that “there is an etiquette due my office which I am not at liberty to waive.” Hancock invited the President to dine at his house, saying he was too crip- pled with gout to go out, but Washington declined and ate at his lodgings, refusing to accept the principle that the President was subordinate to the governor of any state. For once Bostonians were not taken in by Hancock’s gout, and when the governor sensed the popular displeasure over his behavior, he had a change of heart. The next day, with his legs prominently swathed in red flannel, he had himself carried to Washington’s rooms to present his compliments and take tea.

At the time of his death in 1793, at the age of fifty-six, John Hancock had served nine terms as governor of Massachusetts, a testimony to his extraordinary hold on the people through thick and thin, and his funeral was the most splendid New England had ever witnessed. But the respect and admiration that might have come from his peers had never surfaced or, if it had, vanished when they saw through this peacock of a man, this “empty barrel.” Unlike old Ben Adhem, his tribe did not increase—his two children died, a son at the age of nine and a daughter in infancy—and because of inattention the vast fortune he had inherited was largely dissipated. He died intestate, leaving his widow to pay off the expenses of the grand funeral by selling the Hancock real estate. And when he was laid to rest, the name writ so boldly on the Declaration of Independence did not even mark his grave; only the word “Hancock” delineated the family plot where he slept with his kinsmen and their slaves.