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Men of the Revolution: 14. John Hancock

May 2024
8min read

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.

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.

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.

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