John Hancock

John Hancock (October 8, 1793) was a Massachusetts merchant and prominent patriot of the American Revolution. He served as President of the Second Continental Congress and was the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but is most famous for his prominent signature on the United States Declaration of Independence.

Early life

John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of Reverend John Hancock and Mary Hawke, whose ancestors had lived in nearby Hingham. The Hancocks lived in a part of town which eventually became the separate city of Quincy, Massachusetts, where John became a childhood friend of John Adams. In 1742, his father died and John was adopted by his paternal uncle, Thomas Hancock, who had no children and was a highly successful merchant and privateer who lived in Hancock Manor in Boston.

After graduating from the Boston Latin School in 1750, he enrolled in Harvard University and received a bachelors degree in 1754. Upon graduation, he worked for his uncle and was trained for eventual partnership. From 1760 to 1761, John lived in England while building relationships with customers and suppliers of his uncle's shipbuilding business. In January 1763, his uncle made him a full partner. Because of his uncle's illness, John took the leading role in the business. In August 1764, his uncle died and John inherited the business, Hancock Manor, and he became one of the wealthiest men in America.

Early career

While merchants in England routinely paid duties on imports, the colonies not only evaded duties, but smuggled cheap sugar and molasses from the French West Indies, an enemy country, undermining their countrymen in the British West Indies. Hancock smuggled an estimated 1.5 million gallons of molasses a year on which he should have paid £37,500 per year, but which corrupt customs officers only collected £2,000 per year.

In 1765, he took his uncle's seat as one of Boston's five selectman. He did not initially balk at the new taxes since he usually didn't pay them. His colonial trade business naturally led him to resist the Stamp Act. Financially, a British boycott could not come at a better time since his credit had run out in London and he could not buy any more goods if he wanted to. When he told his London agents he would not repay them while the Stamp Act was in effect, his agents joined in protests against the Stamp Act. In May, 1766 one of Hancock's ships brought news to Boston that the Stamp Act had been repealed.

In May, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts General Court. The Governor asked the General Court to bring the Stamp Act rioters to justice. In response, James Otis and Samuel Adams pushed through the assembly a bill which gave the rioters amnesty.

Parliament agreed to only impose external taxes; the Townshend Acts was passed which put duties on various imports. Hancock's proposal of a partial boycott on British imports was accepted. Hancock also won support for this proposal to begin local manufacture of items such as clothing and jewellery which the colonies had been prohibited from manufacturing. After the passage of the Townshend Act he stated that he would not allow custom officers to board his ships.

On May 1768, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The House elected him each year to the Governor's Council, but the Governor rejected his appointments until 1771 when the Governor changed his mind. Hancock then turned down the position and said he was no longer interested in politics. In 1769, he was elected speaker pro tem.

The Boston Massacre occurred in March 1770. Afterwards, a meeting of citizens at Faneuil Hall appointed a committee, which included Hancock, to meet with Governor Hutchinson and Colonel Dalrymple to demand the removal of the troops. Hancock warned the governor that "there are upwards of 4,000 men ready to take arms". Hutchinson and Dalrymple knew it was a bluff, but Dalrymple agreed to remove both regiments to Castle Island.

Samuel Adams popularity declined after the Boston Massacre and in 1771 Hancock said that he would "never again connect himself with the Adams'".

His regular merchant trade as well as his smuggling practices financed much of his region's resistance to British authority and his financial contributions led the people of Boston to joke that "Sam Adams writes the letters [to newspapers] and John Hancock pays the postage".

The Liberty affair

In May 1768, one of Hancock's ships, the Liberty, arrived in Boston with a load of Madeira. The custom officers did not inspect the ship until the next morning, when they found the ship was less than one-quarter full. The agents claimed that no wine had been unloaded during the night. The next month, while the warship HMS Romney was in port, one of the custom officers now said that he had been forcibly held on the Liberty and was threatened with death if he told about it. The government seized the ship. A mob gathered at the homes of the custom officers, smashing their windows and threatening to attack the custom officers if they returned.

Hancock was able to obtain the release of the Liberty until the case came up in court. Otis and Adams accused Hancock of capitulating to the government, in response to which Hancock canceled his deal to recover the ship. In August, the charges against Hancock were dropped, but his ship was ordered forfeited. In November, after British troops had arrived, Hancock was again arrested for smuggling on the Liberty. After three months, with no evidence or eyewitness testimony to his guilt being presented, he was acquitted. In February 1769, the events associated with the Liberty caused Parliament to order the Massachusetts Governor to apply the Treasons Act 1534, ordering those suspected of treason to be brought to England.

The ship was armed and roamed the coast looking for smugglers. Liberty's searches and seizures infuriated merchants in Newport and they sent a mob to burn the ship to the waterline.

The Revolution begins

At first only a financier of the growing rebellion, John Hancock later became a public critic of British rule. On March 5, 1774, the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre, he gave a speech strongly condemning the British. In the same year, he was unanimously elected president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and presided over its Committee of Safety. Under Hancock, Massachusetts was able to raise bands of "minutemen"—soldiers who pledged to be ready for battle on short notice—and his boycott of tea imported by the British East India Company eventually led to the Boston Tea Party.

In April 1775 as the British intent became apparent, Hancock and Samuel Adams slipped away from Boston to elude capture, staying in the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington, Massachusetts (which can still be seen to this day). There Paul Revere supposedly roused them about midnight before the British troops arrived at dawn for the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but Prescott was the one who actually informed Hancock and Adams. At this time, General Thomas Gage ordered Hancock and Adams arrested for treason. Following the battle a proclamation was issued granting a general pardon to all who would demonstrate loyalty to the crown—with the exceptions of Hancock and Adams.

Continental Congress

On May 24, 1775, he was elected President of the Second Continental Congress, succeeding Peyton Randolph after Henry Middleton declined the nomination. The president's authority was limited to that of a presiding officer. Hancock would serve through some of the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, including Washington's defeats in New York and New Jersey as well as Great Britain's occupation of Philadelphia, until resigning his office in York, Pennsylvania on October 30, 1777. Hancock's vanity had offended many members of Congress, particularly his fellow Massachusetts delegates, and when Congress voted to thank Hancock for his service, the other Massachusetts delegates voted against the resolution. He was succeeded by Henry Laurens.

Famous signature

Hancock is best-remembered for his large, flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence, so much so that "John Hancock" has become, in the United States, an informal synonym for "signature". Myth and misconception surround Hancock's signing of the Declaration. According a popular legend, Hancock signed his name largely and clearly so that King George could read it without his spectacles, but this fanciful story did not appear until many years later. Another misconception is that Hancock was the only one to sign the Declaration on July 4 1776, and that others signed the document later, but this confuses two events and two different documents. Congress approved the wording of the Declaration on July 4 and then sent it to the printer. Whether Hancock or anyone else signed the document that was sent to the printer is unknown, because that document is lost, presumably destroyed in the printing process. The printer produced the first published version of the Declaration, the widely distributed Dunlap broadside, and Hancock, as President of Congress, was the only congressman whose name appeared on it. Hancock's name was printed, not signed, on the Dunlap broadside: his famous signature appears on a different document—a sheet of parchment that was engrossed (carefully handwritten) sometime after July 19 and signed on August 2 by Hancock and those delegates present. This is the copy of the Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Return to Massachusetts

In January 1776, he was appointed commander in chief and major general of the Massachusetts militia. In July 1778, he led 6,000 of his militia in a failed attack on the British at Newport, Rhode Island.

From 1780 to 1785, he was governor of Massachusetts. Hancock's skills as orator and moderator were much admired, but during the American Revolution he was most often sought out for his ability to raise funds and supplies for American troops. Despite his skill in the merchant trade, even Hancock had trouble meeting the Continental Congress's demand for beef cattle to feed the hungry army. On January 19, 1781, General Washington warned Hancock:

"I should not trouble your Excellency, with such reiterated applications on the score of supplies, if any objects less than the safety of these Posts on this River, and indeed the existence of the Army, were at stake. By the enclosed Extracts of a Letter, of Yesterday, from Major Genl. Heath, you will see our present situation, and future prospects. If therefore the supply of Beef Cattle demanded by the requisitions of Congress from Your State, is not regularly forwarded to the Army, I cannot consider myself as responsible for the maintenance of the Garrisons below West Point, New York, or the continuance of a single Regiment in the Field." (United States Library of Congress, 1781.)

On June 16 1785, Hancock was again elected to the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation. He was unable to attend the session of Congress in November 1785 due to illness; however, he was elected President of Congress on November 23 1785 by the delegates in the hope his leadership would restore unity in the Confederation Government that was falling apart. Hancock failed to attend any sessions in New York and his Presidential duties were performed by the two chairmen, David Ramsay and Nathaniel Gorham. On 29 May 1786, Hancock, who was unable to write himself, had his letter of resignation written.


  • In circumstances as dark as these, it becomes us, as Men and Christians, to reflect that whilst every prudent measure should be taken to ward off the impending judgments, …at the same time all confidence must be withheld from the means we use; and reposed only on that God rules in the armies of Heaven, and without His whole blessing, the best human counsels are but foolishness… Resolved; …Thursday the 11th of May…to humble themselves before God under the heavy judgments felt and feared, to confess the sins that have deserved them, to implore the Forgiveness of all our transgressions, and a spirit of repentance and reformation …and a Blessing on the … Union of the American Colonies in Defense of their Rights [for which hitherto we desire to thank Almighty God]…That the people of Great Britain and their rulers may have their eyes opened to discern the things that shall make for the peace of the nation…for the redress of America’s many grievances, the restoration of all her invaded liberties, and their security to the latest generations.

—Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer, with a total abstinence from labor and recreation. Proclamation on April 15, 1775


Hancock married Dorothy Quincy. (Dorothy Quincy's aunt, who had the same name as her niece, was the great-grandmother of Oliver Wendell Holmes.)

John and Dorothy had two children, neither of whom survived to adulthood.

  • Lydia Hancock (Oct 1776–Aug 1777); died at the age of about ten months.
  • John George Washington Hancock (21 May 1778–27 January 1787); died at the age of eight years.

Because of Hancock's fame and the frequency of his family name, many Americans continue to believe that they are descended from him. Among these, for example, was the writer Ernest Hemingway. In view of the childhood demise of both of Hancock's known children, it is unlikely that any such claim can be supported.


A number of things have been named after John Hancock:

*The John Hancock Tower, the tallest building in Boston, Massachusetts
*The "Old" John Hancock building, also in Boston, Massachusetts
*The John Hancock Center, major skyscraper in Chicago



  • Fradin, Dennis Brindell & McCurdy, Michael (2002). The Signers: The 56 Stories behind the Declaration of Independence. Walker & Company. ISBN 0-8027-8850-5.
  • Unger, Harlow, John Hancock, Merchant King and American Patriot, 2005, ISBN 0785820264
  • United States Library of Congress (1781). George Washington Papers. Online:
  • United States Library of Congress. U.S. Library of Congress Today in History: January 12 Retrieved January 18, 2003. Most of the initial text of this article was copied from this public domain source.

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