When most people think of John Hancock, the image of his famous signature on the Declaration of Independence comes to mind. Many people know very little about his exact participation in the American Revolution and the details of his life. Hancock, as well as the role he played in the Revolution, was largely overlooked until the later part of the 19th century, when historians began to take a closer look at his remarkable life.
John Hancock was born on January 12, 1737 (January 23 under the Gregorian calendar in use today) in Braintree (present day Quincy), Massachusetts. His father and grandfather were both ministers, and it is possible that Hancock might have continued the family tradition if his father had not passed away in 1744, when Hancock was only 8 years old. His mother did not believe she could adequately care for him, so Hancock was sent to live with his childless uncle and aunt, Thomas and Lydia Hancock, in Boston. His uncle owned the House of Hancock, an import/export business that made him one of the wealthiest men in Boston.
Hancock attended Boston Latin School and then continued on to Harvard College, graduating in 1754 at the age of 17. After graduation he worked for his uncle, and when Thomas Hancock passed away in August 1764, John inherited the business as well as his uncle’s home, Hancock Manor, on Beacon Hill. The lucrative business now made Hancock one of the wealthiest men in New England and allowed him to explore his interest in politics.
In March 1765, Hancock was elected as a Boston selectman, during a time when tensions were beginning to rise in the colonies due to the Sugar and Stamp Acts. The following year, he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Hancock had a reputation in Boston as generous man, who was known for donating to churches, schools, and other organizations. He was also known for his parties, balls, and fine clothing. According to a biography of John Hancock, “His favorite suits were lavender, and his coach and other family vehicles bright yellow" (Sibley's Harvard Graduates, vol. 13).
After the Stamp Act was repealed in March 1766, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts in 1767. One of these Acts was the Commissioners of Customs Act, which established a Board of Customs in Boston to enforce trade regulations and crack down on smuggling. On April 8, 1768, two tidesmen boarded Hancock’s ship Lydia to check his cargo and ensure that proper taxes were paid on the goods. When Hancock discovered that the tidesmen did not have a writ of assistance (search warrant), he refused to let them search the ship. The following month, another of Hancock’s ships, the Liberty, was inspected by customs officials. Officials believed he was smuggling wine, although they had no proof. In June 1768, a month after the Liberty was inspected, one of the tidesmen claimed he was locked below deck while wine was illegally unloaded. In response to these allegations, Hancock’s ship was seized. Bostonians, already on edge due to several acts and regulations passed by Parliament the previous few years, rioted in the streets. It was after this incident, in the fall of 1768, that British troops were sent to Boston to maintain order.
In October 1774, Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which was established after Parliament passed the Government Act. This Act dissolved Massachusetts’ Charter and took away the colonies power to elect its own officials, and in response, Massachusetts set up its own government. Later that year, Hancock was elected to the Second Continental Congress, and in May 1775, was appointed president of the Continental Congress, likely due to his experience leading legislative groups, as well as his wealth and social standing.
When Congress took a break in August 1775, Hancock married Dorothy Quincy in Connecticut. They had two children, Lydia Henchman Hancock and John George Washington Hancock. Lydia was born in 1776 and died 10 months later. John was born in 1778 and died at the age of 9, when he drowned following a head injury he incurred while ice skating.
In 1777, Hancock took a leave of absence from Congress and returned to Massachusetts. Throughout the remainder of the Revolution, he served intermittently in the Continental Congress and Boston’s House of Representatives. Hancock even participated in a failed military campaign to attack the British garrisoned at Newport, Rhode Island in the summer of 1778.
Massachusetts ratified its state constitution in 1780 and John Hancock was elected the first governor of Massachusetts by an overwhelming margin. “On October 25, 1780, he presented himself at the Council Chamber wearing a gorgeous suit of crimson velvet and was duly inaugurated the first governor of the Sovereign State” (Sibley's Harvard Graduates, vol. 13). Hancock resigned his post in 1785 citing his ill health, but some people suspected that it was due to rising tensions in Massachusetts due to a recession and heavy taxes imposed on citizens after the war ended. This tension culminated in Shays’ Rebellion in 1786/1787, and following the event, Hancock was reelected governor. As a result of Shays’ Rebellion, delegates were selected to represent their states at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Hancock did not participate in the Convention, but he was elected president of Massachusetts’ Constitutional Convention in 1788. Although he had doubts about the Constitution due to its lack of a bill of rights, Hancock ultimately supported its approval and as a result, Massachusetts voted in favor of ratification.
John Hancock remained governor of Massachusetts until he passed away on October 8, 1793 at the age of 56. Despite the important roles he held during the American Revolution, historians tended to ignore his participation and focused instead on men like Samuel Adams and George Washington. Although Hancock is not the best known of the Founding Fathers, his life story is entwined with the history of the Old State House and is integral to the story told and represented in our museum.