Liberty in a Land of Slavery

On October 25th, 1780, John Hancock was sworn in as the first governor of Massachusetts in what is now Boston's Old State House. In the decade prior, John Hancock had gone from Boston's richest merchant to a charismatic advocate for colonial liberties. He would get his chance to act out his role on the stage of American history as the President of the second Continental Congress and famous signer of the Declaration of Independence. Now as governor he could trust that his legacy would be secured by posterity and look forward to the bright future of the new Commonwealth that he would help build. His story has been written; etched into our histories and onto the very landscape of Boston.

Other Hancocks have spent less time in the limelight. Two of them, Cato Hancock and Dolly Hancock, can tell us so much more about Boston's history and what it was like for those who didn't share center stage. Dolly Hancock, John's wife and eventual widow, lived a relatively privileged life, but as a woman, could never share in the same freedoms and political rights granted to property-holding white men like her husband, both before and after the Revolutionary War. From standing beside her husband, to moving on after his death, Dolly’s view of the era and what came after diverges from the scenes we are used to.

Cato’s story shows us even more and shows us a behind the scenes look at the contradictions inherent in the American Revolution. As an enslaved person Cato is owned as property by John and Dolly. Like hundreds of others enslaved in Boston at this time, Cato’s survival and status is not often under his own control. Instead, his enslavers, John and Dolly demand much, holding Cato’s life and the lives of his family in their hands. The lives of enslaved peoples like Cato and the labor they were forced to give was foundational to the economic life of the Massachusetts Bay colony, and had been since the colony’s founding. The aptly named Body of Liberties codified slavery in Massachusetts and in North America for the first time in 1641. While the Body of Liberties would be go on to inspire many of the protections written into the Bill of Rights, it also bound the bodies of numerous native and African peoples into enslavement.

Beyond its place as a fact of law, slavery was also the cornerstone of economic wealth. Prominent Merchants like John found much profit in trade between Boston and the British West Indies and illegal trade with other European insular colonies. As much as 60% of the ships leaving Boston harbor in the eighteenth century were bound to travel to islands like Barbados and Jamaica to deliver goods that would elongate the lives of the enslaved labor force that toiled and died in the cultivation of cash crops like sugar and coffee. On the return journey, the ships would carry precious molasses which would, in time, become the cheapest drink of choice during the late eighteenth century. When such boats arrived in Boston harbor, merchants like Hancock could also reliably count on smuggling in their profitable goods or bribe customs officials to look the other way while illegal shipments of goods and even enslaved peoples were brought ashore to contribute to the sustenance of Boston’s economy.

It was from these local and global economies of exploitation that many Boston fortunes, like Governor Hancock’s were made. All the while, the unrequited toil of men like Cato, afforded John and his family great privilege from his stately mansion upon Beacon Hill. From this comfortable life, John could participate in politics, and demand his full rights as an Englishman. But what did English liberty mean to women like Dolly, or those enslaved like Cato? Could they see themselves somewhere in the fights over political identity that brewed in their time as inhabitants of Boston? How did such people resist, survive, adapt, and remain dignified in the face of oppression and discrimination?

Cato & Dolly remains an interesting examination of the questions and the perspectives of these two important individuals who shared the last name Hancock with that most famous of revolutionary signers of the Declaration of Independence.