For a man remembered for his signature, John Hancock was so very much more. He was an early and influential voice for independence. He was a successful businessman and smuggler in Boston. He was a man who possessed a very likeable and strong personality that brought people together from all the colonies at the Second Continental Congress, helping to achieve unity and friendship between the men there. He was simply, one of the key figures in our nation’s birth and early history.
John Hancock’s famous signature on the Declaration of Independence represents his personality. It is fancy and flashy and it is full of pomp. There is a popular myth that Hancock signed it with a large flourish so King George III could read it without glasses; however, the document that he and the other members of Congress signed was to remain in the new nation and not travel to England, so the king would not have ever seen it. Hancock’s signature was the first signature on the signed document. He was serving as President of the Second Continental Congress at the time of the signing and he served in that capacity until 1780.
Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1737. He was also a childhood friend of John Adams, whose family lived nearby. After his father passed away, he was sent to live with his wealthy uncle who ran a very successful shipping business. He was raised as a very privileged young man and learned his uncle’s trade from him. As part of his apprenticeship, John Hancock traveled to London in 1761 and was in attendance for the coronation of King George III, whom he would help to declare independence from in 1776. Hancock’s uncle died in 1764 and John inherited everything from him. He was now instantly a very successful and extremely wealthy businessman at age 27. Hancock was a very vain and yet charitable man. He would give away as much or more of his fortune than he kept to local charities and he was very flamboyant in his dress and stuck out among the population of Boston for his fancy clothes and style. He was also involved in several committees and was active in every part of Boston’s activities.
Hancock became involved in the events in Boston that would ultimately lead to the Declaration of Independence in the 1760s. He was a huge opponent of the Stamp Act and wrote several letters in support of opposing it. The costs of increased taxation caused Hancock to increase smuggling goods into the colonies. Rather than pay the unjust taxes, he would avoid them by bringing in his products illegally. He was arrested for doing so in 1768, when his ship the HMS Liberty was confiscated by British officials in Boston for not paying taxes for the Madeira wine that was on board. Hancock was later found not guilty of smuggling, but his ship was taken from him. The Liberty was later burned in 1769 as a protest of these actions. This was one of the first violent reactions against King George III and his policies toward the colonies.
The taxation policies toward the colonies kept producing more anger in them. The anger led to protests and boycotts and eventually violence, culminating in the Boston Massacre of 1770 when five colonists were killed at the hands of British soldiers who were being harassed by them. Hancock hated the violence that began to erupt in 1770 with the Boston Massacre, but he understood that British policies were unfair to the rights of the colonists and needed to be changed.
Hancock eventually became public enemy number one to British General Thomas Gage, who was the commander of British forces in the colonies in 1774-75. Gage felt that John Hancock and Sam Adams were the two principal factors in bringing the rebellion to Massachusetts and the colonies. They were to be killed as soon as a rebellion started. In fact, there was a point that General Gage decided that if any colonist denounced their previous rebellious activity, they would be pardoned. The only two who would not be, were Sam Adams and John Hancock! Their lives were in danger constantly and bounties were placed on their heads. The British army also just did not want to merely shoot them, as that was too quick of a death. The British wanted them to hang so they would suffer more.
Hancock and Sam Adams were also part of the reason that the British soldiers marched toward Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Hancock and Adams were staying in Lexington that night and were alerted by Paul Revere that the British army was on the way to capture them. Hancock wanted to fight the British at Lexington when they arrived, but Sam Adams convinced him that it was not their place to do so and that their duty was in government. Later on, that morning, the two men escaped. Hancock would later spend his own money to help fund the Continental Army in 1775 and throughout the war. He took his generous nature and applied it to the entire nation.
John Hancock passed away in 1793, while serving as the governor of the Constitutional Convention of Massachusetts. His funeral was a huge event in Boston as one of their Sons of Liberty had passed. Church bells tolled, businesses closed out of respect to him and he was laid to rest in Boston as one of the main voices of independence and an enduring legacy as one of our key Founding Fathers. He once said, “I am a friend to righteous government, to a government founded upon the principles of reason and justice. But I glory in publicly avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny.” His most public display of these words was his signature on the Declaration of Independence.
Val Crofts serves as Chief Education and Programs Officer at the American Village in Montevallo, Alabama. Val previously taught high school U.S. History, U.S. Military History and AP U.S. Government for 19 years in Wisconsin, and was recipient of the DAR Outstanding U.S. History Teacher of the Year for the state of Wisconsin in 2019-20. Val also taught for the Wisconsin Virtual School as a social studies teacher for 9 years. He is also a proud member of the United States Semiquincentennial Commission (America 250), which is currently planning events to celebrate the 250th birthday of the Declaration of Independence.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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