The most famous signature in America
John Hancock wrote perhaps the most famous signature in American history. Here is how it happened.
On July 5, 1776 several hundred copies of the first public version of the
Declaration of Independence were printed as a broadside by the printer John Dunlap. These prints carried the printed names, but not the signatures, of John Hancock and the Congress’ secretary Charles Thomson. One of the broadsides was pasted in the Congressional records on July 5.
Dunlap broadside, Declaration of Independence
For the next year or so the general public would only know the Declaration as it appeared in the broadside, associated with John Hancock’s name as the President of Congress. Hundreds of copies of the broadside were printed, but thousands were copied, distributed, published in newspapers and read to groups across the colonies.
The Congress ordered the preparation of a parchment copy of the Declaration on July 19 and on August 2 “The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed.” According to the National Archives, “John Hancock, the President of the Congress, was the first to sign the sheet of parch……He used a bold signature centered below the text.” The Declaration of Independence was signed by 49 delegates that day, and seven others signed at a later date, for a total of 56.
John Hancock’s Defiance
A story has been told that when John Hancock stepped up to sign the Declaration on August 2 he did so with a flourish and made a bold statement. One version of the story is that he exclaimed: “There! John Bull can read my name without spectacles and may now double his reward of 500 pounds for my head. That is my defiance.” Nobody can say for sure whether this happened or not. But in view of Hancock’s large ego and well known desire for public attention and acclaim, it seems likely that he would not have missed the opportunity to make a bold statement, and to make sure that he had an audience when he did so.
As it turned out, George III received broadside copies of the Declaration, so he never had to read John Hancock’s signature with or without his spectacles. The signed copy of the Declaration of Independence that we recognize today, bearing Hancock’s signature, was not copied and distributed to anyone until January, 1777.
The name of John Hancock and his signature live on in American history. A leading Boston financial services company carries his name and signature as their brand, and when someone is asked to sign an important document, or even an unimportant one, he may be asked to sign his John Hancock.
The life of John Hancock is well described in Harlow Giles Unger’s John Hancock, Merchant King and Patriot. Much of what follows is drawn from that excellent source.
The first John Hancock known to history was born about 1506 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England during the reign of Henry VII. He had a son and grandson both named Richard Hancock. John Hancock’s great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Hancock, was born in 1596. He was a Puritan farmer and lived in Padiham, Lancashire, England. He emigrated from England with his wife Joan in 1634 and settled in Cambridge. Nathaniel’s son, Deacon Nathaniel Hancock, was born in America in 1638 and died in 1719. He also was a farmer and supplemented his income as a shoemaker and town constable.
The first John Hancock to be born in America was the son of Deacon Nathaniel Hancock. He was born in Cambridge on March 1, 1671 and died on December 5, 1752. He graduated from Harvard in 1689, and studied theology, logic, argumentation and rhetoric that helped him become a dominating personality. He became known as The Bishop because of his Puritan no-nonsense ways. He was powerfully built with a severe countenance that discouraged confrontation and disagreement. “Bishop Hancock” was ordained in 1698 and became the head of the church in Cambridge. He ruled his parish and community with an iron fist, and like all Puritan Congregational ministers of the time, limited the vote to male members of the church. He subsequently led a revolt in the North Precinct, establishing his church in what became the town of Lexington. He married Elizabeth Clark who lived to be 81.
John Hancock, the Bishop’s grandson and future President of the Continental Congress, was born in Braintree (now Quincy) Massachusetts on January 12, 1737. He was the son of Reverend John Hancock and Mary Hawke Thaxter. His father, the son of the Bishop, was born at Lexington in 1702 and graduated from Harvard in 1719. Lacking the vim and vigor of his powerful father the Bishop, Reverend John Hancock worked as the Harvard librarian for several years before he was invited to the North Church in Braintree where he was ordained in 1726. In December 1733 the Reverend married Mary Hawke Thaxter, the widow of Samuel Thaxter, and the daughter of a local farmer.
Another son of the Bishop, Thomas Hancock, had no interest in the ministry and left home at 14. He would however play a significant role in the future life of Boston and that of his nephew, John Hancock.
Braintree in 1737 was a prosperous community of perhaps 40 families with large tracts of land owned by the Adams and Quincy families. Reverend Hancock’s church stood by the village green. Fifteen months before the baptism of his own son, the Reverend Hancock had baptized John Adams, the future signer of the Declaration. When John Hancock was old enough he tagged along after John Adams and the older Quincy boys, exploring the woodlands, swimming in the stream, and defending an old fort against pretend Indian raids.
At the age of five John Hancock attended Mrs. Belcher’s school which taught reading, writing and arithmetic. When John was just seven, his father the Reverend Hancock died, just short of his 42nd birthday. The Reverend’s wife and three children faced an uncertain future until the Bishop, now 74 years old, invited them to live with him at his home in Lexington. This was the same historic home, still standing, where years later John Hancock and Samuel Adams were aroused that famous night of April 17, 1775 when Paul Revere rode into history and poetry.
One day the Bishop’s other son Thomas, John Hancock’s uncle, appeared in a magnificent coach and four at the Bishop’s door. Since leaving home at the age of fourteen, Thomas Hancock had built up a substantial merchant enterprise in Boston over the ensuing 27 years known as the House of Hancock. Beginning with a general store, Thomas Hancock expanded into wholesaling, commodity bartering, investment banking, ship operation, and purchased a two acre parcel of land on the crest of Beacon Hill where he built a stately Georgian Palace home called Hancock House. He had become one of the most wealthy and powerful merchants in America.
Hancock House on Beacon Hill
Thomas had come to Lexington to find an heir to his fortune. He and his wife Lydia had married in 1731 but after 13 years they were childless. Thomas made John Hancock’s mother and the Bishop, an offer they could not refuse—lifelong security for John’s mother Mary, the Bishop, and all three children in exchange for the privilege of adopting young John Hancock. John Hancock left Lexington to live in the stately home of Uncle Thomas and Aunt Lydia at the top of Beacon Hill.
Thomas Hancock described the view of Boston and the Charles River from his homesite and garden as follows to a nurseryman in England: “My Gardens all lye on the South Side of a hill, with the most Beautiful assent to the Top & it’s Allowed on all hands the Kingdom of England don’t afford So Fine a Prospect as I have of Land and water…..”
View of the Charles River from Hancock House
Thomas Hancock, acting as John’s fairy godmother, invested a year in turning his country bumpkin nephew into a country squire. He hired a tutor to teach him appropriate behavior, manners and way of speaking, dressed him in the most opulent finery, and made a point of introducing him to prominent military and government leaders, including the royal governor.
A year later Thomas enrolled John Hancock in the Boston Public Latin School, the same School Benjamin Franklin had attended for one year some 30 years earlier. The school was the gateway to someone aspiring to attend Harvard and becoming a community leader. For the next five years young John was instructed by a strict Tory schoolmaster, learning to venerate the King, absorbing Latin and Greek, and studying the bible and the classics.
In 1750, at the age of 13, John Hancock passed the entrance exams at Harvard. He was the second youngest in his class, but ranked fifth out of 20 under the College’s grading system based on his uncle’s wealth and social position, and his own family’s Harvard pedigree. This ranking gave him preferential seating in church and in the classroom. As a freshman John boarded with a Congregational minister but he moved into Massachusetts Hall in Harvard Yard in his sophomore year. There he became reacquainted with John Adams who had just matriculated as a freshman.
After John Hancock graduated in 1754 at the age of 17, Thomas Hancock began training his nephew for eventual partnership, teaching John about all aspects of the business. Thomas had him dressed handsomely and made a point of socializing him among the political and business elite.
John’s Aunt Lydia held elaborate banquets to further her husband’s mercantile business, and John was expected to attend his uncle’s social activities. He probably had little opportunity to plan his own time. According to John Adams, John Hancock “became an example to all the young men of the town. Wholly devoted to business, he was as regular and punctual at his store as the sun in its course.”
When hostilities with the French broke out in the Seven Years War, the House of Hancock became the foremost financier and procurement source for military supplies and equipment for the British military in North America. After hostilities ended in 1760, Thomas sent John to England to establish personal ties with the agents for the House of Hancock. He wrote letters ahead to prepare the way for John, whom he described as a sober, modest young Gentleman whose industry and ability has been in such Manner that “on his return from England I propose to make him a partner.” After John’s departure, Thomas wrote him a letter, advising him to “be frugal of Expences, do Honor to your Country & furnish Your Mind with all wise Improvements….God Bless you & believe me, Your Loving Uncle.”
John Hancock was overwhelmed by London–by then a city of 650,000 people–its grandeur as well as its squalor. He was diligent in visiting the British agents of the House of Hancock, and traveled to Amsterdam and Hamburg as well. In October 1760 he witnessed the national mourning for the death of George II and asked his uncle for permission to extend his stay to witness the coronation of George III the next year. But Thomas urged him to come home soon and John complied, returning in October and missing the coronation by a month.
Thomas was now in failing health and he sent a letter on January 1, 1763 to all business associates of the House of Hancock announcing the appointment of John Hancock to partnership, praising his nephew’s “Uprightness & great Abilities for Business.” On August 1, 1764 his Uncle Thomas died, making John Hancock, at 27, Boston’s new merchant king.
In his will, Thomas provided for many philanthropic gifts and made generous provisions for all the members of the Hancock family. John Hancock assumed his position as head of the House of Hancock with confidence and all the ostentation of his beloved Uncle. He set the standard for Boston’s well-dressed young men and often sported a fashionable London wig. He was thrilled when his Aunt Lydia continued in charge of Hancock House, which she had generously given to John after her husband’s death.
A loyal member of the British Empire, Hancock did not immediately complain when Britain initiated several new tax schemes. But the situation began to change in April 1765 with the imposition of the Stamp Act. For the first time there was talk of no taxation without representation. Samuel Adams joined James Otis in speaking out vehemently against the Stamp Act, but Hancock hesitated to take sides for fear of damaging the Hancock business. But soon mob violence broke out targeting the homes and properties of wealthy Boston merchants known to have close trading arrangements with the British. Realizing that the times they were a-changing, Hancock met with Adams and agreed to provide financial support for his protests, recognizing that Adams could protect his property from mob action.
When representatives of the colonies met in the Stamp Act Congress, Hancock supported their cause, declaring “I will not be a slave. I have the right to the Libertys and Privileges of the English Constitution.” Faced with colonial resentment and the inability to enforce the tax, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act four months after it was enacted.
In a remarkable political windfall, news of the Stamp Act repeal reached Boston on one of Hancock’s ships. As a result Hancock got the news first, and announced the Stamp Act repeal at a selectman’s meeting, to the great joy and celebration of all. As Unger states in his fine biography, “As the shouts proliferated, (the crowd) grew convinced—as he apparently did—that he had been the instigator of repeal instead of a simple messenger.” Sensing an opportunity Hancock arranged for a fireworks celebration on a large stage in front of Hancock House and served Madeira wine to the assembled crowds. Next day it was reported that “John Hancock, Esq.…..gave a grand and elegant Entertainment to the genteel Part of the town” inside his mansion.
Hancock used his new found celebrity as a catapult to advance his own political fortunes and the fortunes of the Hancock business. Thomas Hutchinson, the merchant and colonial governor, said that John Hancock “…changed the course of his uncle’s business, and built, and employed in trade, a great number of ships, and in this way, by building at this time several houses, he found work for a great number of tradesmen, made himself popular, was chosen selectman, representative, moderator of town meetings, etc.”
Like his uncle before him John Hancock engaged in many acts of philanthropy and community service in Boston, and developed a reputation for his devotion to the community. He endowed the Hancock Professor of Oriental Languages at Harvard in honor of his Uncle Thomas. He became more involved with his membership on the General Court, serving on 30 committees, and became an effective mediator in resolving disputes. When a fire broke out in the bake house of one of his tenants, he donated some of his own funds for relief, and distributed free firewood for the poor. Hancock made substantial contributions to many of the churches in the city, with seats and bibles for the needy, window glass, bells and pulpits. Hancock built a bandstand on the Common, and organized a band at his own expense to give free concerts. He planted a row of trees along the Common, installed walkways that crossed the park, and installed three hundred street lamps fueled by whale oil.
The unexpected imposition of the Townshend duties on luxury goods aroused new resentment, and Hancock refused to allow British agents on board his ships to inspect the cargo. On April 8, 1768 an agent sneaked aboard Hancock’s Lydia to search for dutiable goods, but was discovered and physically removed from the ship by Hancock and his group. Suddenly John Hancock became a hero to the public, and a month later he was reelected to the House of Representatives. The Liberty, one of Hancock’s ships, was impounded by the tax commissioners on suspicion of having been secretly unloaded without paying the tax. With mob violence threatening, British troops entered the city under General Gage and took up residence in Faneuil Hall and the Town House. A trial over the status of the Liberty and against Hancock’s actions began in August with John Adams representing Hancock in each case. Hancock was acquitted of any wrongdoing, but the Liberty was forfeited, refitted by the British and later burned by an angry mob in Newport.
In November Hancock was arrested on a charge of smuggling. With John Adams again representing him, the trial dragged on. Thanks to trial coverage publicity provided by Samuel Adams, the name of John Hancock rose to colony wide prominence. After a three month trial, the Government withdrew its case, and Hancock basked in his steady rise to fame. Despite the disruptions the Hancock business continued to do well.
The threat of street violence continued to build over the attempts to enforce the Townshend duties, and on March 5, 1770 an altercation between British troops and an angry populace took place called the Boston Massacre, with nearly a dozen casualties. Two future signers of the Declaration squared off against each other in the trial of the British Captain Preston who had been in charge of the British troops on Massacre day. Robert Treat Paine prosecuted the case against Preston, while John Adams defended him. Captain Preston was acquitted, and the Boston populace was infuriated by the verdict.
In April 1770 news of the repeal of the Townshend Act reached Boston. And in a second amazing political coincidence the message again arrived on one of Hancock’s ships, and was delivered to John Hancock at a town meeting. Hancock was again cheered as a hero. Overlooking an opportunity to appear modest, he reminded his adoring public that he himself had sent a number of letters to Parliament protesting the taxes, leaving his listeners with the impression that his own letters were responsible for the repeal.
Hancock’s Aunt Lydia often invited families with unmarried daughters to her Hancock House engagements, but had begun to despair of marriage for her 33 year old nephew. One of the families she invited, however, was John’s former neighbor from Braintree, the widower Edmund Quincy, and his daughter Dolly. The Quincys came to America in 1633 and could trace their lineage back to Baron de Quincy, who with his fellow barons had forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Dolly was born on May 10, 1747, three years after John left Braintree. She had grown into a beautiful woman with a tall slim appearance. Aunt Lydia invited her to vacation with John and herself in the summer of 1770, and there was mutual attraction between the two, but no commitment was immediately forthcoming.
Comparative tranquillity returned to Boston. Hoping this would continue, and hoping to secure Hancock’s allegiance to the crown, Governor Hutchinson appointed him to the Governor’s Council and made him Colonel of the Company of Cadets, a militia which served as the Governor’s honor guard.
Disturbed by the turn of events and determined to keep the pressure on for independence, Samuel Adams formed the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, a direct challenge to Hancock’s new entente with the Governor. The Committee sought to communicate with other dissatisfied constituents in the state and throughout the colonies, and to reinforce the colonists in their growing animosity toward Parliament. The rift this caused between the Governor and Samuel Adams put Hancock in a difficult position. When the Governor’s private letters threatening the suspension of American liberties were published, Hancock had no choice, joining forces with Adams in denouncing Governor Hutchinson and demanding his resignation.
Then came news of the new tax on Tea. An angry crowd of 5,000 assembled at Faneuil Hall when the first tea shipment arrived on the Dartmouth. When the commissioners called for the tea to be unloaded and the tax paid, men disguised as Indians clambered aboard the ship at night and engaged in the Boston Tea Party, tossing the tea overboard into Boston Harbor. A national boycott of tea spread throughout the colonies, with other ports staging tea parties of their own.
After reading a thorough account of the Boston Tea Party in January 1774, England’s attorney charged Hancock, Adams and two others with the crimes of high treason and misdemeanors. In Boston, on the first anniversary of the Boston Massacre in March, Hancock delivered a stirring speech: “I glory in publicly avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny,” he declared. He called on all patriots to arm themselves and prepare to fight for their houses, lands, wives, children “—your liberty and your God—“so that “those noxious vermin will be swept forever from the streets of Boston.” John Adams called the speech elegant and spirited, and said, “Many of the sentiments….came from him with a singular dignity and grace.”
A furious Parliament now closed the port of Boston and dispatched General Gage to arrest and prosecute Hancock, Adams and the others. In October 1774, in violation of British rule, the First Provincial Congress in the state was convened and elected John Hancock President. The Congress changed locations several times during the fall and winter to avoid interception by the British. In early 1775 Hancock House was severely damaged by British soldiers and Hancock himself was in danger. Concerned for the safety of Aunt Lydia and Dolly Quincy, he arranged for them to leave Boston and come to stay in Lexington.
Hancock-Clarke Manse in Lexington
In Lexington, early in the morning of April 18, Hancock and Adams were warned of the impending arrival of British troops. Aroused, Hancock picked up a musket to join the “embattled farmers” but Samuel Adams persuaded him that his first calling was to join the Congress in Philadelphia. Reluctantly leaving Aunt Lydia and Dolly to deal with the British, they departed hastily at daybreak and took refuge in Woburn, five miles from Lexington. The shot heard ‘round the world was fired and the war had begun.
Having been appointed to the Second Continental Congress, Hancock and several others set out for Philadelphia. As they passed through New York, the populace gave the Massachusetts delegates a rousing welcome including a banquet at Fraunces Tavern. Much to the annoyance of Samuel Adams, the crowd paid particular attention to Hancock whose reputation had grown to mythic proportions.
Soon after arriving in Congress, the President of Congress Peyton Randolph resigned his seat and returned to the House of Burgesses in Virginia. John Adams nominated John Hancock to replace him, and he was approved unanimously. Now Hancock needed to walk a fine line between the radicals who were pressing for independence, and the conservatives who preferred delay and reconciliation. He reached out to both sides, acted impartially and earned the respect of most delegates, with the notable exceptions of both Samuel and John Adams, the leading advocates for independence. Benjamin Harrison of Virginia wrote, “Our President is….Noble, Disinterested and Generous to a very great Degree.”
With numerous militia groups and volunteers assembling outside Boston it was critical for Congress to appoint a Commander in Chief. Believing that his experience with the Corps of Cadets qualified him for the role, Hancock called on John Adams to make the nomination. Confidant that Adams would nominate him, he was devastated when Adams instead nominated George Washington, and Samuel Adams quickly seconded the nomination. Washington was appointed by acclaim. Hancock quickly recovered his composure and on July 3 signed the Olive Branch Petition, written by John Dickinson, affirming allegiance to George III and the Americans’ sincere hope for peace. In the late summer Hancock left Congress to marry Dolly Quincy and to deliver a large payroll to General Washington in Boston. There he learned that the British General Clinton was comfortably settled in at Hancock House and enjoying his Madeira wine, while the House of Hancock properties and stores were being ransacked.
In his position as President Hancock had little administrative support and was overwhelmed with legislative matters, coordinating committees, presiding over Congress, dealing with military finance, issuing proclamations and acting as chief executive. Fortunately, Congress approved the appointment of William Palfrey, Hancock’s most trusted manager at the House of Hancock, to assist him.
In April 1776 Hancock’s beloved Aunt Lydia died in Fairfield, Connecticut where she and Dolly had been living. Dolly joined Hancock in Philadelphia and put the family’s best foot forward, arranging and presiding over small formal dinners favoring the more aristocratic members of Congress.
On June 7 Richard Henry Lee presented his resolution for independence and a committee of five members was formed to prepare a draft of the Declaration of Independence. Independence was voted on July 2 and the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4.
Hancock and Jefferson, Faulkner painting, National Archives
As General Howe gathered his forces together on Staten Island, Hancock sent letters to the state assemblies, urging their military support. “I must repeat again to you that…..the Fate of America will be determined the ensuing campaign. I cannot help therefore once more pressing you to be expeditious in equipping & sending forward your Troops…..May the Great Disposer of all human Events, animate & guide your Councils, & enable you so to determine, that you may not only establish your own temporal Peace and Happiness, but those of your Posterity. Forgive this passionate Language. I am unable to restrain it–it is the Language of the Heart.”
And in another letter: “Our affairs are hastening fast to a crisis, and the approaching campaign will, in all probability determine forever the fate of America…..The militia of the United Colonies….are called upon to say whether they will live slaves or die free men….On your exertions…..the salvation of America now…. Depends.”
Military disasters followed the American army for four months, with defeats on Long Island, Kips Bay, Harlem Heights, White Plains and Fort Washington, followed by a long retreat through New Jersey and across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania. Spirits were revived with the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, and signed copies of the Declaration of Independence were distributed in January. But in 1777 American prospects looked bleak again as Howe advanced on Philadelphia and Burgoyne marched on Albany. In October came news of the great American victory at Saratoga, the turning point in the war.
Hancock scored one of his most satisfying triumphs as Congress moved closer to approving America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. For fifteen rancorous months he had mediated state disputes over federal powers, representation, boundaries and taxes—issues that would reappear and be argued again in the Constitutional Convention ten years later. In his farewell address to Congress before returning to Boston, Hancock said, “Gentlemen: Friday last completed two years and five months since you did me the honor of electing me to fill this chair. As I could never flatter myself your choice proceeded from any idea of my abilities, but rather from a partial opinion of my attachment to the liberties of America, I felt myself under the strongest obligation to discharge the duties of office….I think I shall be forgiven, if I say, I have spared no pains, expence, or labour to gratify your wishes and to accomplish the views of Congress.” Hancock returned to Boston to a hero’s welcome.
Hancock’s first task was to examine and repair his property and interests in Boston. The damage to Hancock House was considerable and the House of Hancock’s business interests had suffered severely. He drove through the city in his carriage, meeting the townspeople, helping them repair damaged homes, providing food and clothing and helping widows and orphans. The end of 1777 brought new glory to Hancock—he was proud to be the first in Boston to announce his own re-election to the Continental Congress, Congressional signing of the Articles of Confederation, and the French Alliance. Early in 1778 he presided as guest moderator over the House of Representatives when it ratified the Articles of Confederation—making Massachusetts one of the first states to do so.
In July 1778 the French and American alliance suffered a reversal when the French fleet under Admiral comte d’Estaing and the Massachusetts militia commanded by Hancock botched an assault on the British garrison at Newport. D’Estaing was heavily criticized for premature withdrawal from the action, but Hancock stepped in to shore up Franco American relations. With d’Estaing’s fleet at anchor in Boston harbor, Hancock invited d’Estaing and Lafayette to a formal dinner at Hancock House. Ceremonies continued for days and Hancock sponsored an elaborate reception at Faneuil Hall for the Admiral and 500 of Boston’s leading citizens. Before d’Estaing left, Hancock staged a grand ball in the Concert Hall, inviting the Admiral, his French officers and 200 of Boston’s leading citizens to the dance.
In September, Hancock stepped to one side while John Adams drew up the new Massachusetts Constitution, and in the ensuing election Hancock won an overwhelming victory in the race for Governor. On October 25, 1780 Hancock became the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was to be continuously re-elected until 1785. His health, however, began to deteriorate. In 1782, at the age of only 45, he was suffering severely from gout and occasionally unable to hold a pen. He was sometimes bed-ridden for days. A friend, William Sullivan, reported, “Mr. Hancock was nearly six feet in stature and of slender person, stooping a little and apparently enfeebled with disease.”
When the peace treaty with England was announced in 1783, Hancock reflected on the war and his public career: “I have not the vanity to think that I have been of very extensive service in our late unhappy contest, but one thing I can truly boast: I set out upon honest principles and strictly adhered to them to the close of the contest, and this I defy malice to controvert. I have lost many thousand sterling but, thank God, my country is saved and, by the smile of Heaven, I am a free and independent man.”
In late 1785 John Hancock was re-elected President of Congress for a one year term, the first President of the United States to be elected to two non-consecutive terms. However, the pain from his gout condition prevented him from traveling to Philadelphia and resuming his office, and he resigned the office on June 6, 1786.
In January 1786 the Hancocks’ 10 year old son fell on the ice, hit his head and died. His parents were grief- stricken, now doubly so since their only other child Lydia had died ten years earlier.
On September 17, 1787 the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, and wrote the U.S. Constitution, replacing the Articles of Confederation. The Massachusetts ratifying convention began in January 1788, and the Convention elected Hancock President. At first Hancock did not favor ratification, but as the debate continued he changed his mind. On January 31, 1788, his servants carried him in flannels into the meeting hall, where he made a stirring speech appealing for ratification:
“The people of this Commonwealth are a people of great light, of great intelligence in public business… They will never, therefore, forsake the first principle of society, that of being governed by the voice of the majority…..Should (the Constitution), by the vote now to be taken, be ratified, they will quietly acquiesce, and where they see a want of perfection in it, endeavor in a constitutional way to have it amended……As the Supreme Ruler of the Universe has seen fit to bestow upon us this glorious opportunity, let us decide upon it, appealing to him for the rectitude of our intentions, and in humble confidence that he will yet continue to bless and save our country.” The Constitution was ratified in a close vote, 187 to 168.
In 1789 the French journalist Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville visited John Hancock and wrote back home as follows, “You know the great sacrifices he made in the Revolution and the boldness with which he declared himself at the beginning of the insurrection. The same spirit of patriotism animates him still. A great generosity…..forms his character.” Hancock was re-elected Governor in 1789 by an overwhelming margin, and Samuel Adams was elected Lieutenant Governor. Reconciled with his frequent critic and sometimes political opponent, the two were re-elected to office in 1790 and 1791.
John Hancock died on October 8, 1793 and lay in state at Hancock House for a week. Thousands came to pay their respects and on the day of his funeral 20,000 people joined an impressive funeral cortege to his burial site at the Old Granary Burial Grounds next to his Uncle Thomas.
Ten years after his own retirement from the Presidency, John Adams reflected on his childhood playmate, college friend, Congressional colleague and frequent legal client, “I could melt into tears when I hear his name…..If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock. What shall I say of his education? His literary acquisitions?….His military, civil and political services? His services and sacrifices?….I can say with truth that I profoundly admired him and more profoundly loved him.”
His biographer, Harlow Unger, wrote: “John Hancock’s transformation from Tory patrician to fiery rebel is one of the least-known stories of the Revolution…..he was, perhaps, the consummate American hero.”
John Hancock was a complex mixture of vanity, philanthropy and political skill. His ostentatious display of wealth offended many of his peers, particularly Samuel Adams, but his concern for the citizenry, philanthropic actions and vigorous patriotism earned him the accolades of the public. They elected him Governor of Massachusetts eight times, often with large majorities over 70%. His ego, ambition and public speaking abilities enabled him to take advantage of many opportunities to advance his public stature and reputation.
Memorials to John Hancock are many. The golden-domed Massachusetts State House stands on the old Hancock cow pasture near where Hancock House once stood. A bronze bust of Hancock is on the west wall of stately Doric Hall, the main double-doored reception room. The middle painting of five historical paintings in the chamber of the House of Representatives depicts Hancock asking that the Bill of Rights be included in the Federal Constitution. The entrance to John Hancock Financial Services in Boston houses a statue of John Hancock. There is a John Hancock Tower in Boston and a John Hancock Center in Chicago.
In Washington, D.C., Hancock figures prominently in Trumbull’s famous painting “The Declaration of Independence”, which hangs in the Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol, and in Barry Faulkner’s mural painting in the Rotunda at the National Archives. A full length statue of John Hancock by Horatio Stone stands in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Hancock streets, avenues, cities and counties exist all over the United States. In Findlay, Ohio, the county seat of Hancock County, a large statue of John Hancock stands atop the Hancock County Courthouse. Felled and broken by a thunderstorm in 1922, it was restored and stands there today. Since 1775 a number of naval vessels have carried the name of Hancock.
Hancock House lives on in memory and pieces. Many prints and photographs of the exterior and interior of the mansion exist, although the home itself was torn down in 1863. Carved capitals, balusters, stair rails and other relics are scattered in museums from Salem to Philadelphia. The front door is preserved by the Bostonian Society, Oliver Wendell Holmes was given the front door knocker for his home in Cambridge, and foundation blocks were moved to Boston College for its gate lodge. But then, Phoenix-like, a replica of Hancock House arose in Ticonderoga, New York in 1926, a gift of Horace Moses, a philanthropist and native son of the town. Faithfully constructed from known information on the original it is now the elegant home of the New York State Historical Society.
Thornton Calef Lockwood, DSDI member, 2008
Sources of Information
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