With only a week before we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence; which, for our foreign readers, is an American holiday where we celebrate freedom from the British Empire by drinking a reckless amount of beer before playing with explosives, I thought it would be fun to profile some of the guys responsible for making the fourth so special.
Everyone knows who John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington are, but revolution was a team effort, and much like how the Golden State Warriors wouldn’t have won the 2015 NBA Title without Andre Iguodala, America wouldn’t be possible without John Hancock.
Most famous for being the largest signatory of the “Declaration of Independence,” Hancock was a fundamental player in the uprising of the colonies.
Born January 23, 1737, John Hancock was named after his father, a clergyman who baptized John Adams in 1735. The senior John Hancock, died while his son was still a child. Holding the belief that a child should have a father figure, his mother Mary sent John to live with his uncle Thomas, a wealthy merchant, and his aunt Lydia in 1744.
Thomas and Lydia had no children, and raised John as their own. Thomas soon began to groom John to take over “Hancock House,” which imported manufactured goods from Britain, while exporting rum, whale oil, fish, and other goods. The business meant that the Hancock’s were one of Boston’s wealthiest families.
John Hancock was considered to be exceptionally smart. Upon graduating from Harvard at age 17, he went to work for his uncle, where he negotiated some exceptionally profitable trade contracts between “Hancock House” and Britain during the French and Indian War. His success led him to spend a year living in London, where he witnessed the coronation of King George III in 1761.
John Hancock was a man who actively sought wealth and power, joining the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew in 1762, gave him access to some of the wealthiest and most influential residents of Boston, connections he would leverage in his political career and during the revolution. In 1763, due to his uncle’s failing health, John Hancock took control of “Hancock House,” cementing his rise as an influential Bostonian.
The Hancock family had a generous history, endearing themselves to the city of Boston by giving generously to the church and the poor. Upon his death in 1764, Thomas Hancock freed the family slaves, and there is no record of John Hancock ever trying to buy or sell slaves.
The French and Indian War, known as “The 7 Years War” elsewhere, had historically high costs due to the location (travelling across the ocean to fight in North America), bribing Native Americans, and loss of product due to smugglers. This caused the British debt to double between 1754 and 1763.
The “Molasses Act” which had been enacted to raise funds for the war, was set to expire in 1763. Lacking funds, it was extended and in 1764 and became known as the “Sugar Act.” The tax caused outrage, especially in Massachusetts where Samuel Adams and James Otis led protests against “taxation without representation.” The argument essentially boiled down to the fact that Adams did not feel that Parliament could enact taxes against colonists if the colonists had nobody arguing on their behalf in Parliament.
Around the same time, John Hancock; the influential, wealthy, and generous merchant, was selected as one of Boston’s five “selectmen” in charge of governing Boston. Initially Hancock looked to take a moderate stance on the “Stamp act” and resulting protests. He wanted to maintain his standing as a loyal British subject. That began to change, and in 1765, possibly inspired by his friend John Adams, Hancock actively joined the resistance. His popularity got him elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1766.
Igniting the Flames of Revolution
The passage of the “Townshend Acts” by British Parliament in 1767 levied new taxes on merchants in the colonies. The acts established the “American Customs Board” as a way to catch more smugglers. Colonists rightfully felt that these acts posed a threat to their established tradition of self-government, leading to protests against “Taxation Without Representation” taking place across Massachusetts.
These acts directly affected Hancock on April 9, 1768 when two customs agents, known as “tidesmen,” tried to board one of Hancock’s briggs, “The Lydia.” When Hancock realized they lacked a warrant, he refused them entry. Massachusetts Attorney General Jonathan Sewall ruled in Hancock’s favor. Some of Hancock’s admirers refer to this act as the “first physical resistance of British authority” and therefore credit Hancock with starting the revolution.
Hancock came under further suspicion in 1768 when his ship Liberty showed up to port carrying only ¼ of its capacity. Britain suspected he was unloading most of his haul in order to avoid taxes. Upon being brought up on charges, Hancock enlisted his old friend John Adams to defend him against the crown. After a long, drawn out trial which took five months, the charges were inexplicably dropped.
The incident with “Liberty” helped to reinforce the British decision to crack down on opposition throughout Massachusetts.
Hancock’s political career was kicked into high gear in 1774, when Massachusetts selected him to replace James Bowdoin at the second continental congress. On May 24, 1775, his colleagues named him the president of the Second Continental Congress.
Hancock’s position was unique. Not only was he the president of Congress, but Hancock simultaneously served as the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, giving him an enormous amount of power. At the time, Massachusetts was Great Britain’s biggest problem, so by electing Hancock as their president, the Second Continental Congress was recognizing Hancock’s importance. Specifically his ability to effectively communicate with both rich moderates, and radical Patriots.
The thought of revolution made Congress a target. In April of 1775 the Lord of Dartmouth ordered British General Thomas Gage to arrest members of the Provincial Congress on charges of treason and rebellion. Feeling emboldened, on April 18, 1775 General Gage sent troops to Concord to seize military suppli
es being stored by the colonists. Patriots also believed that Gage was heading to Lexington to arrest Hancock and Samuel Adams, who had been resting at Hancock’s old family home. This prompted Paul Revere to ride to Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams of impending danger. The two managed to escape right before the Battle of Lexington and Concord which became the first battle in the American Revolution. After the battle, General Gage issued a pardon to any colonist who would lay down their arms. The pardon excluded Hancock and Adams, which strengthened Patriot resolve.
John Hancock was so much more than the first signatory of the “Declaration of Independence.” He was a businessman, a philanthropist, an assemblyman, the president of the most important Congress in American history, and a rebel who would later serve as the first governor of Massachusetts. His unique position as a wealthy merchant who believed in revolution helped to energize Boston to rise up against the British. This fourth of July, crack a cold one in honor of John Hancock.