John Hancock’s Early Years and Family
John Hancock was born on January 23 (or January 12, according to the calendar in use at the time), 1737, in Braintree (present-day Quincy), Massachusetts. After his clergyman father died when Hancock was a boy, he was raised by his aunt and uncle, Thomas Hancock (1703-1764), a wealthy merchant, in their elegant Boston mansion.
After graduating from Harvard College in 1754, Hancock went to work for his uncle. When Thomas Hancock, who was childless, died in 1764, his nephew inherited his lucrative import-export business and became one of the richest men in New England. Hancock would later earn a reputation for being generous and using his personal wealth for public projects; however, he also received criticism from some people, including fellow Revolutionary leader Samuel Adams (1722-1803), for his conspicuously lavish lifestyle.
In 1775, Hancock married Dorothy Quincy (1747-1830), the daughter of a Boston merchant and magistrate. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl, neither of whom survived to adulthood.
The Road to Revolution
In 1765, John Hancock entered local politics when he was elected a Boston selectman. The following year, he won election to the Massachusetts colonial legislature. Around this same time, the British Parliament began imposing a series of regulatory measures, including tax laws, to gain further control over its 13 American colonies. The colonists opposed these measures, particularly the tax laws, arguing that only their own representative assemblies impose tax them. Over the next decade, anti-British sentiment among the colonists intensified and eventually led to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).
Hancock came into direct conflict with the British in 1768, when one of his merchant ships, the Liberty, was seized in Boston Harbor by British customs officials who claimed Hancock had illegally unloaded cargo without paying the required taxes. Hancock was a popular figure in Boston, and the seizure of his ship led to angry protests by local residents. In the ensuing months and years, Hancock became increasingly involved in the movement for American independence. Massachusetts was at the center of this movement, and Boston, in particular, was dubbed the “Cradle of Liberty.”
A Wanted Man
In 1774, John Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which declared itself an autonomous government. In December of the same year, he was chosen as a Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress, which served as the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution.
Hancock’s revolutionary activities made him a target for British authorities. In 1775, he and fellow patriot Samuel Adams avoided arrest in Lexington, Massachusetts, after Paul Revere (1735-1818) made his legendary nighttime ride to warn them the British were coming.
John Hancock’s Famous Signature
In May 1775, John Hancock was elected president of the Continental Congress, which was meeting in Philadelphia. The next month, the Congress chose George Washington (1732-1799) as commander of the Continental Army. (According to some accounts, Hancock had eyed the role for himself.) During the eight years of war that followed, Hancock used his wealth and influence to help fund the army and revolutionary cause.
On July 4, 1776, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, a document drafted by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) stating that the 13 American colonies were free from British rule. The document also detailed the importance of individual rights and freedoms. As president of the Continental Congress, Hancock is credited as the first signer of the Declaration of Independence. His prominent, stylish signature became famous. (According to legend, Hancock boldly inscribed his name so the English king would not need glasses to read it.) Today, the term “John Hancock” is synonymous with “signature.”
John Hancock’s Governorship and Later Years
After resigning as head of the Continental Congress in 1777, Hancock had his chance for military glory in 1778, when he led some 5,000 Massachusetts soldiers in an attempt to recapture Newport, Rhode Island, from the British. Although the mission was a failure, Hancock remained a popular figure. He went on to help frame the Massachusetts Constitution, adopted in 1780, and was elected governor of Massachusetts by a wide margin that same year.
During his tenure as governor, Massachusetts was plagued by sharp inflation, and a number of farmers defaulted on loans and ended up in prison. In the face of the mounting political crisis, Hancock, who was suffering from gout, resigned the governorship in 1785. The following year, an armed uprising by Massachusetts farmers that later became known as Shay’s Rebellion broke out. The rebellion ended in early 1787, and Hancock was reelected governor that same year. He did not attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia; however, he presided over his home state’s 1788 convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution and gave a speech in favor of ratification.
In 1789, Hancock was a candidate in the first U.S. presidential election, but received only four electoral votes out of a total 138 cast. George Washington garnered 69 votes, while John Adams (1735-1826) captured 36 votes, earning the two men the presidency and vice presidency, respectively.
Hancock remained governor of Massachusetts until his death at age 56 on October 8, 1793. Following an extravagant funeral, he was buried at Boston’s Granary Burying Ground.