Continuing series on the Signers of the Declaration of Independence
John Hancock III, whose signature is probably the most famous on the Declaration due to its size, (January 23, 1737 – October 8, 1793 ) was born in Braintree, Ma., in an area that is now in the city of Quincy. His parents were John Hancock Jr., a soldier and clergyman, and the widow Mary Hawke Thaxter. As a boy, John was a companion of John Adams. However, his father died when he was six, and he was sent to live with an uncle, Thomas Hancock, the richest merchant of the day in Boston.
John attended Boston Latin and Harvard, where his uncle was well known as a patron and benefactor, graduating in 1754. John was an average scholar, inclined to spend time with friends as much as studying, and gave no hint of particular ambition or excellence.
He entered the counting house of his uncle and patron, and learned the ways of business for four years, then spent an equal amount of time in England, making connections and becoming acquainted with the world of the powerful there. In 1764 he returned to the colonies. His uncle died, leaving him the entire merchant enterprise, and a vast fortune.
For many lesser men, such sudden wealth might have spelled ruin, but John, tempered by his Christian upbringing and principles, was equal to the challenge. Nonetheless, he was a Mason, like many of the rich and powerful in Boston.
“Sensible of the importance of Christian piety and virtue to the order and happiness of a state, I cannot but earnestly commend to you every measure for their support and encouragement … Manners, by which not only the freedom, but the very existence of the republics, are greatly affected, depend much upon the public institutions of religion and the good education of youth; in both these instances our fathers laid wise foundations, for which their posterity have had reason to bless their memory.”John Hancock III
In 1765, John was elected one of five Boston selectmen, just as the infamous Stamp Act was passed. Initially moderate, he changed his mind. John allegedly was not above smuggling goods past the British customs, though proof is lacking. He denounced the Stamp and Sugar Acts as invasions of liberty. In May 1766, John was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, partly on the strength of his opposition to British tariffs.
By 1768, John distinguished himself among his peers, and became one of Boston’s leading citizens. In that year, one of his ships entered Boston Harbor without paying the required tariffs, was seized, and placed under guard of the HMS Romney. The city was outraged, and attacked customs officers, damaged boats and generally made an uproar. John is not known to have instigated these attacks, but as his boat was at the center of the controversy, it contributed to his popularity and appeal among those advocating against the British. Using this and other incidents as a pretext, the British landed several regiments of troops, and boarded them throughout the city, causing even greater tension. On March 5, 1770, a group of citizens bombarded British regulars with snowballs. The British returned musket fire, and killed five, wounded six. The soldiers were arrested, but later acquitted.
Following this incident, John was asked to give an address, where he said, ” “The town of Boston, ever faithful to the British crown, has been invested by a British fleet; the troops of George the third have crossed the Atlantic, not to engage an enemy, but to assist a band of traitors in trampling on the rights and liberties of his most loyal subjects; those rights and liberties, which, as a father, he ought ever to regard, and as a king, he is bound in honour to defend from violation, even at the risk of his own life. “
In 1775, John courted and won the engagement of Dorothy Quincy, from his home village of Braintree. Dorothy was beautiful, well-spoken and intelligent. She was not afraid to have her own opinions. She was present in Lexington, Ma. when the Shot Heard Round the World was fired. Fearful for her safety, John attempted to forbid her to travel back to Braintree, to which Dorothy replied, ” “Recollect Mr. Hancock, that I am not under your control yet. I shall go to my father tomorrow.” They married the same year, August 1. John and Dorothy had two children but both died in youth, his daughter as an infant, and his son in an ice skating accident. Dorothy outlived him by thirty-seven years, marrying Captain James Scott in 1796. She had no further children.
Many believe Sam Adams to have been the mastermind of the revolution, and he was initially a supporter and mentor to John Hancock III. They later parted ways over what Adams saw as John’s vanity and conceit. John loved the luxury of his wealth, and fancy clothes.
Matters grew worse with the British, following the Townshend Act and the Navigation Acts, and John was specifically targetted. The British suspected smuggling, and he was the wealthiest opponent of British policy. The Lydia, a Hancock ship, was stopped and boarded. When customs officials attempted to search, John was called and determined that they lacked the correct search warrant. He refused to allow them below decks. They took him to court, but he won. The Liberty affair was another protracted legal battle with the British over shipping tariffs, where charges against John were dropped.
Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts in response to the colonists boycott of British goods, led in part by John Hancock. In 1772, John was elected colonel of the local militia, and then made part of the Council, the upper house of the Massachusetts legislative body. He and Sam Adams united again to oppose the Royal Governor, and the Tea Acts. December 16, 1773 saw the Boston Tea Party, to which John privately gave his full support, though he was not one of the Sons of Liberty dumping the tea in the harbor.
John was elected to the Second Continental Congress, in 1774 to replace Bowdoin, who had become ill. Governor Gage dismissed John from his post with the militia. Gage considered arresting him, but figured that with his ill health, he was less of a threat.
John was laid up with gout for a time, and his activities curtailed – no doubt a result of his taste for luxury, wine, and fine foods. In April, 1775, Governor Gage offered clemency to those who opposed the British, after the battle on Lexington Green, except for Sam Adams and John Hancock, whom he deemed odious to the Crown. John and Adams decided it wasn’t safe to return to Boston, and remained in Lexington for a time at John’s grandfather’s house. May 14, 1775, the Continental Congress elected him as president of that body. That honor caused him to hire clerks at his own expense to handle the volume of paperwork. He nominated George Washington as commander of the army. Adams was reported by some to feel slighted that he was not made commander, but this has been disputed. Washington and John Hancock maintained a cordial relationship, with John naming his only son after the famous Virginian, even after Washington refused him a military appointment.
John presided over the Congress even as the British forced them to flee from New York to New Jersey, and finally Baltimore.
The now famous Hancock signature was on August 2, 1776. Legend quotes John as saying, “There! His Majesty can now read my name without glasses. And he can double the reward on my head!” but there is no proof.
By 1777, John’s health was again in decline, and he was again on the outs with Sam Adams. He requested and received a military escort to return to Boston. Washington detached fifteen cavalrymen he could ill afford, and assented to his friend’s request.
Back in Boston, he resumed politics in the colonial legislature, and tending his business interests. He failed to be re-elected as president of the Continental Congress, and his brief foray afterward as military commander in an attack on Newport, Rhode Island proved Washington’s initial judgement correct – it was a disaster.
In 1780, the new Massachusetts constitution took effect, and John was elected governor. He occupied the post until resigning in 1785, with failing health. Historian James Truslow Adams wrote that Hancock’s “two chief resources were his money and his gout, the first always used to gain popularity, and the second to prevent his losing it” After the war, he was re-elected president of Congress, but never attended due to health and disinterest – Congress was frequently ignored under the Articles of Confederation. He spent his last few years as a figure head governor of Massachusetts, with the real power wielded by Sam Adams. With his wife at his side, he died in bed on October 8, 1793, at 56 years of age.