John Hancock becomes president of Congress

On May 24, 1775, John Hancock is elected president of the Second Continental Congress.

John Hancock is best known for his large signature on the Declaration of Independence, which he jested the British could read without spectacles. He was serving as president of Congress upon the declaration’s adoption on July 4, 1776, and, as such, was the first member of the Congress to sign the historic document.

John Hancock graduated from Harvard University in 1754 at age 17 and, with the help of a large inherited fortune, established himself as Boston’s leading merchant. The British customs raid on one of Hancock’s ships, the sloop Liberty, in 1768 incited riots so severe that the British army fled the city of Boston to its barracks in Boston Harbor. Boston merchants promptly agreed to a non-importation agreement to protest the British action. Two years later, it was a scuffle between Patriot protestors and British soldiers on Hancock’s wharf that set the stage for the Boston Massacre.

Hancock’s involvement with Samuel Adams and his radical group, the Sons of Liberty, won the wealthy merchant the dubious distinction of being one of only two Patriots—the other being Sam Adams—that the Redcoats marching to Lexington in April 1775 to confiscate Patriot arms were ordered to arrest. When British General Thomas Gage offered amnesty to the colonists holding Boston under siege, he excluded the same two men from his offer.

While Hancock served as president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Samuel Adams’ cousin John Adams convinced Congress to place Virginian George Washington in command of the rebel army. In 1776, the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain. The next year, John Hancock returned home to Massachusetts, where he served as a major general in the militia and sat in the Massachusetts constitutional convention that adopted the world’s first and most enduring constitution in 1780. Having helped to create the new state government, Hancock proceeded to serve as the state’s first governor, a position he held on and off until his death in 1793.

READ MORE: Meet the Founding Fathers

John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts to a minister. As a boy, he was a casual acquaintance with the young John Adams. His father passed away in 1744 and he moved to the home of his Uncle Thomas Hancock.

Thomas was a wealthy merchant who imported manufactured goods to Britain and exported goods such as rum, fish, and whale oil. Thomas would be an influential figure in his nephew&rsquos life.

Hancock went to the Boston Latin School and eventually Harvard College. After graduating he rejoined his uncle Thomas and began to learn more about his business.

Thomas had relationships with every royal governor in Massachusetts and was well-connected throughout. John learned much from him during this time and Thomas prepared him to take over his business when he was gone.


John Hancock was born on January 23, 1737 [3] in Braintree, Massachusetts, in a part of town that eventually became the separate city of Quincy. [4] He was the son of Col. John Hancock Jr. of Braintree and Mary Hawke Thaxter (widow of Samuel Thaxter Junior), who was from nearby Hingham. As a child, Hancock became a casual acquaintance of young John Adams, whom the Reverend Hancock had baptized in 1735. [5] [6] The Hancocks lived a comfortable life, and owned one slave to help with household work. [5]

After Hancock's father died in 1744, John was sent to live with his uncle and aunt, Thomas Hancock and Lydia (Henchman) Hancock. Thomas Hancock was the proprietor of a firm known as the House of Hancock, which imported manufactured goods from Britain and exported rum, whale oil, and fish. [7] Thomas Hancock's highly successful business made him one of Boston's richest and best-known residents. [8] [9] He and Lydia, along with several servants and slaves, lived in Hancock Manor on Beacon Hill. The couple, who did not have any children of their own, became the dominant influence on John's life. [10]

After graduating from the Boston Latin School in 1750, Hancock enrolled in Harvard College and received a bachelor's degree in 1754. [11] [12] Upon graduation, he began to work for his uncle, just as the French and Indian War (1754–1763) had begun. Thomas Hancock had close relations with the royal governors of Massachusetts and secured profitable government contracts during the war. [13] John Hancock learned much about his uncle's business during these years and was trained for eventual partnership in the firm. Hancock worked hard, but he also enjoyed playing the role of a wealthy aristocrat and developed a fondness for expensive clothes. [14] [15]

From 1760 to 1761, Hancock lived in England while building relationships with customers and suppliers. Upon returning to Boston, Hancock gradually took over the House of Hancock as his uncle's health failed, becoming a full partner in January 1763. [16] [17] [18] He became a member of the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew in October 1762, which connected him with many of Boston's most influential citizens. [19] When Thomas Hancock died in August 1764, John inherited the business, Hancock Manor, two or three household slaves, and thousands of acres of land, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the colonies. [20] [21] The household slaves continued to work for John and his aunt, but were eventually freed through the terms of Thomas Hancock's will there is no evidence that John Hancock ever bought or sold slaves. [22]

After its victory in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the British Empire was deeply in debt. Looking for new sources of revenue, the British Parliament sought, for the first time, to directly tax the colonies, beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764. [23] The earlier Molasses Act of 1733, a tax on shipments from the West Indies, had produced hardly any revenue because it was widely bypassed by smuggling, which was seen as a victimless crime.

Not only was there little social stigma attached to smuggling in the colonies, but in port cities, where trade was the primary generator of wealth, smuggling enjoyed considerable community support, and it was even possible to obtain insurance against being caught. Colonial merchants developed an impressive repertoire of evasive maneuvers to conceal the origin, nationality, routes, and content of their illicit cargoes. This included the frequent use of fraudulent paperwork to make the cargo appear legal and authorized. And much to the frustration of the British authorities, when seizures did happen local merchants were often able to use sympathetic provincial courts to reclaim confiscated goods and have their cases dismissed. For instance, Edward Randolph, the appointed head of customs in New England, brought 36 seizures to trial from 1680 to the end of 1682—and all but two of these were acquitted. Alternatively, merchants sometimes took matters into their own hands and stole illicit goods back while impounded. [24]

The Sugar Act provoked outrage in Boston, where it was widely viewed as a violation of colonial rights. Men such as James Otis and Samuel Adams argued that because the colonists were not represented in Parliament, they could not be taxed by that body only the colonial assemblies, where the colonists were represented, could levy taxes upon the colonies. Hancock was not yet a political activist however, he criticized the tax for economic, rather than constitutional, reasons. [23]

Hancock emerged as a leading political figure in Boston just as tensions with Great Britain were increasing. In March 1765, he was elected as one of Boston's five selectmen, an office previously held by his uncle for many years. [26] Soon after, Parliament passed the 1765 Stamp Act, a tax on legal documents, such as wills, that had been levied in Britain for many years but which was wildly unpopular in the colonies, producing riots and organized resistance. Hancock initially took a moderate position: as a loyal British subject, he thought that the colonists should submit to the act, even though he believed that Parliament was misguided. [27] Within a few months, Hancock had changed his mind, although he continued to disapprove of violence and the intimidation of royal officials by mobs. [28] Hancock joined the resistance to the Stamp Act by participating in a boycott of British goods, which made him popular in Boston. After Bostonians learned of the impending repeal of the Stamp Act, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in May 1766. [29]

Hancock's political success benefited from the support of Samuel Adams, the clerk of the House of Representatives and a leader of Boston's "popular party", also known as "Whigs" and later as "Patriots". The two men made an unlikely pair. Fifteen years older than Hancock, Adams had a somber, Puritan outlook that stood in marked contrast to Hancock's taste for luxury and extravagance. [30] [31] Apocryphal stories later portrayed Adams as masterminding Hancock's political rise so that the merchant's wealth could be used to further the Whig agenda. [32] Historian James Truslow Adams portrayed Hancock as shallow and vain, easily manipulated by Adams. [33] Historian William M. Fowler, who wrote biographies of both men, argued that this characterization was an exaggeration, and that the relationship between the two was symbiotic, with Adams as the mentor and Hancock the protégé. [34] [35]

After the repeal of the Stamp Act, Parliament took a different approach to raising revenue, passing the 1767 Townshend Acts, which established new duties on various imports and strengthened the customs agency by creating the American Customs Board. The British government believed that a more efficient customs system was necessary because many colonial American merchants had been smuggling. Smugglers violated the Navigation Acts by trading with ports outside of the British Empire and avoiding import taxes. Parliament hoped that the new system would reduce smuggling and generate revenue for the government. [36]

Colonial merchants, even those not involved in smuggling, found the new regulations oppressive. Other colonists protested that new duties were another attempt by Parliament to tax the colonies without their consent. Hancock joined other Bostonians in calling for a boycott of British imports until the Townshend duties were repealed. [37] [38] In their enforcement of the customs regulations, the Customs Board targeted Hancock, Boston's wealthiest Whig. They may have suspected that he was a smuggler, or they may have wanted to harass him because of his politics, especially after Hancock snubbed Governor Francis Bernard by refusing to attend public functions when the customs officials were present. [39] [40]

On April 9, 1768, two customs employees (called tidesmen) boarded Hancock's brig Lydia in Boston Harbor. Hancock was summoned, and finding that the agents lacked a writ of assistance (a general search warrant), he did not allow them to go below deck. When one of them later managed to get into the hold, Hancock's men forced the tidesman back on deck. [41] [42] [43] [44] Customs officials wanted to file charges, but the case was dropped when Massachusetts Attorney General Jonathan Sewall ruled that Hancock had broken no laws. [45] [39] [46] Later, some of Hancock's most ardent admirers would call this incident the first act of physical resistance to British authority in the colonies and credit Hancock with initiating the American Revolution. [47]

Liberty affair

The next incident proved to be a major event in the coming of the American Revolution. On the evening of May 9, 1768, Hancock's sloop Liberty arrived in Boston Harbor, carrying a shipment of Madeira wine. When custom officers inspected the ship the next morning, they found that it contained 25 pipes of wine, just one fourth of the ship's carrying capacity. [48] [49] [50] Hancock paid the duties on the 25 pipes of wine, but officials suspected that he had arranged to have more wine unloaded during the night to avoid paying the duties for the entire cargo. [49] [51] They did not have any evidence to prove this, however, since the two tidesmen who had stayed on the ship overnight gave a sworn statement that nothing had been unloaded. [52] [48]

One month later, while the British warship HMS Romney was in port, one of the tidesmen changed his story: he now claimed that he had been forcibly held on the Liberty while it had been illegally unloaded. [53] [54] [55] On June 10, customs officials seized the Liberty. Bostonians were already angry because the captain of the Romney had been impressing colonists, and not just deserters from the Royal Navy, an arguably illegal activity. [56] A riot broke out when officials began to tow the Liberty out to the Romney, which was also arguably illegal. [57] [58] The confrontation escalated when sailors and marines coming ashore to seize the Liberty were mistaken for a press gang. [59] After the riot, customs officials relocated to the Romney, and then to Castle William (an island fort in the harbor), claiming that they were unsafe in town. [60] [54] Whigs insisted that the customs officials were exaggerating the danger so that London would send troops to Boston. [61]

British officials filed two lawsuits stemming from the Liberty incident: an in rem suit against the ship, and an in personam suit against Hancock. Royal officials, as well as Hancock's accuser, stood to gain financially, since, as was the custom, any penalties assessed by the court would be awarded to the governor, the informer, and the Crown, each getting a third. [62] The first suit, filed on June 22, 1768, resulted in the confiscation of the Liberty in August. Customs officials then used the ship to enforce trade regulations until it was burned by angry colonists in Rhode Island the following year. [63] [64] [65]

The second trial began in October 1768, when charges were filed against Hancock and five others for allegedly unloading 100 pipes of wine from the Liberty without paying the duties. [66] [67] If convicted, the defendants would have had to pay a penalty of triple the value of the wine, which came to £9,000. With John Adams serving as his lawyer, Hancock was prosecuted in a highly publicized trial by a vice admiralty court, which had no jury and did not always allow the defense to cross-examine the witnesses. [68] After dragging out for nearly five months, the proceedings against Hancock were dropped without explanation. [69] [70] [71]

Although the charges against Hancock were dropped, many writers later described him as a smuggler. [72] The accuracy of this characterization has been questioned. "Hancock's guilt or innocence and the exact charges against him", wrote historian John W. Tyler in 1986, "are still fiercely debated." [73] Historian Oliver Dickerson argued that Hancock was the victim of an essentially criminal racketeering scheme perpetrated by Governor Bernard and the customs officials. Dickerson believed that there is no reliable evidence that Hancock was guilty in the Liberty case, and that the purpose of the trials was to punish Hancock for political reasons and to plunder his property. [74] Opposed to Dickerson's interpretation were Kinvin Wroth and Hiller Zobel, the editors of John Adams's legal papers, who argued that "Hancock's innocence is open to question", and that the British officials acted legally, if unwisely. [75] Lawyer and historian Bernard Knollenberg concluded that the customs officials had the right to seize Hancock's ship, but towing it out to the Romney had been illegal. [76] Legal historian John Phillip Reid argued that the testimony of both sides was so politically partial that it is not possible to objectively reconstruct the incident. [77]

Aside from the Liberty affair, the degree to which Hancock was engaged in smuggling, which may have been widespread in the colonies, has been questioned. Given the clandestine nature of smuggling, records are scarce. [78] If Hancock was a smuggler, no documentation of this has been found. John W. Tyler identified 23 smugglers in his study of more than 400 merchants in revolutionary Boston, but found no written evidence that Hancock was one of them. [79] Biographer William Fowler concluded that while Hancock was probably engaged in some smuggling, most of his business was legitimate, and his later reputation as the "king of the colonial smugglers" is a myth without foundation. [39]

The Liberty affair reinforced a previously made British decision to suppress unrest in Boston with a show of military might. The decision had been prompted by Samuel Adams's 1768 Circular Letter, which was sent to other British American colonies in hopes of coordinating resistance to the Townshend Acts. Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies, sent four regiments of the British Army to Boston to support embattled royal officials, and instructed Governor Bernard to order the Massachusetts legislature to revoke the Circular Letter. Hancock and the Massachusetts House voted against rescinding the letter, and instead drew up a petition demanding Governor Bernard's recall. [81] When Bernard returned to England in 1769, Bostonians celebrated. [82] [83]

The British troops remained, however, and tensions between soldiers and civilians eventually resulted in the killing of five civilians in the Boston Massacre of March 1770. Hancock was not involved in the incident, but afterwards he led a committee to demand the removal of the troops. Meeting with Bernard's successor, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and the British officer in command, Colonel William Dalrymple, Hancock claimed that there were 10,000 armed colonists ready to march into Boston if the troops did not leave. [84] [85] Hutchinson knew that Hancock was bluffing, but the soldiers were in a precarious position when garrisoned within the town, and so Dalrymple agreed to remove both regiments to Castle William. [84] Hancock was celebrated as a hero for his role in getting the troops withdrawn. [86] [85] His reelection to the Massachusetts House in May was nearly unanimous. [87] [88]

After Parliament partially repealed the Townshend duties in 1770, Boston's boycott of British goods ended. [90] Politics became quieter in Massachusetts, although tensions remained. [91] Hancock tried to improve his relationship with Governor Hutchinson, who in turn sought to woo Hancock away from Adams's influence. [92] [93] In April 1772, Hutchinson approved Hancock's election as colonel of the Boston Cadets, a militia unit whose primary function was to provide a ceremonial escort for the governor and the General Court. [94] [95] In May, Hutchinson even approved Hancock's election to the Council, the upper chamber of the General Court, whose members were elected by the House but subject to veto by the governor. Hancock's previous elections to the Council had been vetoed, but now Hutchinson allowed the election to stand. Hancock declined the office, however, not wanting to appear to have been co-opted by the governor. Nevertheless, Hancock used the improved relationship to resolve an ongoing dispute. To avoid hostile crowds in Boston, Hutchinson had been convening the legislature outside of town now he agreed to allow the General Court to sit in Boston once again, to the relief of the legislators. [96]

Hutchinson had dared to hope that he could win over Hancock and discredit Adams. [97] To some, it seemed that Adams and Hancock were indeed at odds: when Adams formed the Boston Committee of Correspondence in November 1772 to advocate colonial rights, Hancock declined to join, creating the impression that there was a split in the Whig ranks. [98] But whatever their differences, Hancock and Adams came together again in 1773 with the renewal of major political turmoil. They cooperated in the revelation of private letters of Thomas Hutchinson, in which the governor seemed to recommend "an abridgement of what are called English liberties" to bring order to the colony. [99] The Massachusetts House, blaming Hutchinson for the military occupation of Boston, called for his removal as governor. [100]

Even more trouble followed Parliament's passage of the 1773 Tea Act. On November 5, Hancock was elected as moderator at a Boston town meeting that resolved that anyone who supported the Tea Act was an "Enemy to America". [101] Hancock and others tried to force the resignation of the agents who had been appointed to receive the tea shipments. Unsuccessful in this, they attempted to prevent the tea from being unloaded after three tea ships had arrived in Boston Harbor. Hancock was at the fateful meeting on December 16, where he reportedly told the crowd, "Let every man do what is right in his own eyes." [102] [103] Hancock did not take part in the Boston Tea Party that night, but he approved of the action, although he was careful not to publicly praise the destruction of private property. [104]

Over the next few months, Hancock was disabled by gout, which would trouble him with increasing frequency in the coming years. By March 5, 1774, he had recovered enough to deliver the fourth annual Massacre Day oration, a commemoration of the Boston Massacre. Hancock's speech denounced the presence of British troops in Boston, who he said had been sent there "to enforce obedience to acts of Parliament, which neither God nor man ever empowered them to make". [105] The speech, probably written by Hancock in collaboration with Adams, Joseph Warren, and others, was published and widely reprinted, enhancing Hancock's stature as a leading Patriot. [106]

Parliament responded to the Tea Party with the Boston Port Act, one of the so-called Coercive Acts intended to strengthen British control of the colonies. Hutchinson was replaced as governor by General Thomas Gage, who arrived in May 1774. On June 17, the Massachusetts House elected five delegates to send to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which was being organized to coordinate colonial response to the Coercive Acts. Hancock did not serve in the first Congress, possibly for health reasons, or possibly to remain in charge while the other Patriot leaders were away. [108] [109]

Gage soon dismissed Hancock from his post as colonel of the Boston Cadets. [110] In October 1774, Gage canceled the scheduled meeting of the General Court. In response, the House resolved itself into the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a body independent of British control. Hancock was elected as president of the Provincial Congress and was a key member of the Committee of Safety. [111] The Provincial Congress created the first minutemen companies, consisting of militiamen who were to be ready for action on a moment's notice. [111] [112]

On December 1, 1774, the Provincial Congress elected Hancock as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress to replace James Bowdoin, who had been unable to attend the first Congress because of illness. [111] [114] Before Hancock reported to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the Provincial Congress unanimously reelected him as their president in February 1775. Hancock's multiple roles gave him enormous influence in Massachusetts, and as early as January 1774 British officials had considered arresting him. [115] After attending the Provincial Congress in Concord in April 1775, Hancock and Samuel Adams decided that it was not safe to return to Boston before leaving for Philadelphia. They stayed instead at Hancock's childhood home in Lexington. [113] [116]

Gage received a letter from Lord Dartmouth on April 14, 1775, advising him "to arrest the principal actors and abettors in the Provincial Congress whose proceedings appear in every light to be acts of treason and rebellion". [117] [118] [119] On the night of April 18, Gage sent out a detachment of soldiers on the fateful mission that would spark the American Revolutionary War. The purpose of the British expedition was to seize and destroy military supplies that the colonists had stored in Concord. According to many historical accounts, Gage also instructed his men to arrest Hancock and Adams if so, the written orders issued by Gage made no mention of arresting the Patriot leaders. [120] Gage apparently decided that he had nothing to gain by arresting Hancock and Adams, since other leaders would simply take their place, and the British would be portrayed as the aggressors. [121] [122]

Although Gage had evidently decided against seizing Hancock and Adams, Patriots initially believed otherwise. From Boston, Joseph Warren dispatched messenger Paul Revere to warn Hancock and Adams that British troops were on the move and might attempt to arrest them. Revere reached Lexington around midnight and gave the warning. [123] [124] Hancock, still considering himself a militia colonel, wanted to take the field with the Patriot militia at Lexington, but Adams and others convinced him to avoid battle, arguing that he was more valuable as a political leader than as a soldier. [125] [126] As Hancock and Adams made their escape, the first shots of the war were fired at Lexington and Concord. Soon after the battle, Gage issued a proclamation granting a general pardon to all who would "lay down their arms, and return to the duties of peaceable subjects"—with the exceptions of Hancock and Samuel Adams. Singling out Hancock and Adams in this manner only added to their renown among Patriots. [127]

With the war underway, Hancock made his way to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia with the other Massachusetts delegates. On May 24, 1775, he was unanimously elected President of the Continental Congress, succeeding Peyton Randolph after Henry Middleton declined the nomination. Hancock was a good choice for president for several reasons. [128] [129] He was experienced, having often presided over legislative bodies and town meetings in Massachusetts. His wealth and social standing inspired the confidence of moderate delegates, while his association with Boston radicals made him acceptable to other radicals. His position was somewhat ambiguous because the role of the president was not fully defined, and it was not clear if Randolph had resigned or was on a leave of absence. [130] Like other presidents of Congress, Hancock's authority was mostly limited to that of a presiding officer. [131] He also had to handle a great deal of official correspondence, and he found it necessary to hire clerks at his own expense to help with the paperwork. [132] [133]

In Congress on June 15, 1775, Massachusetts delegate John Adams nominated George Washington as commander-in-chief of the army then gathered around Boston. Years later, Adams wrote that Hancock had shown great disappointment at not getting the command for himself. This brief comment from 1801 is the only source for the oft-cited claim that Hancock sought to become commander-in-chief. [134] In the early 20th century, historian James Truslow Adams wrote that the incident initiated a lifelong estrangement between Hancock and Washington, but some subsequent historians have expressed doubt that the incident, or the estrangement, ever occurred. According to historian Donald Proctor, "There is no contemporary evidence that Hancock harbored ambitions to be named commander-in-chief. Quite the contrary." [135] Hancock and Washington maintained a good relationship after the alleged incident, and in 1778 Hancock named his only son John George Washington Hancock. [136] Hancock admired and supported General Washington, even though Washington politely declined Hancock's request for a military appointment. [137] [138]

When Congress recessed on August 1, 1775, Hancock took the opportunity to wed his fiancée, Dorothy "Dolly" Quincy. The couple was married on August 28 in Fairfield, Connecticut. [139] [140] John and Dorothy would have two children, neither of whom survived to adulthood. Their daughter Lydia Henchman Hancock was born in 1776 and died ten months later. [141] Their son John was born in 1778 and died in 1787 after suffering a head injury while ice skating. [142] [143]

While president of Congress, Hancock became involved in a long-running controversy with Harvard. As treasurer of the college since 1773, he had been entrusted with the school's financial records and about £15,000 in cash and securities. [144] [145] In the rush of events at the onset of the Revolutionary War, Hancock had been unable to return the money and accounts to Harvard before leaving for Congress. [145] In 1777, a Harvard committee headed by James Bowdoin, Hancock's chief political and social rival in Boston, sent a messenger to Philadelphia to retrieve the money and records. [146] Hancock was offended, but he turned over more than £16,000, though not all of the records, to the college. [147] [148] [149] When Harvard replaced Hancock as treasurer, his ego was bruised, and for years he declined to settle the account or pay the interest on the money he had held, despite pressure put on him by Bowdoin and other political opponents. [150] [151] The issue dragged on until after Hancock's death, when his estate finally paid the college more than £1,000 to resolve the matter. [150] [151]

Hancock served in Congress through some of the darkest days of the Revolutionary War. The British drove Washington from New York and New Jersey in 1776, which prompted Congress to flee to Baltimore, Maryland. [152] Hancock and Congress returned to Philadelphia in March 1777 but were compelled to flee six months later when the British occupied Philadelphia. [153] Hancock wrote innumerable letters to colonial officials, raising money, supplies, and troops for Washington's army. [154] He chaired the Marine Committee, and took pride in helping to create a small fleet of American frigates, including the USS Hancock, which was named in his honor. [155] [156]

Signing the Declaration

Hancock was president of Congress when the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed. He is primarily remembered by Americans for his large, flamboyant signature on the Declaration, so much so that "John Hancock" became, in the United States, an informal synonym for signature. [157] According to legend, Hancock signed his name largely and clearly so that King George could read it without his spectacles, but the story is apocryphal and originated years later. [158] [159]

Contrary to popular mythology, there was no ceremonial signing of the Declaration on July 4, 1776. [158] After Congress approved the wording of the text on July 4, the fair copy was sent to be printed. As president, Hancock may have signed the document that was sent to the printer John Dunlap, but this is uncertain because that document is lost, perhaps destroyed in the printing process. [160] Dunlap produced the first published version of the Declaration, the widely distributed Dunlap broadside. Hancock, as President of Congress, was the only delegate whose name appeared on the broadside, although the name of Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, but not a delegate, was also on it as "Attested by" implying that Hancock had signed the fair copy. This meant that until a second broadside was issued six months later with all of the signers listed, Hancock was the only delegate whose name was publicly attached to the treasonous document. [161] Hancock sent a copy of the Dunlap broadside to George Washington, instructing him to have it read to the troops "in the way you shall think most proper". [162]

Hancock's name was printed, not signed, on the Dunlap broadside his iconic signature appears on a different document—a sheet of parchment that was carefully handwritten sometime after July 19 and signed on August 2 by Hancock and those delegates present. [163] Known as the engrossed copy, this is the famous document on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. [164]

In October 1777, after more than two years in Congress, President Hancock requested a leave of absence. [165] [166] He asked George Washington to arrange a military escort for his return to Boston. Although Washington was short on manpower, he nevertheless sent fifteen horsemen to accompany Hancock on his journey home. [167] [168] By this time Hancock had become estranged from Samuel Adams, who disapproved of what he viewed as Hancock's vanity and extravagance, which Adams believed were inappropriate in a republican leader. When Congress voted to thank Hancock for his service, Adams and the other Massachusetts delegates voted against the resolution, as did a few delegates from other states. [131] [169]

Back in Boston, Hancock was reelected to the House of Representatives. As in previous years, his philanthropy made him popular. Although his finances had suffered greatly because of the war, he gave to the poor, helped support widows and orphans, and loaned money to friends. According to biographer William Fowler, "John Hancock was a generous man and the people loved him for it. He was their idol." [170] In December 1777, he was reelected as a delegate to the Continental Congress and as moderator of the Boston town meeting. [171]

Hancock rejoined the Continental Congress in Pennsylvania in June 1778, but his brief time there was unhappy. In his absence, Congress had elected Henry Laurens as its new president, which was a disappointment to Hancock, who had hoped to reclaim his chair. Hancock got along poorly with Samuel Adams, and missed his wife and newborn son. [172] On July 9, 1778, Hancock and the other Massachusetts delegates joined the representatives from seven other states in signing the Articles of Confederation the remaining states were not yet prepared to sign, and the Articles would not be ratified until 1781. [173]

Hancock returned to Boston in July 1778, motivated by the opportunity to finally lead men in combat. Back in 1776, he had been appointed as the senior major general of the Massachusetts militia. [174] Now that the French fleet had come to the aid of the Americans, General Washington instructed General John Sullivan of the Continental Army to lead an attack on the British garrison at Newport, Rhode Island, in August 1778. Hancock nominally commanded 6,000 militiamen in the campaign, although he let the professional soldiers do the planning and issue the orders. It was a fiasco: French Admiral d'Estaing abandoned the operation, after which Hancock's militia mostly deserted Sullivan's Continentals. [175] [176] Hancock suffered some criticism for the debacle but emerged from his brief military career with his popularity intact. [177] [178] He was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780. [179]

After much delay, the new Massachusetts Constitution finally went into effect in October 1780. To no one's surprise, Hancock was elected Governor of Massachusetts in a landslide, garnering over 90% of the vote. [180] In the absence of formal party politics, the contest was one of personality, popularity, and patriotism. Hancock was immensely popular and unquestionably patriotic given his personal sacrifices and his leadership of the Second Continental Congress. James Bowdoin, his principal opponent, was cast by Hancock's supporters as unpatriotic, citing among other things his refusal (which was due to poor health) to serve in the First Continental Congress. [181] Bowdoin's supporters, who were principally well-off commercial interests from Massachusetts coastal communities, cast Hancock as a foppish demagogue who pandered to the populace. [182]

Hancock governed Massachusetts through the end of the Revolutionary War and into an economically troubled postwar period, repeatedly winning reelection by wide margins. Hancock took a hands-off approach to governing, avoiding controversial issues as much as possible. According to William Fowler, Hancock "never really led" and "never used his strength to deal with the critical issues confronting the commonwealth." [183] Hancock governed until his surprise resignation on January 29, 1785. Hancock cited his failing health as the reason, but he may have become aware of growing unrest in the countryside and wanted to get out of office before the trouble came. [184]

Hancock's critics sometimes believed that he used claims of illness to avoid difficult political situations. [185] 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". [186] The turmoil that Hancock avoided ultimately blossomed as Shays's Rebellion, which Hancock's successor James Bowdoin had to deal with. After the uprising, Hancock was reelected in 1787, and he promptly pardoned all the rebels. [187] [188] The next year, a controversy arose when three free blacks were kidnapped from Boston and sent to work as slaves in the French colony of Martinique in the West Indies. [189] Governor Hancock wrote to the governors of the islands on their behalf. [190] As a result, the three men were released and returned to Massachusetts. [191]

Hancock was reelected to annual terms as governor for the remainder of his life. [192]

When he had resigned as governor in 1785, Hancock was again elected as a delegate to Congress, known as the Confederation Congress after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781. Congress had declined in importance after the Revolutionary War, and was frequently ignored by the states. Hancock was elected to serve as its president on November 23, 1785, but he never attended because of his poor health and because he was disinterested. He sent Congress a letter of resignation in June 1786. [194]

In an effort to remedy the perceived defects of the Articles of Confederation, delegates were first sent to the Annapolis Convention in 1786 and then to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, where they drafted the United States Constitution, which was then sent to the states for ratification or rejection. Hancock, who was not present at the Philadelphia Convention, had misgivings about the new Constitution's lack of a bill of rights and its shift of power to a central government. [195] In January 1788, Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts ratifying convention, although he was ill and not present when the convention began. [196] Hancock mostly remained silent during the contentious debates, but as the convention was drawing to close, he gave a speech in favor of ratification. For the first time in years, Samuel Adams supported Hancock's position. [197] Even with the support of Hancock and Adams, the Massachusetts convention narrowly ratified the Constitution by a vote of 187 to 168. Hancock's support was probably a deciding factor in the ratification. [198] [199]

Hancock was put forth as a candidate in the 1789 U. S. presidential election. As was the custom in an era where political ambition was viewed with suspicion, Hancock did not campaign or even publicly express interest in the office he instead made his wishes known indirectly. Like everyone else, Hancock knew that George Washington was going to be elected as the first president, but Hancock may have been interested in being vice president, despite his poor health. [200] Hancock received only four electoral votes in the election, however, none of them from his home state the Massachusetts electors all voted for another Massachusetts native, John Adams, who received the second-highest number of electoral votes and thus became vice president. [201] Although Hancock was disappointed with his performance in the election, he continued to be popular in Massachusetts. [201]

His health failing, Hancock spent his final few years as essentially a figurehead governor. With his wife at his side, he died in bed on October 8, 1793, at 56 years of age. [202] [203] By order of acting governor Samuel Adams, the day of Hancock's burial was a state holiday the lavish funeral was perhaps the grandest given to an American up to that time. [204] [205]

Despite his grand funeral, Hancock faded from popular memory after his death. According to historian Alfred F. Young, "Boston celebrated only one hero in the half-century after the Revolution: George Washington." [206] As early as 1809, John Adams lamented that Hancock and Samuel Adams were "almost buried in oblivion". [207] In Boston, little effort was made to preserve Hancock's historical legacy. His house on Beacon Hill was torn down in 1863 after both the city of Boston and the Massachusetts legislature decided against maintaining it. [208] According to Young, the conservative "new elite" of Massachusetts "was not comfortable with a rich man who pledged his fortune to the cause of revolution". [208] In 1876, with the centennial of American independence renewing popular interest in the Revolution, plaques honoring Hancock were put up in Boston. [209] In 1896, a memorial column was finally erected over Hancock's essentially unmarked grave in the Granary Burying Ground. [193]

No full-length biography of Hancock appeared until the 20th century. A challenge facing Hancock biographers is that, compared to prominent Founding Fathers like Jefferson and John Adams, Hancock left relatively few personal writings for historians to use in interpreting his life. As a result, most depictions of Hancock have relied on the voluminous writings of his political opponents, who were often scathingly critical of him. According to historian Charles Akers, "The chief victim of Massachusetts historiography has been John Hancock, the most gifted and popular politician in the Bay State's long history. He suffered the misfortune of being known to later generations almost entirely through the judgments of his detractors, Tory and Whig." [210]

Hancock's most influential 20th-century detractor was historian James Truslow Adams, who wrote negative portraits of Hancock in Harper's Magazine and the Dictionary of American Biography in the 1930s. [211] Adams argued that Hancock was a "fair presiding officer" but had "no great ability", and was prominent only because of his inherited wealth. [33] Decades later, historian Donald Proctor argued that Adams had uncritically repeated the negative views of Hancock's political opponents without doing any serious research. [212] Adams "presented a series of disparaging incidents and anecdotes, sometimes partially documented, sometimes not documented at all, which in sum leave one with a distinctly unfavorable impression of Hancock". [213] According to Proctor, Adams evidently projected his own disapproval of 1920s businessmen onto Hancock, [212] and ended up misrepresenting several key events in Hancock's career. [214] Writing in the 1970s, Proctor and Akers called for scholars to evaluate Hancock based on his merits, rather than on the views of his critics. Since that time, historians have usually presented a more favorable portrait of Hancock, while acknowledging that he was not an important writer, political theorist, or military leader. [215]

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John Hancock: Facts About His Life

Born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1737, John Hancock had the distinct honor of being born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He studied classical studies and graduated from Harvard University when he was just 17 years old.

After receiving a large inheritance, John Hancock rose to become the leading merchant. His intelligence, wealth, and ability to quickly learn details of how to become a successful businessperson helped his reputation grow.

It is probably easy to assume that at the height of conflicts between the American Colonists and England, John Hancock would become a Loyalist. However, as the National Constitution Center points out, this was not the case. In fact, Hancock sympathized with Patriots, such as Samuel Adams. It was his association and acts committed, with the like of Samuel Adams that led the British to order the arrests of both Hancock and Adams.

It was not unusual for ships bearing Hancock’s cargo to escape paying the customary duty. Whether by bribe or smuggling, we may never know for sure. Once the British discovered this, the British seized Hancock’s ship, Liberty. His Patriot friends helped Hancock escape criminal charges.

John Hancock also played a pivotal role in the Boston Tea Party.

This affiliation with the cause of the Patriots eventually helped catapult John Hancock to prominent leadership roles at the time, including that of President of Congress.

John Hancock becomes president of Congress

John Hancock is best known for his large signature on the Declaration of Independence, which he jested the British could read without spectacles. He was serving as president of Congress upon the declaration’s adoption on July 4, 1776, and, as such, was the first member of the Congress to sign the historic document.

John Hancock graduated from Harvard University in 1754 at age 17 and, with the help of a large inherited fortune, established himself as Boston’s leading merchant. The British customs raid on one of Hancock’s ships, the sloop Liberty, in 1768 incited riots so severe that the British army fled the city of Boston to its barracks in Boston Harbor. Boston merchants promptly agreed to a non-importation agreement to protest the British action. Two years later, it was a scuffle between Patriot protestors and British soldiers on Hancock’s wharf that set the stage for the Boston Massacre.

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Hancock’s involvement with Samuel Adams and his radical group, the Sons of Liberty, won the wealthy merchant the dubious distinction of being one of only two Patriots—the other being Sam Adams—that the Redcoats marching to Lexington in April 1775 to confiscate Patriot arms were ordered to arrest. When British General Thomas Gage offered amnesty to the colonists holding Boston under siege, he excluded the same two men from his offer.

While Hancock served as president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Samuel Adams’ cousin John Adams convinced Congress to place Virginian George Washington in command of the rebel army. In 1776, the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain. The next year, John Hancock returned home to Massachusetts, where he served as a major general in the militia and sat in the Massachusetts constitutional convention that adopted the world’s first and most enduring constitution in 1780. Having helped to create the new state government, Hancock proceeded to serve as the state’s first governor, a position he held on and off until his death in 1793.

John Hancock

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

Wife – Dorothy “Dolly” Quincy

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.

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 42 nd 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

Barthelmas, Della Gray, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1997.

Blatteau, John and Paul Hirshorn, The Illuminated Declaration of Independence, 1976

Collins, Gene, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 2000

Ferris, Robert G. and Richard E. Morris, The Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1982

Fleming, Thomas, Liberty! The American Revolution, 1997

Fradin, Dennis B., The Signers, 2000

Goodrich, Charles A., Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, 1829 (Internet ref.:, link: Biographies of the Founding Fathers.)

Gragg, Rod, The Declaration of Independence, 2005

Jensen, Merrill, The Articles of Confederation, 1940

Lockwood, Thornton C., member, DSDI

Lossing, B.J., Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, 1848

Maier, Pauline, “American Scripture, Making the Declaration of Independence,” 1997

Malone, Dumas, “The Story of the Declaration of Independence,” 1954

The Prudential Insurance Company of America, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” date NS

Solberg, Winton U., “The Constitutional Convention and the Formation of the Union,” 1990

Stone, Peter and Sherman Edwards, “1776, A Musical Play,” 1970

Unger, Harlow Giles, “John Hancock, Merchant King and American Patriot,” 2000


The president of Congress was, by design, a position with little authority. [3] The Continental Congress, fearful of concentrating political power in an individual, gave their presiding officer even less responsibility than the speakers in the lower houses of the colonial assemblies. [4] Unlike some colonial speakers, the president of Congress could not, for example, set the legislative agenda or make committee appointments. [5] The president could not meet privately with foreign leaders such meetings were held with committees or the entire Congress. [6]

The presidency was a largely ceremonial position. [7] [8] There was no salary. [9] The primary role of the office was to preside over meetings of Congress, which entailed serving as an impartial moderator during debates. [10] When Congress would resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole to discuss important matters, the president would relinquish his chair to the chairman of the Committee of the Whole. [11] Even so, the fact that President Thomas McKean was at the same time serving as Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, provoked some criticism that he had become too powerful. According to historian Jennings Sanders, McKean's critics were ignorant of the powerlessness of the office of president of Congress. [12]

The president was also responsible for dealing with a large amount of official correspondence, [13] but he could not answer any letter without being instructed to do so by Congress. [14] Presidents also signed, but did not write, Congress's official documents. [15] These limitations could be frustrating, because a delegate essentially declined in influence when he was elected president. [16]

Historian Richard B. Morris argued that, despite the ceremonial role, some presidents were able to wield some influence:

Lacking specific authorization or clear guidelines, the presidents of Congress could with some discretion influence events, formulate the agenda of Congress, and proded Congress to move in directions they considered proper. Much depended on the incumbents themselves and their readiness to exploit the peculiar opportunities their office provided. [17]

Congress, and its presidency, declined in importance after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation and the ending of the Revolutionary War. Increasingly, delegates elected to the Congress declined to serve, the leading men in each state preferred to serve in state government, and the Congress had difficulty establishing a quorum. [18] President Hanson wanted to resign after only a week in office, but Congress lacked a quorum to select a successor, and so he stayed on. [7] President Mifflin found it difficult to convince the states to send enough delegates to Congress to ratify the 1783 Treaty of Paris. [19] For six weeks in 1784, President Lee did not come to Congress, but instead instructed secretary Charles Thomson to forward any papers that needed his signature. [20]

John Hancock was elected to a second term in November 1785, even though he was not then in Congress, and Congress was aware that he was unlikely to attend. [21] He never took his seat, citing poor health, though he may have been uninterested in the position. [21] Two delegates, David Ramsay and Nathaniel Gorham, performed his duties with the title of "chairman". [21] [22] When Hancock finally resigned the office in June 1786, Gorham was elected. After he resigned in November 1786, it was months before enough members were present in Congress to elect a new president. [21] In February 1787, General Arthur St. Clair was elected. Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance during St. Clair's presidency and elected him as the governor of the Northwest Territory. [23]

As the people of the various states began debating the proposed United States Constitution in later months of 1787, the Confederation Congress found itself reduced to the status of a caretaker government. [21] There were not enough delegates present to choose St. Clair's successor until January 22, 1788, when the final president of Congress, Cyrus Griffin, was elected. [21] Griffin resigned his office on November 15, 1788, after only two delegates showed up for the new session of Congress. [21]

Prior to ratification of the Articles, presidents of Congress served terms of no specific duration their tenure ended when they resigned, or, lacking an official resignation, when Congress selected a successor. When Peyton Randolph, who was elected in September 1774 to preside over the First Continental Congress, was unable to attend the last few days of the session due to poor health, Henry Middleton was elected to replace him. [24] When the Second Continental Congress convened the following May, Randolph was again chosen as president, but he returned to Virginia two weeks later to preside over the House of Burgesses. [25] John Hancock was elected to fill the vacancy, but his position was somewhat ambiguous, because it was not clear if Randolph had resigned or was on a leave of absence. [26] The situation became uncomfortable when Randolph returned to Congress in September 1775. Some delegates thought Hancock should have stepped down, but he did not the matter was resolved only by Randolph's sudden death that October. [27]

Ambiguity also clouded the end of Hancock's term. He left in October 1777 for what he believed was an extended leave of absence, only to find upon his return that Congress had elected Henry Laurens to replace him. [28] Hancock, whose term ran from May 24, 1775 to October 29, 1777 (a period of 2 years, 5 months), was the longest serving president of Congress.

The length of a presidential term was ultimately codified by Article Nine of the Articles of Confederation, which authorized Congress "to appoint one of their number to preside provided that no person be allowed to serve in the office of president more than one year in any term of three years". [29] When the Articles went into effect in March 1781, however, the Continental Congress did not hold an election for a new president under the new constitution. [30] Instead, Samuel Huntington continued serving a term that had already exceeded the new Term limit. [30] The first president to serve the specified one-year term was John Hanson (November 5, 1781 to November 4, 1782). [7] [31]

Terms and backgrounds of the 14 men who served as president of the Continental Congress: [32]

Flees to Philadelphia, attends Continental Congress

In April 1775, Governor Gage decided to seize Hancock and Samuel Adams for disloyalty to Great Britain. Hearing this, Hancock and Adams fled from Boston to Lexington, Massachusetts, to hide. Boston patriot Paul Revere see entry rode to Lexington and warned them that the British were on the way to capture them. The two escaped to Philadelphia, where they were to serve as representatives at the May meeting of the Second Continental Congress.

Governor Gage never forgave the two American patriots for the trouble they had caused him, including their escape. Two months later, when the governor made yet another effort to restore peaceful relations with the colonies, he offered a general pardon to anyone who had acted against the British government. Hancock and Adams were the only ones excluded from the pardon.

Leaders from all thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia in May 1775 for the Second Continental Congress, and Hancock and Samuel Adams were among them. King George had ignored the documents sent to him by the First Continental Congress, and he had stated that fighting would decide whether the colonies would be subject to his country or become independent. Now, delegates had to decide how to deal with Great Britain. Though still not ready to make a complete break with England, they did take action to put the colonies in a state of readiness for possible war.

What Does It Mean to Give Your "John Hancock"? (with pictures)

John Hancock was an early American politician and a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. His was the first signature on the document, the largest signature and the most readable. From this evolved the idiomatic expression "to give your John Hancock," which simply means to sign your name to something. The phrase is used throughout the U.S. and can be applied to virtually anything that requires a signature.

The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, was the document with which the newly formed United States of America formally asserted its independence from England and, specifically, from the rule of the king of England. In it, Jefferson summarized the grievances that fueled the secession and briefly described the rights the country intended to assume as a free and independent entity. It was the precursor to successive documents, including the Constitution of the United States.

The document was signed by 56 U.S. dignitaries. These included Jefferson and Hancock, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Edward Rutledge and Samuel Chase. John Hancock was the first to sign his signature appears at the top center of the bank of signatures. Not only is his signature larger, his handwriting is significantly more ornate and ostentatious than any other on the document.

Signers of the Declaration included those from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut. John Hancock was one of five signers from Massachusetts, but his signature appears separate from his fellow statesmen because of the way he chose to sign. It is said that the size of the signature was an intentional message from Hancock to the king.

Hancock was a member of the Boston Assembly and delegate to and president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts. He was elected to the Continental Congress and also was elected president of that organization. He was a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention and served as the governor of Massachusetts until his death.

Eventually, the distinction of Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence gave rise to the phrase "to give your John Hancock." A person might be asked to do so when signing any document, be it a formal contract or a credit card receipt. The term "John Hancock" can be used interchangeably with "signature" or "autograph." A similar euphemism asks a person to give his "John Henry."

Watch the video: The Many. Presidents Before George Washington (January 2022).