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Hancock, John - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: John Hancock

boston congress massachusetts business

Merchant, Political Leader


John Hancock is most famous for the enormous signature he affixed to the Declaration of Independence. Before the Revolutionary War, Hancock was a respected merchant in Boston, and his involvement in several disputes leading up to the revolution helped pave the way for his leadership role in the Continental Congress; overall, however, he was an uninspired leader, lacking little in his personal style to match the flourish of his signature.

Personal Life

John Hancock was born in the town of Braintree, Massachusetts, son of the Rev. John Hancock and Mary Hawke Hancock. John might have become a minister, but his father died when he was only seven years old, and his uncle Thomas Hancock adopted him. Growing up in the home of his childless aunt and uncle, John Hancock had a bright future ahead of him as the merchant Thomas Hancock was one of the wealthiest men in Boston.

John Hancock attended Boston Latin School, and in 1754 graduated from Harvard University. As soon as he finished his schooling, Hancock went to work in his Uncle’s mercantile business. In 1760, when Hancock was 23, his uncle sent him to England to learn the import-export business under an associate there. A year later, he returned to Boston, and in 1763 became a partner in the family business. His uncle died in 1764, and John Hancock became the head of the firm, Hancock House. At that time it was the leading business of its kind in Boston, and with it Hancock acquired 100,000 pounds sterling.

Many of his contemporaries described Hancock as vain and small-minded. Future President John Adams was particularly cutting, referring to him as “a man without a head and without heart—a mere shadow of a man.” In 1775, Hancock married Dorothy Quincy. He died without leaving a will on October 8, 1793, in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Career Details

John Hancock started out with plenty of advantages, but he was not a particularly gifted businessman. In spite of everything his uncle had left him, he managed to lose his business in 1775, just 11 years after he had taken over Hancock House. Not all of this was his fault, because British rule was making it more difficult to run a successful import-export business. But Hancock was also an extremely poor manager, and he made a series of ill-advised decisions; nor did he have the discipline to stick with a certain course of action long enough to see it to fruition.

But the commercial world’s loss was the political world’s gain, and in 1766, Hancock began his involvement in politics by winning election to the General Court of Massachusetts. He would hold a number of posts from then on, and in spite of his inability as a businessman, he would command great respect because of his wealth. Also, since he naturally found it easier to blame the British for his failures than to blame himself, he became an ardent foe of colonial rule. In 1768, when British forces in Boston harbor seized his ship, the Liberty , for alleged smuggling and brought Hancock to trial, he became a central figure in the growing independence movement. Soon he began to gravitate more and more toward the radical revolutionary circles of Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and others.

In 1774, tensions became so bad that the British shut down Boston harbor; meanwhile, Hancock had become chairman of the Provincial Congress, making him in effect the leader of the state. A year later, General Gage for the British declared all rebels would be pardoned except for the very worst, and he specifically named Hancock and Samuel Adams as offenders. On April 18, 1775, Gage tried to seize the two, an act which marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War; Hancock and Adams meanwhile escaped from Boston. Soon afterward, the two went to Philadelphia as Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress, which elected Hancock its president. He would hold that office for the next three years.

Chronology: John Hancock

1737: Born.

1763: Became partner in family business, Hancock House.

1764: Became head of Hancock House.

1766: Elected to Massachusetts General Court.

1774: Became Chariman of Provincial Congress.

1775: Closed the Hancock House.

1775: Elected President of Continental Congress.

1776: Became first signer of Declaration of Independence.

1780: Became first Governor of Massachusetts.

1793: Died.

In spite of the fact that his presidency of the Congress made him the leader of the American colonies, Hancock was not a significant figure in the Revolution. He wanted to head the Continental Army, and was disappointed when wiser heads judged him too lacking in imagination and resourcefulness to take on the demanding job that would fall to George Washington.

In 1780, Hancock served in the Massachusetts constitutional convention, and became the first governor of the state. He held that office, running up the state’s debt just as he had mismanaged Hancock House, until 1785. Then, with a revolt brewing in the countryside due to his economic policies, he announced that he was too ill to run for reelection. He did, however, manage to serve two one-year terms in Congress, during which time his successor as governor put down the revolt, Shay’s Rebellion. Hancock then ran again for the governor’s seat and won, holding that position for a total of nine terms, until his death.

Hand, Elizabeth - Author, Career, Sidelights, Selected writings, Novels, Other [next] [back] Hanawalt, Barbara A. (1941–) - History of Medieval England

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