Signature Patriot: John Hancock III

John Hancock (Courtesy Library of Congress)

John Hancock (Courtesy Library of Congress)

On 23 January 1737 John Hancock III was born in Braintree, Massachusetts (present day Quincy) to John and Mary (Thaxter) Hancock. John III was the second of three children. As a boy John tagged along with future Patriot John Adams. Adams, incidentally, didn’t care much for Hancock’s company. In 1744 John II died leaving his family in dire straits. They were forced to move in with John III’s grandfather. That is until wealthy uncle Thomas Hancock stepped in and offered to take John III into his home. Thomas and his wife, Lydia, were childless and young John would have been a welcomed addition. In the event of their deaths John would also become their heir. Thanks to Thomas’ hard work the Hancock couple lived lavishly.

With this turn of events Hancock moved to Boston with Thomas. His new life was a dramatic change from his former years and he took to it. Hancock was enrolled in the prestigious Boston Public Latin School where he received a thorough education meant to prepare him for Harvard College. In 1750 Hancock entered Harvard, where he followed a rigorous course of study. He got into some trouble because he did quite a bit of drinking. After being punished for his shenanigans Hancock apparently didn’t learn because he continued drinking. After four years at Harvard, Hancock graduated. Contrary to what his grandfather wished, Hancock did not enter the ministry like his father and grandfather had before him. He instead joined Thomas in the intrigue of the business world.

John Hancock (Courtesy Wikipedia)

A regular dandy, Hancock had taste for finer things and craved attention. This didn’t interfere with his business attitude though (it is worth mentioning that Hancock liked to help out those in need and sometimes provided support for the families of his deceased friends). Until hard times hit the financial world he did very well as a businessman. In 1760 Hancock was sent to England in an effort to help build up business. While there he spent an exorbitant amount of money for which Thomas reprimanded him. It wasn’t until late 1762 he returned to Boston. By that time Thomas’ health had deteriorated badly and would only continue to worsen. Hancock began playing a big part in his uncle’s business. In August 1764 Thomas suffered a stroke and died. With Uncle Thomas’ death, Hancock was left with a great deal of wealth.

Shortly after the death of Thomas, Hancock’s business began to flounder. The French and Indian War had ended and many businesses were falling on hard times. As a result Hancock suffered great financial losses. Events such as the passing of the Stamp Act helped to further hurt business. However, as a conservative politician Hancock (he had been elected selectman in 1765 ) remained loyal to the British Crown. Over time, though, Hancock’s loyalties began leaning towards the Patriot cause. Joining up with the likes of Samuel Adams Hancock began helping to support the cause. His change in attitude was demonstrated when the Stamp Act was finally repealed. Hancock threw a “bash”, setting off fireworks and handing out wine to other celebrators.

When the Townshend Acts were passed Hancock had to put up with his ships being inspected for smuggled goods. Whether or not Hancock ever smuggled goods no one knows for sure. In any case, the inspections were considered a great nuisance by the majority of people, Hancock included. One night in May 1768 two customs officials boarded Hancock’s ship, Liberty, where they stayed for the night. In an inspection the next day they found Liberty carried very little cargo, leading them to conclude that Hancock had unloaded some during the night to avoid paying duties. Later, with the protection (or threat, depending on whose point of view it was) of the HMS Romney hovering over Boston, the officials changed their tunes. They had been forcibly held while the ship was unloaded, they said. With this new story the Liberty was seized. In the long and drawn-out trial that followed the fray, charges against Hancock were, in the end, dropped.

Dorothy “Dolly” Quincy (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Hancock was present at the battle that officially started the American War of Independence. To be precise, he and Adams were both fleeing Lexington when the battle started. At first, Hancock had wished to join the militia in their fight, but was dissuaded from doing so. Later he asked to have the salmon they had been supping on to be sent to him.

For much of the war Hancock would serve in politics. In May 1775 he was elected as President of the Continental Congress. When the time came to choose a commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Hancock eyed the position. With the help of an influential person like Samuel Adams, Hancock was certain he would be elected. So when Adams instead chose George Washington, Hancock grew angry with Adams. Their friendship was severed, not be mended until after the war. Hancock would later seek an officer’s position in the army, but never got it, although he did see a little action during the war.

In 1775 Hancock married Dorothy “Dolly” Quincy, much to Lydia’s relief. For sometime now she had urged him to propose to Dolly. The couple had two children both of which died in childhood.  In April 1776 Hancock suffered the loss of his beloved Aunt Lydia.

The Hancock home, Hancock Manor, c. 1860 (Courtesy Wikiepdia)

When Hancock signed of the Declaration of Independence there is no doubt he little knew how a scratch of his pen would make him famous to future generations (not necessarily for signing the Declaration of Independence, but because of his signature). His signature was by far the largest and fanciest signature on the document.

When the war finally came to an end Hancock had served in various political capacities. It then came as no surprise when he was elected governor of Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Hancock, he suffered from gout. The illness would render him incapable of carrying out his duties at times. Because of the gout, he resigned when reelected President of Congress. More hardship came when the Hancock’s nine-year-old son, John George Washington Hancock, died after an ice-skating accident.

Hancock wouldn’t live long enough to see the Untied States develop into a stronger nation. After living a rather short, but illustrious, life Hancock died on 8 October 1793. His passing was greatly felt by many Americans.

Source: Unger, Harlow Giles. John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot.

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30 thoughts on “Signature Patriot: John Hancock III

    • Hancock is usually portrayed as a foppish dandy, which seems a bit of an injustice given all he did for the budding new nation.

      Thank you, Alesia, I appreciate the compliment. 🙂

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    • From what I heard this quote is largely a myth. It also varies; there are about two different versions.

      Have you ever read the picture book “John, Paul George and Ben” by Lane Smith? It’s a funny little book about John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson’s name isn’t included in the title for “Tom was an independent lad”.

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    • He was a character, wasn’t he? I first heard that salmon bit back in 2007. In a way, it was funny considering a war had just erupted and he was wanting his salmon back. Thanks for your comment.

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  1. I thought I knew a lot about John Hancock from history class long ago. I didn’t know all of his beginnings. Thank you for another excellent summary!

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  2. I reading the 5th volume of Edward Cline’s “Sparrowhawk” historic novels (six in all) centered on Williamsburg during the 1750’s to 1770’s. The Stamp Act has dominated at least a couple of the volumes! The Virginian’s seemed to view the Bostonians as a bunch of mob-oriented ruffians. 🙂
    Oscar

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    • I’ve heard tell of such opinions. Looking at it from an 18th century perspective, Bostonians did seem a little radical, didn’t they? At the time of the Revolution my ancestors had all either moved to or had been born in Virginia or North Carolina. Wonder if this was their view as well? In any case, quite few of them went to war.

      Thank you for your comment!

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  3. Your posts are always an excellent and educational read, J.G.
    In this one, I also particularly liked your witty remark “…not necessarily for signing the Declaration of Independence, but because of his signature. His signature was by far the largest and fanciest signature on the document” 🙂
    Take care

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    • To be honest I don’t know if he would be delighted or disappointed. I guess one way to look at it is through our own eyes. How would you feel about future generations saying “put your Laurie Buchwald here”? *grins* In a way it’s flattering for Hancock, but then given all that he had done for the fledgling nation it seems he might feel a little disappointed.

      Thank you for your comment!

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