Wednesday, July 4, 2012

John Hancock

Boston, MA. Visited July 2003

John Singleton Copley Portrait

John Hancock is more than just a practitioner of great penmanship and inspiration for a full range of insurance products. He is a remarkable Founding Father whose leadership and courage played a key role in American independence.

John Hancock was born in January 1736 in the hamlet of Braintree (later Quincy), MA, also the hometown of his fellow Founding Father John Adams. His father was a well respected minister who gave his family a comfortable living. When John was seven his father died and his mother decided to send him to Boston to be raised by his wealthy merchant uncle Thomas Hancock. John graduated from Harvard College and began to work in his uncle’s shipping concern, learning the business from the ground up. In 1764 Thomas Hancock died and John inherited the entire estate including the business empire and thousands of acres of property, making him instantaneously one of the wealthiest men in the colonies.

Will Smith as 'Hancock' - not a
faithful biography

Unfortunately, John had little time to enjoy his newfound largesse. Within a month of his uncle’s death the Sugar Act was enacted, inaugurating an escalating tension between the Colonies and the Crown over ‘taxation without representation’. The tension centered in Boston. As a prominent Bostonian whose livelihood was tied to good relations to British interests, Hancock initially found himself advocating cooperation with the government. But with the Stamp Act of 1765 he began to increasingly side with the emerging patriot movement and came under the influence of the radical Samuel Adams. Through the next few years of turbulence leading up to the Boston Tea Party in 1773 Hancock’s stature as a patriot grew. His speech on the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1774 was distributed throughout the Colonies and broadened his reputation beyond New England. Here is a quote from the speech that provides insight into Hancock as a leader and as a man.

"I have the most animating confidence that the present noble struggle for liberty will terminate gloriously for America. And let us play the man for our God, and for the cities of our God; whilst we are using the means in our power, let us humbly commit our righteous cause to the great Lord of the Universe, who loveth righteousness and hateth iniquity. And having secured the approbation of our hearts by a faithful and unwearied discharge of our duty to our country, let us joyfully leave our concerns in the hands of Him who raiseth up and pulleth down the empires and kingdoms of the world as He pleases; and with cheerful submission to His sovereign will, devoutly say, "Although the fig tree shall not blossom neither shall fruit be in the vines, the labor of the olive shall fail and the field shall yield not meat, the flock shall be cut off from the fold and there shall be no herd in the stalls, yet we will rejoice in the Lord, we will joy in the God of our salvation." [Habakkuk 3:17-18]"

John Hancock played an indirect but key role in one of the touchstone events of the Revolutionary War. Having been chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress, Hancock (along with Samuel Adams) attempted to make his way to Philadelphia while avoiding arrest by the British. The pair slipped into Lexington in mid April 1775 just as the British were commencing their march toward Concord. Patriots in Boston sent messengers to Lexington to warn the two leaders, one of whom was Paul Revere. Due to his Revere’s ride and the ‘shot heard round the world’, Hancock and Adams escaped capture and made it to Philadelphia. Due to his standing and proven fidelity to the Colonial cause John Hancock was elected president of the Congress. It was during his time in the Congress that Hancock married, though both children from the marriage did not survive to adulthood.

John Trumbull's famous depiction of the signing 
of the Declaration of Indepedence 

For a stirring depiction of the
ratification vote see this scene 
from the acclaimed 'John Adams'
While he served tirelessly as president of the Congress throughout most of the Revolutionary War, it is John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence that may best define his leadership. Legend has it that Hancock wrote his signature with large flourish because he wanted to make sure the King could read it without spectacles, but the truth is at the same time more mundane and heroic than the legend. In reality, as president of the Congress, Hancock’s signature was the only signature on the original Declaration, as was customary at the time. That’s why his signature is so prominent. In effect, John Hancock was the first Founding Father to officially declare his rebellion against Britain. Within a month all of the delegates signed the document as a show of unity in the cause of liberty.

Hancock Statue in Boston

Prior to the end of the war Hancock requested a leave of absence from the Continental Congress in order to lead troops into battle, though he lacked any command experience. His one opportunity in the war led to a minor defeat and an apparent reality check on his military ambitions. With the end of the war the wildly popular Hancock was elected first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. With the exception of a short hiatus, it was an office he would hold for the final 13 years of his life.

The blogger at Hancock's grave -
inappropriately attired in an OBX
tee shirt
John Hancock died in October 1793 at the age of 56 after a long period of increasingly debilitating illness. He was afforded a lavish funeral and was laid to rest in the Old Granary Burial Ground at the edge of Boston Common. The relatively small cemetery is often mistaken as the church cemetery for Park Street Church, but in fact the church was built nearly a hundred years after the establishment of the cemetery. Old Granary is a must stop on the Freedom Trail. In addition to John Hancock it also holds Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and other notables from Boston’s Colonial past. I’ve been there a couple of times, most recently with my brother John and friend Bauer Evans.

An illustration of Park Street Church and the Old Granary
Burial Ground