John Hancock stood at center stage in Massachusetts politics for most of his adult life and provided leadership for the patriot cause with an enthusiasm as bold as his unmistakable signature on the Declaration of Independence. He was born on January 23, 1737 in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, the descendant of a number of prominent Congregational clergymen. A wealthy and childless uncle, Thomas Hancock, adopted his nephew following the death of the boy’s father.
John Hancock graduated from Harvard College in 1754, and went to work as an apprentice clerk in his uncle’s trading firm. The young man’s diligence was rewarded in 1760 with a business trip to London, where he witnessed the coronation of George III. Hancock’s talents were recognized further when he returned to Massachusetts and was made a partner in the business.
In 1764, Thomas Hancock died and left everything to his nephew, his sole heir. While still in his 20s, John Hancock became the wealthiest man in New England. His participation in public affairs began the following year when he was elected a selectman in Boston.
The Stamp Act crisis brought a rapid political reorientation for Hancock. He deserted his conservative fellow businessmen and aligned himself with the radical elements in Boston. Hancock then developed an especially close working relationship with Samuel Adams.
In 1768, Hancock emerged as a popular hero during the resistance to the Townshend duties. The seizure of his ship Liberty provoked a riot in Boston, and admiring patriots celebrated when efforts to prosecute him failed. Hancock was elected to the legislature the following year, a clear sign of his elevation in popular esteem.
Parliament clamped down on lawless Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party. The Coercive Acts of 1774 closed the port of Boston and suspended the legislature. Radical elements were undeterred, however, and formed a Provincial Congress outside the grasp of royal officials. Hancock was chosen as president of that body and also served as chairman of the Committee of Safety, which exercised oversight of the militia.
Later, as the crisis in Massachusetts deepened, General Thomas Gage issued arrest orders for John Hancock and Sam Adams on charges of treason. The British foray into the countryside, in April 1775, was in part designed to capture the two leading opponents of royal authority (see Lexington and Concord).
The degree of British antipathy toward the pair was demonstrated in June when a general amnesty was offered to the rebels if they would put down their arms. Adams and Hancock were excepted from the offer, and a reward was offered for their capture.
In 1775, John Hancock was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. As the presiding officer, he was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence (text). After signing the document in a clearly identifiable fashion, he said, “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward.”
Hancock, however, suffered a major disappointment when his colleagues passed over his candidacy and selected George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Nevertheless, Hancock made significant contributions to the war effort, primarily by organizing supplies and helping to establish the navy.
In the years from 1780 to 1785, John Hancock served as governor of Massachusetts. The experience was not pleasant. Economic hardship gripped the state, and the governor was often incapacitated by gout. He chose to skip a term, then returned to office in 1787. Hancock surprised many by urging lenient treatment of Shays' rebels.
Economic disarray was not confined to Massachusetts, but afflicted much of the young nation. This made Hancock receptive to major change in the form and powers of the central government.
In 1788, he presided over the Massachusetts convention that was charged with the ratification decision on the proposed U.S. Constitution (text). This evenly divided body was swayed in the end by a speech by Hancock urging ratification if a Bill of Rights was to be attached. Not everyone regarded Hancock as a paragon of virtue. James Madison wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1788, "Hancock is weak, ambitious, a courtier of popularity, given to low intrigue, and lately reunited by a factious friendship with S. Adams." John Hancock continued to serve as governor of Massachusetts until his death on October 8, 1793.