This Day in History: The real story of John Hancock, even better than the legend
On this day in 1737, John Hancock is born. You know him best because of his extravagantly big signature on the Declaration of Independence. Legend has it that his large signature was accompanied by a proclamation: “There, I guess King George will be able to read THAT!”
It’s a great story, and I wish I could tell you that I know it to be true. Sadly, I can’t. More likely than not, the story is simply a legend. Hancock always signed his name in a similar fashion. And he was President of the Continental Congress at the time and naturally would have signed before the other members.
It doesn’t matter. The real story of John Hancock is even better than the legend.
It’s actually pretty odd that we know so little about Hancock, given all his endeavors. He was a very important figure in the American Revolution. He reportedly had a price on his head and most certainly would have been hung if the British had been able to seize him.
Hancock was a successful merchant who first rose to national prominence during the so-called “Liberty Affair.” That affair occurred during a tense time. British soldiers and ships had been dispatched to the colonies to enforce the much-hated Townshend Acts. Unfortunately, Hancock’s sloop, the Liberty, got caught in the middle of the ruckus. When Liberty entered Boston harbor during May 1768, customs officials boarded the ship and found nothing amiss. Nevertheless, the British were suspicious. They believed that Hancock had unloaded some cargo in the middle of the night (thus avoiding taxes), but they couldn’t prove anything.
Well, at least not at first.
Several weeks later, a customs agent changed his account of the evening. Previously, he’d said that nothing was amiss. Now, he claimed that he was locked in steerage for 3 hours that night! His account was uncorroborated, but it gave British officials an excuse to seize the Liberty and take her out into the harbor. It was anchored next to a British war ship and floated out in the harbor for months.
Bostonians were furious! Hancock was later arrested for smuggling, but John Adams served as his defense lawyer and the charges were eventually dropped.
Hancock became a nationally respected Patriot, almost overnight.
Thereafter, Hancock was an active member of the Sons of Liberty. He demanded the removal of British forces after the Boston Massacre. He helped to organize protests, including the Boston Tea Party. The British were really getting tired of having Hancock stir the pot. Reportedly, they put a price of 500 pounds on his head.
Did you know that Hancock was one of two people that Paul Revere was trying to warn on the night of his famous ride? It was thought that the British were coming to arrest Hancock and Samuel Adams.
During the Revolution, Hancock served as President of the Continental Congress. He later retired from Congress and was elected Governor of Massachusetts, serving in that capacity both during and after the war. He was President of Massachusetts’s state convention when it considered whether to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
He even won 4 electoral votes in the first U.S. presidential election.
Despite all the risks that this great patriot undertook, in the end, he died while serving as Governor of Massachusetts in the FREE United States of America.
Abram English Brown, John Hancock: His Book (1898)
Harlow Giles Unger, John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot (2000)
Thomas Patrick Chorlton, The First American Republic 1774-1789: The First Fourteen American Presidents Before Washington (2011)