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October 9, 2019

John Hancock – Signatory to Independence

One day you’re witnessing George III’s coronation. The next day you’re signing your new nation’s independence from him. Born in Massachusetts in 1737, John Hancock had an unlikely path to the patriot he’s known as today. Orphaned at a young age, he was adopted by a wealthy uncle. After graduating from Harvard at 17, Hancock apprenticed for his uncle, who soon sent his young nephew to London on business, where he watched King George III take the crown. Upon his uncle’s death in 1763, Hancock inherited his uncle’s lucrative business and considerable wealth.

Hancock now found himself in the company of affluent Loyalists as well as Boston’s pre-revolutionaries, such as John Adams. He also entered local politics, first winning election as a Boston selectman, then to the Boston Assembly. As British Parliament’s taxes over the colonies grew, so did anti-British sentiments. Hancock’s initial opposition to the taxes were for economic, not political reasons. Hancock’s pivotal moment came in 1768 when one of his ships was impounded by British customs officials for alleged tax and cargo violations. But Hancock was well-liked. A group of citizens protested by burning the officials’ boat and beating them up. Hancock was also soon on the offensive. In an official speech, he commemorated the Boston Massacre. In 1774, he was elected to the Massachusetts and Continental Congresses. His legislative experience and social standing helped him get elected as President of the Continental Congress in 1776. While his role was primarily of a presiding officer, Hancock helped arrange funds, supplies, and troops for the Continental Army and he chaired the Marine Committee, helping create a small fleet of American frigates for the burgeoning Continental Navy.

As President of the Congress, Hancock was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence in a virtually blank space. The size and audacity lent his name to become synonymous with all signatures. But it also led to many uncorroborated stories of why he signed so large, such as Hancock commenting “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward,” or “I guess King George will be able to read that!” The more likely reason is that Hancock’s ornate signature was intended to draw attention to himself. Hancock was known to have a big personality and lavish lifestyle, one that his friend and one-time mentor Samuel Adams even criticized.

Hancock retired from the Continental Congress in 1777 due to health problems. He returned to Massachusetts to help frame its constitution. He was then twice elected as Governor, finally passing away during his second term in 1793.

Did You Know …

In 1789, Hancock was a candidate in the first U.S. presidential election, but received only four electoral votes out of a total 138 cast.

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