The Merchant Who ‘Rebelled’ against England
By Tom Morrow
Although John Hancock was a New England merchant who had become rich in the business of importing (and smuggling) goods from England and other global ports, the British heavy taxation without representation drove him into supporting and participating in the American Revolution.
Born Jan. 23, 1737, Hancock was merchant and prominent patriot who served as president of the Second Continental Congress and was the first and third Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
From 1760 to 1761, Hancock lived in England while building business relationships with customers and suppliers. Upon returning to Boston, Hancock gradually took over his Uncle Thomas’ House of Hancock and in January 1763, became a full partner. He inherited the business and all its land, which included three household slaves, who continued to work for him. The slaves were eventually freed through the terms of his uncle’s will. There is no evidence that John Hancock ever bought or sold slaves.
Looking for new sources of revenue because of the Seven Years’ war debt, the British Parliament sought to directly tax the colonies, beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764. The Sugar Act had provoked outrage in Boston, where it was widely viewed as a violation of colonial rights. Colonial leaders like Samuel Adams argued because the colonists were not represented in Parliament, they could not be taxed by that body; only the colonial assemblies, where the colonists were represented, could levy taxes. Hancock was not yet a political activist; however, he criticized the tax for economic, rather than constitutional, reasons.
Hancock emerged as a leading political figure in Boston just as tensions with Great Britain were increasing. In March 1765, he was elected as one of Boston’s five selectmen, an office previously held by his uncle for many years. Soon after, Parliament passed the 1765 Stamp Act, a tax on legal documents, such as wills, that had been levied in Britain for many years but which was wildly unpopular in the colonies, producing riots and organized resistance. Hancock initially took a moderate position: as a loyal British subject, he thought the colonists should submit to the act, even though he believed that Parliament was misguided. Within a few months, Hancock had changed his mind, although he continued to disapprove of violence and the intimidation of royal officials by mobs. Hancock joined the resistance to the Stamp Act by participating in a boycott of British goods, which made him popular in Boston
Hancock was one of the wealthiest men in the 13 Colonies. Down through history John Hancock has been unfairly identified as a smuggler. In 1768 one of his mercantile vessels, the Liberty, loaded with imported goods from England, was confiscated by the British charging him with smuggling, but later the charge was dismissed. Around that time Hancock began dabbling in politics with the guidance of Samuel Adams, and became an influential local politician.
Not only was there little social stigma attached to smuggling in the colonies, in port cities where trade was the primary generator of wealth, smuggling enjoyed considerable community support, and it was even possible to obtain insurance against being caught. Colonial merchants developed an impressive repertoire of evasive maneuvers to conceal the origin, nationality, routes, and content of their illicit cargo. And, much to the frustration of the British authorities, when seizures did happen local merchants were often able to use sympathetic judges to reclaim confiscated goods and have their cases dismissed.
Hancock became one of Boston’s leaders during the crisis leading to the 1775 outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. He served more than two years in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In his position of president, he was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. Since the signing, Hancock is remembered for his large and stylish signature … so much so the term “John Hancock” has become a nickname for one’s signature. At the time of the “Declaration’s” signing, one of the congressional members reportedly commented on the size of Hancock’s signature. “I want to make sure ‘Fat George’ can read it,” he reportedly remarked.
He returned to Massachusetts and was elected governor of the Commonwealth, serving in that role for most of his remaining years. He used his influence to ensure that Massachusetts ratified the United States Constitution in 1788.
Hancock’s political success benefited from the support of Samuel Adams, the clerk of the House of Representatives and a leader of Boston’s “popular party,” also known as “Whigs” and later as “Patriots”. The two men made an unlikely pair. Fifteen years older than Hancock, Adams had a somber, Puritan outlook that stood in marked contrast to Hancock’s taste for luxury and extravagance.
Hancock died at the young age of 56 on Oct. 8, 1793. A lavish funeral was given, which was said to be the biggest in the nation up until that time. The date of his passing became a state holiday.