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Biographical Sketches

John Hancock
John Hancock

One of the fathers of U.S. independence, John Hancock helped spear head the pivotal revolt in Massachusetts, presided as President of Congress during the voting for independence and adoption of the Declaration, and boldly penned the first signature on the document. Subsequently he served as the first and longtime Governor of his Commonwealth. Despite all these achievements and the persistent loyalty of his constituents, whom he wooed with lavish expenditures for public projects, his vanity, ostentation, and regal way of life irked many of his professional associates.

Hancock, born in 1737 at Braintree (present Quincy), Mass., lost his father, a Congregational pastor, at the age of 7. He spent the next 6 years with his grandparents at Lexington before joining his guardian, Thomas Hancock, a childless uncle who was one of the richest merchant-shippers in Boston. After studying at Boston Latin School and graduating from Harvard College in 1754, John began working as a clerk in his uncle's business and learned it rapidly. In 1760-61, while visiting London to observe the English side of the business, he attended the funeral of George II and the coronation of George III, who apparently granted him an audience. In 1763 he became a partner of his uncle, who died the next year and willed him the firm, a fortune that was probably the greatest in New England, and a luxurious house on Beacon Street.

Hancock allied with other merchants in protesting the Stamp Act (1765), and the next year inaugurated a long legislative career. But he did not strongly identify with the patriots until 2 years later. At that time, British customs officials, their courage bolstered by the arrival of a warship in Boston Harbor, charged him with smuggling and seized one of his ships. During the ensuing riots, the terrified customs officials fled to an island in the harbor. A few months later, the first major contingent of British troops sailed into port and created a tense situation that resulted in the Boston Massacre (1770). John Adams ably defended Hancock in court until the British dropped the smuggling charge, but the episode made him a hero throughout the Colonies.

Other factors tied Hancock to the patriots. Samuel and John Adams, shrewdly perceiving the advantages of such a rich and well-known affiliate, welcomed him into their ranks, encouraged his idolatry by the populace, and pushed him upward in the Revolutionary hierarchy. When the first provincial congress met at Salem and Concord in 1774, he acted as its president as well as chairman of the vital council of safety. The second provincial congress, convening the next year at Cambridge and Concord, elected him to the Continental Congress.

On April 18, only 3 days after the provincial congress adjourned, British troops marched from Boston to seize rebel stores at Concord. Warned of their approach during the night by Paul Revere, Hancock and Samuel Adams, who were visiting at nearby Lexington, escaped. But the British-American clashes at Lexington and Concord marked the outbreak of war. The two men avoided Boston and hid at various places for 2 weeks before proceeding to Philadelphia. Later that summer, Hancock married, siring a daughter who died in infancy and a son, John George Washington Hancock, who lived but 9 years.

From 1775 until 1777 Hancock presided over the Continental Congress. The very first year, his egotism, which regularly aroused the antipathy of many Members, created personal embitterment as well. Blind to his own limitations, particularly his lack of military experience, he unrealistically entertained the hope that he, instead of Washington, would be appointed as commander in chief of the Continental Army. Hancock also provoked ill will among his fellow New Englanders, especially Samuel Adams, by courting moderates such as John Dickinson and Benjamin Harrison. Hancock believed that Samuel Adams was responsible in 1777 for blocking a congressional vote of thanks for his services and never forgave him.

Only Hancock and Charles Thomson, the President and Secretary of Congress, signed the broadside copy of the Declaration, printed the night of its adoption, July 4, 1776, and disseminated to the public the following day. At the formal signing of the parchment copy on August 2, tradition holds that Hancock wrote his name in large letters so that the King would not need spectacles to recognize him as a "traitor." After resigning as presiding officer in 1777, he remained a Member of Congress until 1780, though he spent much of his time in Boston and for the rest of his life solidified his political position in Massachusetts. In 1778, as a major general in the militia, he commanded an expedition that failed to recapture Newport, R.I., from the British. He made a more tangible contribution to the war by accepting Continental currency from his debtors, even though his fortune had already been dented by wartime-induced reverses.

In 1780, the same year Hancock gave up his seat in Congress and attended his Commonwealth's constitutional convention, he was overwhelmingly elected as first Governor (1780-85). He won re-election in 1787-93. In the interim (1785-86), he once again sat in Congress. In 1788 he chaired the Massachusetts convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution, which he favored.

While still Governor, in 1793 at the age of 56, Hancock died at Boston. His funeral, one of the most impressive ever held in New England, culminated in burial at Old Granary Burying Ground.

Drawing: Oil, 1816, by Samuel F. B. Morse, after John S. Copley, Independence National Historical Park.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004