John Hancock: Founding Father With a Famous Signature

Portrait of John Hancock, ca 1765, by John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
Portrait of John Hancock, ca 1765, by John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

John Hancock (January 23, 1737–October 8, 1793) is one of America’s best-known founding fathers thanks to his unusually oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence. However, before he autographed one of the nation’s most important documents, he made a name for himself as a wealthy merchant and prominent politician.

Fast Facts: John Hancock

  • Known for: Founding father with a prominent signature on the Declaration of Independence
  • Occupation: Merchant and politician (president of the Second Continental Congress and governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts)
  • Born: January 23, 1737 in Braintree, MA
  • Died: October 8, 1793 in Boston, MA
  • Parents: Col. John Hancock Jr. and Mary Hawke Thaxter
  • Spouse: Dorothy Quincy
  • Children: Lydia and John George Washington

Early Years

John Hancock III was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, near Quincy, on January 23, 1737. He was the son of Rev. Col. John Hancock Jr., a soldier and clergyman, and Mary Hawke Thaxter. John had all the advantages of a life of privilege, by virtue of both money and lineage.

When John was seven years old, his father died, and he was sent to Boston to live with his uncle, Thomas Hancock. Thomas occasionally worked as a smuggler, but over the years, he built up a successful and legitimate mercantile trading operation. He had established profitable contracts with the British government, and when John came to live with him, Thomas was one of the richest men in Boston.

John Hancock spent much of his youth learning the family business, and eventually enrolled in Harvard College. Once he graduated, he went to work for Thomas. The firm’s profits, particularly during the French and Indian War, allowed John to live comfortably, and he developed a fondness for finely tailored clothes. For a few years, John lived in London, serving as a company representative, but he returned to the colonies in 1761 because of Thomas’ failing health. When Thomas died childless in 1764, he left his entire fortune to John, making him one of the richest men in the colonies overnight.

Political Tensions Grow

During the 1760s, Britain was in significant debt. The empire had just emerged from the Seven Years War, and needed to increase revenue quickly. As a result, a series of taxation acts were levied against the colonies. The Sugar Act of 1763 sparked anger in Boston, and men like Samuel Adams became outspoken critics of the legislation. Adams and others argued that only colonial assemblies had the authority to levy taxes upon the North American colonies; because the colonies had no representation in Parliament, Adams said, that governing body wasn't entitled to tax colonists.

In early 1765, Hancock was elected to the Boston Board of Selectmen, the city’s governing body. Just a few months later, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which levied a tax upon any sort of legal document—wills, property deeds, and more—leading to enraged colonists rioting in the streets. Hancock disagreed with Parliament’s actions, but initially believed that the right thing for colonists to do was pay taxes as ordered. Eventually, however, he took a less moderate position, openly disagreeing with taxation laws. He participated in a vocal and public boycott of British imports, and when the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Samuel Adams, the leader of Boston’s Whig party, lent his support to Hancock’s political career, and served as a mentor as Hancock rose in popularity.

An illustration depicting a group of rioting colonists protesting against the Stamp Act.
An illustration depicting a group of rioting colonists protesting against the Stamp Act. MPI / Getty Images

In 1767, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, a series of tax laws that regulated customs and imports. Once again, Hancock and Adams called for a boycott of British goods into the colonies, and this time, the Customs Board decided that Hancock had become a problem. In April 1768, Customs agents boarded one of Hancock’s merchant ships, the Lydia, in Boston Harbor. Upon discovering they had no warrant to search the hold, Hancock refused to give the agents access to the cargo area of the ship. The Customs Board filed charges against him, but the Massachusetts Attorney General dismissed the case, as no laws had been broken.

A month later, the Customs Board targeted Hancock again; it is possible they believed he was smuggling, but it is also possible that he was singled out for his political stances. Hancock’s sloop Liberty arrived in port, and when customs officials inspected the hold the next day, found it was carrying Madeira wine. However, the stores were only at one-fourth of the ship’s capacity, and agents concluded that Hancock must have offloaded the bulk of the cargo during the night in order to avoid paying import taxes. In June, the Customs Board seized the ship, which led to a riot on the docks. Historians have differing opinions on whether Hancock was smuggling or not, but most are in agreement that his actions of resistance helped spark the flames of revolution.

In 1770, five people were killed during the Boston Massacre, and Hancock led a call for the removal of British troops from the city. He told Governor Thomas Hutchinson that thousands of civilian militia were waiting to storm Boston if soldiers were not removed from their quarters, and although it was a bluff, Hutchinson agreed to remove his regiments to the outskirts of town. Hancock was given credit for the withdrawal of the British. Over the next few years, he remained active and outspoken in Massachusetts politics, and stood up against further British taxation laws, including the Tea Act, which led to the Boston Tea Party.

Hancock and the Declaration of Independence

In December 1774, Hancock was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia; around the same time, he was elected as president of the Provincial Congress. Hancock held significant political influence, and it was only because of Paul Revere’s heroic midnight ride that Hancock and Samuel Adams were not arrested before the battle of Lexington and Concord. Hancock served in Congress during the early years of the American Revolution, regularly writing to General George Washington and relaying requests for supplies to colonial officials.

Despite his undoubtedly hectic political life, in 1775 Hancock took the time to get married. His new wife, Dorothy Quincy, was the daughter of prominent justice Edmund Quincy of Braintree. John and Dorothy had two children, but both children died young: their daughter Lydia passed away when she was ten months old, and their son John George Washington Hancock drowned at just eight years of age.

Hancock was present when the Declaration of Independence was drafted and adopted. Although popular mythology has it that he signed his name largely and with flourish so King George could read it easily, there is no evidence that this is the case; the story likely originated years later. Other documents signed by Hancock indicate that his signature was consistently large. The reason his name appears at the top of the signatories is because he was president of the Continental Congress and signed first. Regardless, his iconic handwriting has become part of the American cultural lexicon. In common parlance, the phrase “John Hancock” is synonymous with “signature.”

John Hancock Signature on Declaration of Independence
Fuse / Getty Images

The official signed version of the Declaration of Independence, called the engrossed copy, wasn’t produced until after July 4, 1776, and was actually signed at the beginning of August. In fact, Congress kept the names of the signers secret for a while, as Hancock and the others risked being charged with treason if their role in the creation of the document was revealed.

Later Life and Death

In 1777, Hancock returned to Boston, and was re-elected to the House of Representatives. He spent years rebuilding his finances, which had suffered at the outbreak of the war, and continued working as a philanthropist. A year later, he led men into combat for the first time; as the senior major general of the state militia, he and several thousand troops joined General John Sullivan in an attack on a British garrison at Newport. Unfortunately, it was a disaster, and it was the end of Hancock’s military career. However, his popularity never dwindled, and in 1780 Hancock was elected governor of Massachusetts.

Hancock was re-elected annually to the role of governor for the rest of his life. In 1789, he considered a run for the first president of the United States, but that honor ultimately fell to George Washington; Hancock received only four electoral votes in the election. His health was in decline, and on October 8, 1793, he passed away at Hancock Manor in Boston.

Legacy

After his death, Hancock largely faded from popular memory. This is in part due to the fact that unlike many of the other founding fathers, he left very few writings behind, and his house on Beacon Hill was torn down in 1863. It wasn’t until the 1970s that scholars began seriously investigating Hancock’s life, merits, and accomplishments. Today, numerous landmarks have been named after John Hancock, including the U.S. Navy's USS Hancock as well as John Hancock University.

Sources

  • History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/john-hancock.
  • “John Hancock Biography.” John Hancock, 1 Dec. 2012, www.john-hancock-heritage.com/biography-life/.
  • Tyler, John W. Smugglers & Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution. Northeastern University Press, 1986.
  • Unger, Harlow G. John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. Castle Books, 2005.