John Hancock

From Academic Kids

Portrait of Hancock (full portrait)
Portrait of Hancock (full portrait)
Missing image

John Hancock (January 12, 1737 (O.S.)October 8, 1793 (N.S.)) was President of the Continental Congress, and the first person to sign the United States Declaration of Independence. According to legend, he signed his name largely and clearly to be sure King George III could read it, causing his name to become an eponym for "signature". However, other examples show that Hancock always wrote his signature this way.


Early life

Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts (Now Quincy, Massachusetts). His father died when he was young, and he was adopted by his paternal uncle—Thomas Hancock, a highly successful merchant in New England. After graduating from Boston Latin School, he attended Harvard College and received a business degree in 1754, when he was 17. Upon graduation, he worked for his uncle. From 17601764, Hancock lived in England while building relationships with customers and suppliers of his uncle's business. Shortly after his return from England, his uncle died and he inherited the fortune and business, making him the wealthiest man in Massachusetts at the time.

Despite his wealth, Hancock remained, ethically and virtuously, the same. With his generosity, he was regarded as a man of integrity and honor.


A Boston selectman and representative to the Massachusetts General Court, his colonial trade business naturally disposed him to resist the Stamp Act, which attempted to restrict colonial trading.

The Stamp Act was repealed, but later acts (such as the Townshend Acts) led to further taxation on common goods. Eventually, Hancock's shipping practices became more evasive, and he began to smuggle glass, lead, paper and tea. In 1768, upon arriving from England, his sloop Liberty was impounded by British customs officials for violation of revenue laws. This caused a riot among some infuriated Bostonians, depending as they did on the supplies on board.

His regular merchant trade as well as his smuggling practices financed much of his region's resistance to British authority and his financial contributions led Bostonians to joke that "Sam Adams writes the letters [to newspapers] and John Hancock pays the postage" (Fradin & McCurdy, 2002).

At first only a financier of the growing rebellion, he later became a public critic of British rule. On March 5, 1774, the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre, he gave a speech strongly condemning the British. In the same year, he was unanimously elected president of the Provisional Congress of Massachusetts, and presided over its Committee of Safety. Under Hancock, Massachusetts raised bands of "minutemen"—soldiers who claimed they could be ready to fight in sixty seconds—and his boycott of tea imported by the British East India Company eventually led to the Boston Tea Party.

American Revolution

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John Hancock

On May 24, 1775, he was elected the third President of the Continental Congress, succeeding Henry Middleton. He would serve until October 30, 1777, when he was himself succeeded by Henry Laurens.

In the first month of his presidency, on June 19, 1775, Hancock commissioned George Washington commander-in-chief of the Army of the United Colonies. A year later, Hancock sent Washington a copy of the July 4, 1776 congressional resolution calling for independence as well as a copy of the Declaration of Independence. He requested Washington have the Declaration read to the Continental Army.

From 17801785, he was governor of Massachusetts. Hancock's skills as orator and moderator were much admired, but during the American Revolution he was most often sought out for his ability to raise funds and supplies for American troops. Despite his skill in the merchant trade, even Hancock had trouble meeting the Continental Congress's demand for beef cattle to feed the hungry army. On January 19, 1781, General Washington warned Hancock:

"I should not trouble your Excellency, with such reiterated applications on the score of supplies, if any objects less than the safety of these Posts on this River, and indeed the existence of the Army, were at stake. By the enclosed Extracts of a Letter, of Yesterday, from Major Genl. Heath, you will see our present situation, and future prospects. If therefore the supply of Beef Cattle demanded by the requisitions of Congress from Your State, is not regularly forwarded to the Army, I cannot consider myself as responsible for the maintenance of the Garrisons below West Point, New York, or the continuance of a single Regiment in the Field." (United States Library of Congress, 1781.)

During the Battle of Lexington and Concord, General Thomas Gage ordered Hancock and Samuel Adams arrested for treason. Following the battle a proclamation was issued granting a general pardon to all who would demonstrate loyalty to the crown—with the exceptions of Hancock and Adams.

Post-war activities

After the war, Hancock represented his state under the Articles of Confederation. He was the seventh President of the United States in Congress assembled, from November 23, 1785 to June 6, 1786. He was preceded in that position by Richard Henry Lee and succeeded by Nathaniel Gorham.

Resuming the governorship of Massachusetts in 1787, he led his state toward ratification of the federal Constitution. Hancock was prevalent in the formation of a navy for the new nation. He died in 1793 while serving his ninth term as Massachusetts' governor, and was buried at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston.

Additional notes

In 1772, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published. John Hancock was among those who signed the attestation that Phillis Wheatley, an African American, was its author. When, in 1773, the book was put on display in Aldgate, London (having been refused by Boston publishers) it thus became the first book by an African American to be officially published. He married Dolly Quency. He was also a Free Mason.

Things named after John Hancock

A number of things have been named after John Hancock:


  • Fradin, Dennis Brindell & McCurdy, Michael (2002). The Signers: The 56 Stories behind the Declaration of Independence. Walker & Company. ISBN 0-80-278850-5.
  • United States Library of Congress (1781). George Washington Papers. Online: [1] (
  • United States Library of Congress. U.S. Library of Congress Today in History: January 12 ( Retrieved January 18, 2003. Most of the initial text of this article was copied from this public domain source.

Preceded by:
Peyton Randolph
President of the Second Continental Congress
May 24, 1775October 31, 1777
Succeeded by:
Henry Laurens
Preceded by:
Richard Henry Lee
President of the United States in Congress Assembled
November 23, 1785May 29, 1786
Succeeded by:
Nathaniel Gorham
Preceded by:
Governor of Massachusetts
1780 – 1785
Succeeded by:
Thomas Cushing
Preceded by:
James Bowdoin
Governor of Massachusetts
1787 – 1793
Succeeded by:
Samuel Adams

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