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John Hancock: Facts, Biography & History

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
John Hancock was the first president of the Second Continental Congress, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the first Governor of Massachusetts. He played a leading role in many events of the American Revolution.

Introduction

Owner of perhaps the most famous signature in American history, John Hancock was a leading patriot during the American Revolution. The Massachusetts native was the president of the Second Continental Congress and the first Governor of Massachusetts. Let's learn more about the man behind the famous signature.

Hancock was born in 1737 in Braintree, Massachusetts. His father was a reverend who made a comfortable living; the family even owned one slave. In 1744, when his father passed away, Hancock's Uncle Thomas took him in. This was in some ways fortuitous for young John, as his uncle owned a lucrative import and export business. John Hancock attended Harvard University and, in the 1760s, began to run his uncle's highly successful business, garnering a significant amount of wealth. His uncle's death firmly placed John in charge of the business. His growing wealth made him a highly influential member of Boston society.

Early Tensions

While John Hancock was growing up, attending school at Harvard, and inheriting his uncle's business, relations between the American colonies and Great Britain were rapidly deteriorating. Following the French and Indian War, Britain needed money and saw the colonies as a source to be taxed. These tax policies angered many colonists, including John Hancock. Hancock, along with others, believed that because the colonies were not represented in British parliament, the parliament could not tax them. Britain disagreed. Hancock was one of many Boston merchants who took part in a boycott of British imports following the Stamp Act of 1765. Hancock's stance on these issues earned him his first political office: he was elected to the Massachusetts State House of Representatives in 1766.

As a leading businessman and a part of the growing resistance to British policy, Hancock had a target of sorts on his back. In 1768, he refused to allow custom workers to search one of his ships in the Boston Harbor; his refusal won him even greater acclaim among the growing patriot movement. With the growing unrest in Boston, Britain sent troops to the colonial city to enforce British law and order. This eventually led to the Boston Massacre in 1770. Following the massacre, the British governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, tried to win over Hancock with a series of appointments. Hancock was first made a colonel of the Boston Cadets, a militia group. Hutchinson also agreed to his placement on the Council, an upper house in the Massachusetts General Court. Hutchinson hoped that these appointments would mollify Hancock and perhaps lessen his influence among the growing resistance movement, but he was wrong.

Revolution

In 1773, Britain passed the Tea Act, further angering Bostonians and colonists. As a result, a band of Bostonians threw significant amounts of tea into the Boston Harbor. Hancock was widely believed to have supported the effort, although he was not there for what has become known as the Boston Tea Party.

In 1774, the First Continental Congress was selected to meet in Philadelphia to respond to the growing tensions between the colonies and Great Britain. While Hancock was not a part of this first meeting, he was a part of the Second Continental Congress, which was chosen in late 1774. Before he left for Philadelphia, however, war broke out between the colonists and the British. Hancock was staying in Lexington at the time when British troops marched out to seize colonists' guns and ammunition. The Battle of Lexington and Concord was fought on April 19, 1775, and British troops were routed back to Boston by colonial militia. It was the famous 'shot heard 'round the world' and the boost toward war and rebellion that the colonies needed.

A portrait of John Hancock in 1789
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Independence

When the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1775, Hancock was elected the body's president. Hancock and the Congress went about the work of raising an army to defend the colonies and negotiating the tricky position they were in as subjects of Great Britain who were rebelling against the mother country. By 1776, a growing push for independence had begun. A committee was formed to write a declaration of independence, and when the final version was passed and approved on July 4, 1776, the United States of America was born. When it came time to sign the Declaration of Independence later that summer, John Hancock wrote his signature in a large, bold fashion at a prominent place at the bottom of the document. His signature was so prominent that it has become famous on its own; the phrase 'John Hancock' today commonly refers to one's signature because of John Hancock's actual signature on the Declaration of Independence.

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