King Hancock: The Man Behind the Signature

6 March 2024

Review: Brooke Barbier, King Hancock: The Radical Influence of a Moderate Founding Father (Harvard University Press, 2023)


American Founder John Hancock sacrificed “his health and wealth” in service of the American cause for independence. He was President of the Second Continental Congress, first popularly elected governor of Massachusetts, and affectionately nicknamed “King Handcock” by his supporters and admirers. Though, today, he is most famous for his “penmanship”:  his large eloquent signature on the Declaration of Independence inspired the subsequent colloquialism for a signature (a “John Hancock”). One might think that this kind of fame wouldn’t be worth the effort, especially not to Hancock with his impressive list of accomplishments. However, according to Brooke Barbier in her monograph, King Hancock: The Radical Influence of a Moderate Founding Father, to be remembered at all, even just for his penmanship, would have been worth it to Hancock; “to a man who craved people’s affection.”


In recent years, the history, and increasingly the mythology, of the American Revolution, Founding, and Founders has garnered greater public interest and importance in modern American politics, in part leading to its further mythologisation. Barbier does not directly address these modern political concerns, but her monograph does an excellent job of humanising and contextualising Hancock, demythologising him and the Founding of the United States in the process.


In this well researched and written biography, Barbier guides the reader through historical locations as well as the social norms, culture, and expectations of the period, deftly reminding her reader to avoid anachronisms and remember the contingency of history. Hancock’s personality and political tactics lend themselves particularly well to Barbier’s use of social and cultural history. She depicts Hancock as something of an accidental leader, based on his elite status, self-interest, and desire for people’s affections, who used clothing, spectacle, and hospitality to garner support for himself and further the Revolutionary Cause.


Barbier begins her tour with eight-year-old Hancock confronting a busy and potentially overwhelming eighteenth-century Boston. At seven, Hancock’s father (also named John Hancock) died. Young Hancock’s family decided it would be better for him to leave Braintree, where his father had been the minister, and stay with his paternal uncle Thomas and his wife Lydia in Boston. While the move greatly improved Hancock’s fortunes and status, it left him often homesick, potentially creating what Barbier describes as Hancock’s lifelong desire for the affection of others.


Hancock’s uncle, Thomas, was a wealthy merchant, under whose tutelage Hancock would learn how to conduct business as a gentleman within the hierarchical class structure of the British Colonies. This education would include earning a degree from Harvard, but more importantly practical experience working with his uncle. According to Barbier, these experiences taught Hancock three important lessons that he would use in business and his political career: “dress richly to project power and competence; arrogant behavior can be forgiven, especially with money to back you up; pomp and spectacle help people feel connected to their leader.”


Hancock took over his uncle’s business after Thomas’ death in 1764. Within a year, Hancock, like his uncle, would be elected a selectman.  Despite this, Barbier explains, Hancock was not particularly interested in politics at this time. Rather: “In the eighteenth century, white educated, privileged men were expected to hold office because they were deemed the only fit leaders.” For Hancock to become politically engaged, the British Parliament would have to interfere with his business, which they did by passing the Stamp Act, a tax meant to finance the debt and continuing expenses associated with defending the North American Colonies during the Seven Years’ War, a conflict known in the colonies as the French and Indian War.


The tax cut into Hancock’s profits, but he took a more moderate approach than the radicals in Boston. These radicals felt they had already paid enough and responded with protests, devolving at times into violence. On the other hand, Hancock responded civilly and pragmatically, informing his banking contacts in London that they would not be able to recover their debts in the colonies if the Stamp Act was allowed to stand. Then, in coordination with others, Hancock boycotted British goods. However, Hancock pursued his business interest at the same time, making sure he had ships in England ready to return with goods when the tax would be lifted. According to Barbier: “For him, opposing the Stamp Act was not about heady political ideas, but rather preservation for himself and his property.”


By strategy or luck, one of Hancock’s ships was the first to return to Boston, carrying word that the colonists had won; Parliament had repealed the tax. “This tied his reputation to the revocation of the Stamp act”, which he cemented “with a party that complemented the town-wide celebration.” However, as Barbier reminds her reader, the colonists did not see this victory as a step towards independence, nor did this turn Hancock into an ardent patriot. Instead, they believed Parliament had corrected its mistake. And with that, Hancock, and many others, returned to business as loyal British subjects.


It wasn’t until Parliament passed the Townshend Duties, which again threatened Hancock’s business interests, that he would return to the political fray.  Like his peers, Hancock did not initially oppose the duties directly, instead choosing to avoid them through smuggling.


However, after his involvement in resistance to the Stamp Act, Hancock had gained a reputation and, thus, was a target. Crown officials wanted to make an example of him. One night, officials illegally boarded Hancock’s ship the Lydia looking for smuggled goods. News reached Hancock, and with the help of some of his men, he drove the officials off the ship, gaining him the praise and admiration of Bostonians. “He had become a hero by defending his own financial interests, which, fortunately for him, aligned with many of the radical townspeople’s political interests.”


His elite status and reputation with the townspeople made Hancock a valuable player that both the British and radical patriots tried to court and control. After the botched attempt to catch Hancock smuggling, officials charged Hancock with a “rarely used technicality” and attempted to seize the Lydia. While Hancock was likely smuggling goods, officials were clearly targeting him, and the townspeople rose to his defence. When rumour spread of the British plan, a violent angry mob rose to prevent the seizure of the Lydia as well as voice their frustration with the new British taxes and policy of impressing men into service in the British Navy.


The support of the mob only increased Hancock’s reputation, and thus, value to each side.  A visit to his home by the radical patriot group the “Sons of Liberty” (which included notable Founder Samuel Adams) followed an attempt by Hancock to broker a deal with the royal governor – a reminder that while the mob had defended him, Hancock was also now beholden to it.


Likely out of self-preservation, Hancock reneged on the deal and signed Samuel Adams’ Circular Letter. The letter petitioned the King to repeal the Townshend Duties, promising another boycott of British goods if their demands were not heeded. The petition fell on deaf ears and the colonies responded by endorsing the Non-Importation Agreement. Hancock became the face of this new boycott of British goods, leading all sides to recognise “the importance of Hancock appearing dutiful”.


Again, Hancock’s reputation made him a target. He was smeared in the press, being accused of not abiding by the agreement. Hancock’s radical allies defended him and threatened his accusers. While this gave Hancock the appearance of being a staunch patriot leader in public, Barbier explains that throughout these events, Hancock was seeking to “both protect his own interests by keeping his business profitable and prevent the ire of radicals from turning on him.”  Hancock’s path to leadership is presented as that of an accidental hero. His self-interest (and occasionally, his sense of self-preservation) is often portrayed as the linchpin of his relationship with and loyalty to the Patriot cause,


Most of the Townshend Duties would eventually be repealed, but not until the Crown attempted to enforce them and assert Parliament’s dominance through a military occupation of Boston that ended with the Boston Massacre. Again, Hancock would deliver news of the repeal at a town meeting, appearing once more as the triumphant leader. However, after this success he worked to distance himself from radical politics. Hancock turned down an invitation to join the Committee of Correspondence, formed by Samuel Adams to keep abreast of the Crown’s ongoing abuses. Yet, Hancock did not completely leave politics. He would be elected to the state’s House of Representatives, taking the position, according to Barbier, because “He liked the attention and prestige that came with the office.”


In the interim between stages of the conflict with the Crown, Hancock would also take up another position as the commander of the local militia, known as the Corps of Cadets. He used the lessons he learned working for his uncle to secure the Cadets’ loyalty, projecting power through clothing and throwing lavish parties. That being said, likely Hancock’s personality also helped endear him to his men and the public. Barbier highlights Hancock’s ability to mix with and relate to the “lower sorts”. Moreover, “he seemed to genuinely like people and was adept at making them feel seen.”


It would again be “interference with his business”, not ideology, that would wake Hancock from his “political indifference”. Parliament’s Tea Act effectively prohibited Hancock from importing and selling tea, which had been a key part of his business. Radicals turned to their tried and tested tactics of intimidating Crown Officials and boycotting the taxed goods. With tensions growing, the Governor ordered Hancock to call out the Cadets. Hancock refused, calling instead on the local militia to prevent the unloading of tea from a docked and guarded ship. With the encouragement of Hancock and other radical leaders, men dumped the tea into the harbour as an act of defiance now known as the Boston Tea Party.


In response to the Tea Party, Parliament responded with the Coercive Acts and Port Bill, which closed Boston Harbor. While many patriots believed the Tea Party was too extreme, the Crown’s response was seen as a gross over-reaction. Parliament’s actions catalysed resistance in the colonies. Hancock was also frustrated with Parliament’s authoritarian response as closing Boston Harbor would have crippled his business. Even so, Hancock chose not to attend the First Continental Congress, “likely waiting to see how the situation would play out before deciding to align himself.”


However, it wasn’t long before Hancock chose to support the Patriot cause. The Provincial Congress was sanctioned by the Continental Congress as the new governing body of Massachusetts. Hancock attended the first meeting and was unanimously elected its president, making him “for many, the most powerful and authoritative man in Massachusetts.” Hancock’s new position and aristocratic credentials likely first earned him the nickname “King Hancock” among the occupying British soldiers.


This new title and reputation placed Hancock in danger. When the Provincial Congress met in Concord, Hancock and Samuel Adams decided to leave Boston and stay in Lexington for their safety. There was a rumour that the British wanted to silence the two leaders. Thus, when Paul Revere left on his famous midnight ride, he was not only riding to warn the militia of the British raid, but also Hancock and Adams, believing they were the raid’s target. On receiving the warning, the Lexington militia was raised and fought to protect the two men. However, had they not confronted the British soldiers, the Red Coats likely would have simply marched through Lexington towards their real objective: the armaments stored in Concord. While the resistance was ineffective in Lexington, Concord was a different story. There, the militia drove the Red Coats back shouting “King Hancock forever!”


With his new position and increased profile, Hancock would attend the Second Continental Congress where he was unanimously elected President. This was another title that would force Hancock (now with a wife and infant daughter that he cared deeply for) to flee impending danger multiple times. However, even with the threat to his and his family’s lives, Hancock remained moderate. Like many, he was not ready for independence and advocated for sending the Olive Branch Petition. It was only once the King rejected the petition and support grew for independence, that Hancock agreed to support and sign the Declaration of Independence, which would make him, and particularly his penmanship, famous. As Barbier points out, for many including Hancock, “The declaration was less about a break from England, and more of an impassioned plea to France and Spain for help.” However, “Once he endorsed independence, he [Hancock] went all in on the Patriot cause.”


Hancock would use the lessons he learned earlier in life to foster the alliance with France that the Declaration of Independence facilitated. After leaving his position as President, due to ill health—which plagued him throughout his life—Hancock returned to Boston. The French troops stationed there faced hostility and distrust from the local inhabitants. This intense prejudice and resentment stemmed from the brutal war that the colonists had participated in against the French only a little over a decade ago. Hancock “’restrained the people’” and fostered unity through his example of extending “hospitality and generosity” to the French forces in Boston. According to Barbier, and substantiated by accounts from French commanders, Hancock’s efforts secured “the alliance that became crucial to winning the Revolutionary War.”


After the colonies gained independence, Hancock would become the first popularly elected Governor of Massachusetts, where he would continue to advocate for unity through hospitality and generosity. In the early 1780s, the newly independent states were experiencing an economic crisis of hyperinflation due to their war debts and the use of paper money. During the crisis, Hancock was generous and “sympathetic to his constituents’ plight”, responding with lax tax enforcement as governor and personally accepting the now worthless paper money for the repayment of debts, putting the people and politics before his business interests.


But when he stepped away from the governorship for a time, again due to his bad health, his political opponents raised taxes, sparking Shay’s Rebellion. Instead of pursuing his business interests or enjoying the leisure his station and wealth afforded him, and despite his continuing health issues, Hancock ran for the governor’s seat. He won the race and as governor worked to foster unity and reconciliation in the aftermath of Shay’s Rebellion by issuing pardons and tax cuts, as well as agreeing to a salary reduction.


Hancock would again advocate for moderation and unity when the question of ratifying the US Constitution was brought to Massachusetts. To make this monumental decision, many other states were looking to Massachusetts’ example and many in Massachusetts were looking to Hancock. “Delegate after delegate agreed: the side Hancock landed on would be victorious.” While Hancock had reservations about the power of the proposed central government, he advocated for a moderate path forward. He supported ratifying the Constitution, but with several amendments that would protect the rights of the people and the state of Massachusetts. Barbier argues it was because of Hancock’s support that Massachusetts narrowly voted to ratify the US Constitution, leading other states to follow suit.


Hancock continued to advocate for unity and equality through generosity and hospitality as the Governor of Massachusetts until his death. Even though Hancock was the closest thing the now fledgling United States had to aristocracy, he bucked the strict class structure in which he grew up by fostering “genuine friendships” with “men of the lower class” and using his political position to help them. Similarly, while Hancock had once been a slave owner, he worked to overcome racial prejudice by hosting a ball at his residence for the free black inhabitants of Boston. He hoped his example might lead to acceptance and unity as it had with the French troops during the Revolutionary War. His work would end abruptly when he died in office at the relatively young age of fifty-six, likely from complications from the gout that he had struggled with for most of his adult life.


Barbier paints a complex picture of Hancock, not as an ideologue, but rather as a radically influential moderate, who played a major role in many of the significant steps from the colonies to independence and beyond. She presents him on one hand, as a shrewd, self-interested, and at times accidental leader of the Patriot cause, and on the other, as a man who desired the people’s affection and seemed to genuinely care for them in return. Barbier’s narrative suggests that self-interest gave way to genuine concern and affection by the end of Hancock’s political career, with even his political rivals agreeing few had sacrificed more to the cause or done more for the people than Hancock. Hancock also suffered personally through these years, often struggling with health issues, tragically losing both of his children, and living in a strained marriage to his wife Dolly, who failed to reciprocate his affections. Barbier does not paint Hancock as a mythic hero or ideologically pure patriot, but rather does something far more useful and interesting: “despite his elite status,” Barbier makes Hancock “relatable.” just as she argues he was during his life.

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