Orphan, merchant, multi-millionaire, philanthropist, smuggler, President of the United States, snappy dresser and great hand-writer, John Hancock almost stands forth as a modern politician. Vain to a fault but generous beyond all others, unlike most modern politicians he was willing to hazard his considerable fortune, actually possessed sacred honor, and was sincere in pledging them with his life for the cause of liberty and for the generations to come. His signal offenses to the British put him beyond the pale of any possible raprochement or amnesty. He and his friend and colleague Sam Adams would “hang together or hang separately” in Franklin’s apt phrase.
The providence of tragedy, the death of his parents when he was only seven, made possible the circumstances that would propel Hancock to greatness. John was raised by his rich uncle and when he died, was left with a huge fortune and shipping business. Because of his Uncle Thomas, Hancock also received the best education in the colonies, at both Boston Latin and Harvard, and took his place among the yankee elites of New England. As colonial rights eroded in the 1770s, Hancock threw in his lot with the resistance movement, putting his own merchant fleet in jeopardy.
The “dapper and small” high roller responded to what he considered illegal taxation and onerous trade laws by free enterprise, called “smuggling” by the British. Hancock became a leader of the resistance to a level that they put a price on his head and excluded him from offers of amnesty. He traveled to various safe houses in the country when the redcoats came after him, and was one step ahead of them when they showed up on Lexington green looking for him and Samuel Adams. The war began there, when the Minutemen took their stand.
Hancock represented Massachusetts at the Continental Congress and was elected President of that august body. He served there for two years, trying to keep the peace among quarrelling disagreeable legislators from thirteen colonies. He and the secretary were the only ones to sign the Declaration of Independence on the fourth of July, before it went to the printer. He signed boldly then dared the crown to double the price on his head. Hancock apparently harbored a desire to lead the colonial troops and was somewhat disappointed when his colleague John Adams proposed George Washington—but it all worked out for the best. Though he resigned as President in 1777 he remained in Congress for three more years as a delegate.
John Hancock returned home to Massachusetts and his wife and two children, where he served a short time as a Major General. He was elected Governor of the Commonwealth, a position in which he served for most of the rest of his life. Hancock was a man of ill health for much of his later life and finally succumbed to his troubles in 1793 at age fifty five. Uncharacteristically, he requested a quiet unobtrusive funeral but the people of Boston would have none of it and held a funeral procession rarely equalled for pomp and circumstance in the history of the state. No doubt the diminutive patriot would have actually been delighted. He lived a life as bold and ostentatious as his signature, but with a passion to help others for “charity was the business of his life.”