More Than His Name on the Line: By the Time John Hancock Had Signed the Declaration of Independence, He Had Already Put His Life and Fortune on the Line

By Eddlem, Thomas R. | The New American, September 8, 2003 | Go to article overview

More Than His Name on the Line: By the Time John Hancock Had Signed the Declaration of Independence, He Had Already Put His Life and Fortune on the Line


Eddlem, Thomas R., The New American


The Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. But John Hancock, who signed the document first and with the largest signature of all, already had his life on the line. Hancock signed the Declaration with much bravado, in his well-known style, reputedly claiming that King George could read his signature without spectacles. But his bravado was anticlimactic compared to historical reality.

The real story of Hancock's patriotism is told in the events leading up to that day, and in the events that followed. He and his friend and fellow signer Samuel Adams had already lived with a price on their heads for more than a year before July 1776. Massachusetts military Governor Thomas Gage formally called for their arrest on treason charges on June 12, 1775, branding the two as rebels against the British crown. And Hancock had already placed a good portion of his considerable fortune at the disposal of the cause of liberty. He even gave George Washington permission to cannonade the Town of Boston to remove British troops from the town. Though the British eventually left Boston without a fight, a battle in Boston would likely have ruined Hancock's vast mansion and shipyard. Nevertheless, Hancock would use up much of his fortune in the cause of American independence.

Orphan Turns Heir

Like John Adams, John Hancock was born in the Massachusetts town of Braintree in the section abutting Boston (later called Quincy). Hancock's father and grandfather were both highly regarded Congregationalist ministers, but John was orphaned as a boy and adopted by his wealthy uncle Thomas Hancock.

John was sent to Harvard, graduating at age 17 in 1754, and then apprenticed in his uncle's Boston counting house. Thomas Hancock was initially a bookseller, but by the 1750s he had amassed a fortune by importing low cost tea from St. Eustatia and goods from England. In 1760, John sailed to England to handle his uncle's accounts and acquaint himself with the company's British customers. He returned to America in 1764 just before his uncle's death, and when Thomas Hancock died John was awarded most of his uncle's massive fortune, about 50,000 [pounds sterling] in cash plus the shipping business. (He collected his uncle's entire estate after Thomas Hancock's widow died several years later.) Though only 27 years old, Hancock managed his inheritance, the largest estate in New England, masterfully. Even Tory rival Thomas Hutchinson conceded that Hancock managed his inheritance well.

When Hancock returned from England, he found America in an atmosphere of political dynamite. The British Parliament had just passed the Sugar Act, followed by the Stamp Act in 1765. American colonists were enraged that the British government would impose taxes on a whole host o items, from newspapers to legal and commercial documents, without their consent.

Parliament had actually levied taxes on molasses and wine long before these acts, but these earlier taxes were routinely circumvented by widespread, almost open, smuggling. The Sugar Act actually reduced the levy on molasses in the hope that traders would be less inclined to engage in smuggling. Because the Sugar and Stamp Acts were the first acts designed solely to generate revenue for the British government, they drew the ire of the colonists.

Hancock met Samuel Adams soon after returning to Boston, and the two patriots enjoyed a stormy but lifelong friendship and political partnership. Adams had long used his pen to criticize government excesses from the margins of political society, but his alliances with the wealthy Hancock and prominent legislator James Otis, combined with public resentment to the Stamp Act, multiplied Adams' influence. Hancock also helped Adams get out of personal financial predicaments with several loans and gifts: Adams barely averted bankruptcy for most of the latter part of his life. …

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More Than His Name on the Line: By the Time John Hancock Had Signed the Declaration of Independence, He Had Already Put His Life and Fortune on the Line
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