Forever known for his signature, the American Founding Father John Hancock (1737-93) was also staunch opponent of unnecessary or excessive taxation. “They have no right [The Crown] to put their hands in my pocket,” Hancock said. He strongly believed even after the American Revolution, that Congress, like Parliament, could use taxes as a form of tyranny.
As Governor of Massachusetts, Hancock sided with the people over and against over zealous tax appropriators and collectors. Hancock argued farmers and tradesmen would never be able to pay their taxes if their land and property were confiscated. He barred government officials from imprisoning farmers too poor to pay taxes. In addition to his views on taxes, Hancock supported cuts in government spending.
Hancock inherited a substantial amount of wealth from merchant trading, a business started by his uncle known as the “House of Hancock.” Hancock’s father, a minister, died when he was just a child. He was raised by his wealthy uncle and aunt. Their wealth gave him a first class education.
Hancock went on to increase the assets and income of his uncle’s business, when he took control of the enterprise. He was quite possibly the richest man in the American Colonies. Hancock enjoyed owning the finest home, attire, furniture, coaches, and wines. As a fault, he could even show a comical attachment to material possessions from time to time. He once organized a military party to challenge the British during the revolutionary war, his part in the conflict was only to last a few weeks and was close to his home, still he galloped to battle with six carriages behind him carrying his finest warrior apparel and the finest French wines. Patriot Generals poked fun at his unnecessary show of pomp and pageantry. Still he fretted, when he realized he was missing a pair of imported leather boots.
While his wealth was immense, so was his generosity. Hundreds of colonists depended on his business for their economic livelihood. In addition, he helped his own ambitious employees start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. He gave lavishly to local churches, charities, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the schooling of orphans. Hancock also spent his own wealth on public works and aesthetic improvements for the city of Boston.
His enormous popularity was in fact, to a large degree, due to his substantial giving. Hancock was also known for treating others with the characteristics of Christian principles. He treated those of modest means with the same respect as those who had access to wealth and power. Several authors have affectionately referred to him “As a man of the people.” A German officer who fought for the British was astounded at the way he befriended and talked to the very poorest citizens of Boston.
Hancock started out as a moderate in the dispute with the English. He preferred to petition the Crown and Parliament through his pen and numerous contacts. In fact, the majority of his wealth was created from trading and contracts with the English. His views gradually shifted towards independence however because of a combination of issues. One was no doubt taxes and tariffs, but to a lesser degree Hancock may have been spurred by the desire to protect his home and possessions from anti-British mobs in Boston who found appeasement in looting the homes of loyalists and sympathizers of the English. He protected his property and home on one occasion by appeasing a mob with free alcohol. Boston had quickly turned into a hotbed of patriot radicalism.
Still, Hancock risked his wealth, health, and life for the American Revolution. His suffering from the gout was made worse due to the immense workload of his office. His young daughter died during this time, and later his only other child, a son, died on an accident on the ice. As President of the Second Continental Congress, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, and President of the Congress of the Confederation, he worked feverishly daily and late into the nights to support the war effort, only pausing for a few hours of sleep and to honor the Sabbath. His position required him to be present for virtually all congressional meetings, hearings, and business.
He was selected for these prestigious positions because of his popularity among the vast majority of colonial leaders, who were often tied to regional loyalties. A large part of his duty was influencing states to support the revolution with ample financial and material assistance. It was a difficult task due to the weakness of the central government. Hancock ended up contributing much of his own fortune to the cause of liberty.
After the war Hancock was elected Governor of Massachusetts. He was easily reelected, and when he retired, again the people demanded his return to office. He was known for an uncommon fairness and protecting the rights of the common citizen from an oppressive government. He was lenient on the leaders of the Shays’ Rebellion. His decision to support the U.S. Constitution, pending the addition of a Bill of Rights, easily swayed a divided Massachusetts convention. He died in office as Governor in 1793. John Adams, often a political rival and opponent of Hancock, declared after his death:
I could melt into tears when I hear his name…If benevolence, charity, generosity were ever personified in North America, they were in John Hancock. What shall I say of his education? His literary acquisitions?…His military, civil, and political services? His sufferings and sacrifices? I can say with truth that I profoundly admired him and more profoundly loved him.
[To learn more about John Hancock read John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger]