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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 309

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This is the grave of John Hancock.

Born in 1737 in Braintree, Massachusetts to a prosperous and slave owning family, Hancock’s father died when he was 7, but he went to live with his uncle, who ran a successful import business. He and his aunt raised him in comfort. Hancock enrolled at Harvard in 1750 and graduated in 1754; again, these early admissions were common at this time. Hancock then went to work for his uncle, got to know all the elites of New England and had the tastes of a rich man, especially for fine clothing. He went to live in England in 1760 and 1761, making many connections over there as well. He moved to becoming a partner in his uncle’s business by 1763, as the older man’s health was failing. The uncle died in 1764. Hancock inherited everything, including the slaves. The will eventually did free the slaves and there’s no evidence Hancock engaged in the slave trade, but he definitely owned slaves for a time and showed little thought about it, at least to my knowledge.

It seemed unlikely that a genuine elite such as Hancock would embrace the American Revolution. While certainly many southern elites did, New England and New York elites had lots of business ties with England and hobnobbed with the wealthy, if not the landed gentry, in that nation. Hancock had risen into the Boston political elite upon his uncle’s death and by 1765, was one of the city’s selectmen. When Parliament passed the Stamp Act, Hancock thought it was a bad idea, but he also felt the colonists needed to submit to it. However, seeing how the winds were shifting, he moved toward more active resistance after a few months, disapproving of mob violence but engaging in the boycott of British goods, even though this hurt him personally. He grew close to Samuel Adams, despite the many differences between the men, and Adams became a political mentor to Hancock.

During the resistance over the Townshend Acts that followed the repeal of the Stamp Act, the British directly targeted Hancock. As the wealthiest man supporting the Patriots, the British began to believe that Hancock was engaging in smuggling and attempted to board one of his boats, although because they lacked a warrant, his men refused to let them. It is entirely probable that Hancock was cheating the system. In 1768, when one of Hancock’s boats, the Liberty, entered the port, it had far less wine than was claimed. The British believed he illegally unloaded it offshore. Later, one of his men said that was indeed what happened. He was brought to trial for it. John Adams defended him and the charges were later dropped for unclear reasons. During the Boston Massacre, Hancock was not directly involved in much, but did join the demands to withdraw British forces from the city. In the aftermath, when politics settled down for a bit, everyone tried to go back to how things were before 1765. Governor Thomas Hutchison tried to lure Hancock away from Samuel Adams’ influence and certainly business improved, as Hancock was more than happy to continue trading with his British partners. And in fact, Hancock initially turned down Adams’ offer to join the Committees of Correspondence in 1772. But they were allied again by 1773, after the passage of the Tea Act. Hancock approved of the Boston Tea Party and allegedly spoke to the crowd just before it happened.

By 1775, when the American Revolution began, Hancock was the most important person in Massachusetts, holding multiple political roles and seen as the leader of the Patriots more than anyone else. He was named to the Second Continental Congress while also being president of Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress, which created the first militia units. The British thought seriously about arresting him and Hancock left Boston for Lexington for greater safety. Hancock, as a militia leader, wanted to lead troops at Lexington when the British decided to move on him and Adams, but he was convinced that he was too valuable to be taken prisoner or killed.

This really was the peak of Hancock’s influence. He would always remain a senior leader of the revolutionary generation, but was soon outpaced by more capable men. That said, he has the respect of everyone and was named president of the Second Continental Congress. And of course, he fixed his gigantic and prominent signature to the Declaration of Independence, probably the most famous signature in human history.

But after this, Hancock found himself frequently on the wrong side of politics. He and Samuel Adams broke, with the latter finding the former too vain and self-glorious and luxurious. He seemed too British to some. He was in and out of the Continental Congress, but never reclaimed the power or authority he had in 1775 and 1776. He briefly led troops in battle, but without any great glory. He became governor of Massachusetts in 1780 and stayed until 1785, but did very little. In fact, this was a tough time to govern as the nation hadn’t come around to the need for a functional central government and dealt with a terrible postwar economic crisis. In any case, Hancock bailed not long before the anger in the western Massachusetts countryside would lead to Shays’ Rebellion and thus the Constitutional Convention.

Hancock’s health wasn’t great by this time either. He didn’t play much of a role in the Constitutional debate until the very end, when he gave a key speech that helped Massachusetts to narrowly ratify it in 1788. He kind of wanted to be elected president in 1789 and did receive a few electoral votes, but Washington obviously was going to win and everyone knew it, including Hancock. But he probably did want to be vice-president, which went to John Adams, in part because the Massachusetts delegation supported him over Hancock. He was greatly disappointed. In any case, his health was shot by this point and he died in 1793, only 56.

John Hancock is buried in Granary Burying Ground, Boston Massachusetts. His grave was almost entirely forgotten about almost immediately. As early as 1807, John Adams was complaining that the graves of both Hancock and Sam Adams were not being remembered at all. This continued for nearly a century, until a proper memorial was erected on the site in 1896, which is what you see today.

If you would like this series to profile more figures of the American Revolution, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, is buried in Pineville, South Carolina and Benjamin Franklin is in Philadelphia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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