John Hancock’s Politics and Personality in Ten Quotes

Portrait of John Hancock by Charles Willson Peale, 1776. (Courtesy RISD Museum)

Nearly every American knows the name of John Hancock, but often for little more than his signature on the Declaration of Independence. Hancock was one of the most popular men in eighteenth-century North America, winning people over with his style, personability, and generosity. These ten quotations offer a fuller picture of the character, political temper, and personality of the man behind the pen and help expand our understanding of the leadership of the American Revolution.

1. “Come in Revere, we’re not afraid of you.”—John Hancock to Paul Revere, April 19, 1775[1]
This breezy line from Hancock came at a pivotal moment in US history, when Hancock felt calm despite the peril swirling around him. Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying in Lexington, Massachusetts, in April 1775 because Boston, with its occupying soldiers, had become too dangerous. The countryside wasn’t a safe haven either, however. Rumors spread that the redcoats were marching to Lexington to seize Hancock and Adams.

On April 18, Paul Revere set off on his famous midnight ride to warn the two rebel leaders that they were in danger. He arrived at the Hancock-Clarke House and demanded that the men guarding it let him in. He was asked to quiet down, which enraged Revere, who told them, “The regulars are coming out!” Hancock was awakened by the noise, peered out a window, and saw Revere. He told him to come into the house and share his news.

After Revere shared that British soldiers were on the march, Hancock sent a warning to Concord and then readied himself to personally takeonthe redcoats by polishing his sword. It took a lot of coaxing before he eventually agreed to flee to a nearby town, just before the deadly confrontation on Lexington Green.

2. “to Appear in Character I am Obliged to be pretty Expensive.”—John Hancock to Thomas Hancock, August 22, 1761[2]

Despite fashion often being derided as insignificant or simply a feminine whimsy, Hancock knew that clothes can make the man. While on his first trip overseas, Hancock spent a lot of money in London on the trendiest styles and justified the expense to his uncle, who was paying the bill, writing that he did it to “appear in character.” Suitable clothing gave the inexperienced twenty-three-year-old a more confident air. If he dressed like a successful merchant, then he would feel like one, and others would think he was one too. He frequently used clothing and accessories—including a powdered wig, gilded jackets, and rich fabrics—to communicate how he felt about himself and project power and status. Despite wearing such obvious signs of wealth, he had a gift for connecting with all orders of people, and this made him one of the most popular men in Massachusetts.

3. “I hope the same Spirit will prevail throughout the whole Continent.” and “The Injury that has been Done the Lieut. Govr. was quite a different Affair & was not done by this Town, & is what I abhor & Detest as much as any man breathing . . . but an opposition to the Stamp Act is highly commendable.”—John Hancock to Jonathan Barnard, August 22, 1765, and January 25, 1766[3]

These two quotations about the Stamp Act riots in Boston in August 1765 are best examined together because they explain Hancock’s mixed feelings about the protests. When a mob destroyed parts of stamp tax collector Andrew Oliver’s home and warehouse and forced him to resign shortly after, Hancock was pleased and hoped that others throughout North America would followBoston’s lead. And they did. Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland similarly intimidated their tax collectors and got them to stand down.

But when a mob of Bostonians went after Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s house two weeks after the attack on Oliver, Hancock condemned it. He wanted to create further distance from it, claiming it wasn’t done by his fellow townspeople. The second mob had violated the careful orchestration of group violence in eighteenth-century America, which allowed people to protest government policies they disagreed with. When the group got their way, as they had when Oliver resigned, they were to stop their disorder.

Hancock wanted people to oppose the Stamp Act but loathed the unnecessary violence against Hutchinson, with good reason. A mob indiscriminately targeting a man of privilege like Hutchinson could easily turn on him, the wealthiest man in Boston. As a result, Hancock worked hard to earn the trust of the lower orders, which paid dividends a few years later when he got in trouble with the customs board.

4. “I do not stand at any price, let it be good, I like a Rich Wine.”—John Hancock to partners in London, July 23, 1765[4]

As an affluent man, John Hancock could afford a luxury that most could not: madeira, a fortified wine made on the North Atlantic island of the same name. He was exacting when placing this particular order, specifying several times in the same letter that he wanted the highest quality. It had a steep price tag because it was imported and subject to higher taxes, but cost was not an issue for Hancock—except when it came to paying taxes on the wine. Hancock’s desire to avoid them led to one of the most memorable mobs of the American Revolution.

In May 1768, one of Hancock’s ships docked in Boston, and the captain claimed to customs commissioners that there were twenty-five casks of madeira on board. The ship could hold at least double that, but the bureaucrats accepted the suspiciously low number. Other officials were sure that Hancock had smuggled in more madeira, so a month later, they used a technicality to seize Liberty, one of Hancock’s ships, and its cargo, branding the vessel with the king’s mark and tying it to a British warship.

Over the previous few years, Hancock had courted the favor of men from the lower orders with alcohol-filled hospitality, and those efforts were rewarded when Liberty was taken. A mob gathered at the waterfront, savagely attacked the customs officials, and then dragged one of their pleasure boats out of the harbor, hauled it through town, and dropped it on Boston Common, the town’s public park. There, they set it on fire. This stunning event solidified Hancock’s reputation as an influential town leader, inspiring all orders of men while enraging crown officials.

5. “I am almost prevail’d on to think my letters to my Aunt & you are not read, for I cannot obtain a reply, I have ask’d [a] million questions & not an answer to one . . . I Really Take it extreme unkind . . . I want long Letters.”—John Hancock to Dorothy Quincy, June 10, 1775[5]

Hancock pleaded with his fiancée, Dorothy “Dolly” Quincy, to write him letters, but she never seemed to care much for Hancock, even after they were married. Her epistolary neglect was especially difficult for a man prone to feeling loss acutely. When Hancock was seven years old, his father died suddenly, and despite being adopted by his wealthy uncle and aunt, he searched for connection and love throughout his life.

He didn’t only nag his wife; he frequently chided friends and loved ones about not writing to him. He sent gifts, promised warm receptions, told them about his life in letters, and asked many questions about theirs. He expended a great deal of energy to gain people’s affection, with mixed success. He was popular and beloved in Massachusetts with the masses, but it was not enough. He wanted to feel he belonged with those closest to him.

6. “I am Glad, as it will afford you some Relaxation from Business wch is absolutely necessary for the preservation of Health that best of Blessings.”—John Hancock to George Hayley, February 21, 1769[6]

Hancock’s business partner in London, George Hayley, hired an employee, and Hancock hoped it might help Hayley step away from his business and relax. Hancock had experienced firsthand the toll stress can take on one’s health. Throughout his life, Hancock’s body failed him when matters were demanding or particularly serious. He was rarely physically well to begin with and often suffered from painful fits of gout, which swelled his legs and hands and sometimes prevented him from walking or holding a quill.

Political pressure made this condition worse, and, unfortunately for his delicate disposition, there were plenty of times in the United States in the 1770s and 1780s to feel uncertainty and anxiety. Both supporters and critics accused Hancock of using his poor health to avoid messy political fights, which seemed to be true at times. His body did not handle contention well, and he ultimately died young, at fifty-seven, a body sacrificed to the turmoil of the late eighteenth century.

7. “I am persuaded you will join with me in the sentiment that this unhappy occurrence cannot be considered as a certain mark of the indisposition to good order & government.”—John Hancock to the General Council, October 18, 1787[7]

Hancock’s political moderation calmed his home state after an uprising in 1786 and 1787. Farmers in western Massachusetts had forcibly closed courts in protest of the state’s devastating taxes and to prevent debtors from being imprisoned. Governor James Bowdoin assembled an extralegal body of men to crush what had become known as Shays’s Rebellion and then took extraordinary measures to punish the participants, including suspending their voting rights and sentencing many to death. In the 1787 Massachusetts gubernatorial election, Bowdoin became the first incumbent governor of the state to be voted out of office, and Hancock was elected by an overwhelming margin of three to one.

For most of his political life, Hancock had sought a moderate path, which was exactly what the state needed at the time. He pardoned almost all of the rebels and worked to restore peace and trust among inhabitants of the countryside. He told his legislature that the rebellion should not brand the participants as being forever incapable of living under the new government. The state was fragile—having only adopted its constitution in 1780—and Hancock’s temperance provided stability. Thereafter, voters rewarded him with the governorship every year until he died in 1793.

8. “We must all rise or fall together.”—John Hancock to the US Constitution Ratification Convention of Massachusetts, February 6, 1788[8]

In 1788, Hancock was governor of Massachusetts and president of the state’s constitutional convention when he proclaimed these words in one of the most important speeches of his life. The proposed national constitution had been sent to the states for ratification, and as the Massachusetts convention began, five states had already approved it. The new government framework was more than halfway to securing the necessary votes for approval.

While Americans think of the Constitution as an inevitable part of the country’s fabric today, it faced considerable pushback from states concerned about an overreaching federal government. Massachusetts was considered a swing state for ratification. Because of its strong revolutionary credentials, other states might be inclined to follow its lead. New Hampshire was waiting to see which way their neighbor went, and George Washington was worried their decision could also sway Virginia and New York.

Hancock himself was skeptical about the new Constitution, and as the most powerful political figure in Massachusetts, he would no doubt influence some with his perspective. Just before the vote was taken, Hancock gave a speech supporting the Constitution but asked everyone to recognize that it was a divided issue. As such, no one should rejoice that half of the population would be disappointed with the outcome. He hoped everyone would be conciliatory and eventually unite together. This was a sentiment rarely heard from leaders during such a contentious time, and it showed Hancock’s power. The Constitution narrowly passed in Massachusetts.

9. “In short no Person could possibly be more Notic’d than myself.”—John Hancock to Dorothy Quincy, May 7, 1775[9]

On his way to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, Hancock traveled with delegates from Massachusetts and Connecticut who were greeted on the roads and enthusiastically cheered. In one instance, a crowd offered to act as horses and pull Hancock’scarriage for the final stretch into town. Hancock was thrilled and proudly wrote to his wife about the attention that the delegation received. He also declared that he was the most noticed of all.

Rivals frequently charged Hancock with vanity, a claim historians often repeat today. It is true that Hancock loved attention and appreciation. It was a deep need of his to feel both. But even the dour Adams cousins,John and Samuel,who accompanied Hancock, recognized that they were receiving a flattering reception during their trip. The Massachusetts delegates’ reputations as leaders of the resistance had preceded them, and it set up their future influence in the Second Continental Congress.

10. “The important Consequences to the American States from this Declaration of Independence, considered as the Ground & Foundation of a future Government, will naturally suggest the Propriety of proclaiming it in such a Manner, that the People may be universally informed of it.”—John Hancock to Certain States, July 6, 1776[10]

In the months leading up to July 1776, Hancock had been reluctant to separate from the British Empire. He and his uncle had made a sizeable fortune under crown rule, and he and other wealthy delegates questioned whetherthe colonies would really be better off on their own. The Massachusetts delegation of John and Samuel Adams and Elbridge Gerry, however, had been pushing for independence and eventually ralliedenough delegates to support it, including many moderates. As president of the Second Continental Congress, Hancock went along and authorized it with his confident signature.

He wrote to “certain states”and enclosed the Declaration of Independence, asking that itsrecipients spread the word. Notably, he acknowledged that the document might be the basis of a future government—presciently recognizing that the words hold an enduringpromise for Americans. The Declaration’s assurance that all men are created equal was unfulfilled for many for centuries, but the ideal forms a foundation Americans still look to—and demand—today.

 

[1]Elias Phinney, History of the Battle at Lexington, on the Morning of the 19th April, 1775 (Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1825), 16–17.

[2]John Hancock to Thomas Hancock, January 14, 1761, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS-P)43 (October 1909-June 1910): 196.

[3]John Hancock to Jonathan Barnard, August 22, 1765; January 25, 1766, Hancock Letterbook (business), Hancock Family Papers (HFP), Baker Library Special Collections (BLSC); Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 62–64.

[4]John Hancock to Hill, Lamar, and Bissett, July 23, 1765, Hancock Letterbook (business), HFP, BLSC; G. G. Wolkins, “The Seizure of John Hancock’s Sloop ‘Liberty,’” MHS-P55 (Boston, 1923): 240.

[5]John Hancock to Dorothy Quincy, June 10, 1775, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789,ed. Paul H. Smith, et al., vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1976–2000), 472.

[6]John Hancock to George Hayley, February 21, 1769, Hancock Letterbook (business), HFP, BLSC.

[7]John Hancock Speech, October 18, 1787,Paul D. Brandes, John Hancock’s Life and Speeches: A Personalized Vision of the American Revolution, 1763–1793 (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996), 301; Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 76; Leonard L. Richards, Shays’s Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 119.

[8]John Hancock Speech, February 6, 1788, Brandes, John Hancock’s Life, 328; Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 166;“From George Washington to James Madison, 5 February 1788,”founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0074; “From George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, 31 January 1788,” founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-06-02-0059.

[9]John Hancock to Dorothy Quincy, May 7, 1775, HFP, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[10]John Hancock to Certain States, July 6, 1776. Letters of Delegates to Congress, May 16, 1776 to August 15, 1776,ed. Paul H. Smith, et al., vol. 4 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1979), 396; Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 73-75.

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4 Comments

  • Excellent compilation! John Hancock rarely gets the credit he’s due. I came to know him and his contributions and personality better when my friend Audrey Glenn wrote a novel with him as a prominent character. These quotations give a well-rounded portrait of the man. Thank you!

  • Fantastic work, Brooke! Your King Hancock book is a fantastic addition and much-needed fresh reading of sources on the wildly understudied Founding Father.

    Thank you for bringing him back closer to the forefront, based on his quote about no one being more noticed than himself, he would appreciate it!

  • Great work on this paper, Brooke. I enjoyed how you used the quotes as windows into Hancock’s character and disposition as well as a springboard for further analysis. Despite his prominent signature, he really seems to have slipped from historical prominence in much contemporary scholarship.

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