Tuesday, January 12, 2010

John Hancock: Virtue and Liberty (born January 12, 1737)

Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern

Among the Founding Fathers of the United States, no name is more recognizable than that of John Hancock. His flair and silver tongue set Boston on fire for liberty. It would be his eye for virtue that would truly show British tyranny in its true light. By 1777, he was the president of the Continental Congress, and also on King George III's most wanted list.

John Hancock was born on January 12, 1737 to Rev. John Hancock in Braintree (Quincy), Massachusetts. His father died when John was seven, but John's rich uncle, Thomas Hancock, adopted him. Being one of the wealthiest merchants in Boston, Thomas Hancock procured John's liberal education at Harvard, and even sent him on a business trip to England after his graduation in 1754. There, John witnessed the lavish coronation of King George III in person. Who would have known that these two people, one being prepared for the annals of history and the other young and ambitions, would soon reverse the expectations of their respective audiences?

Hancock returned to America in 1764 just before the unexpected death of his uncle. Now, the largest estate in the province, a gigantic mercantile business, and a mountainous fortune fell into the hands of a plucky twenty-seven-year-old with a wild imagination whetted by his previous expedition to Europe. But Hancock surprised the expectation of his friends by managing the business with a firm yet charitable hand, providing for his employees' every need. He had proven his character in the most tempting of circumstances. New wealth put him in the company of prominent loyalists of the day, which would later make the colonists suspicious of his commitment to republicanism. However, Hancock's genius brightened in the Massachusetts legislature when he met such illustrious patriots as Otis, Cushing, and Samuel Adams. This heyday would be cut short in 1768 when customs officials sized Hancock's sloop Liberty in the Boston harbor for allegedly transporting contraband goods. Greatly upset by the sudden capture, the private populace banded together, destroyed the government ship, beat the officers, and liberated the Liberty. Although Hancock himself was in no way associated with the violence, his popularity grew among the patriots. The next two events in Boston would set him firmly at the head of the patriot cause.

British troops entered the city as a result of the Liberty affair and other altercations, which led to frequent clashes between citizens and soldiers. On March 5, 1770, some rowdy colonists began throwing snowballs at a British detachment. The soldiers opened fire killing a few civilians. Hancock was invited to speak at the memorial service. To Hancock, this was only the tip of the iceberg. He witnessed first hand how the King's soldiers had threatened the very moral foundations of America. At the service he said of the British soldiers:
...they endeavoured to deprive us of the enjoyment of our religious privileges; to vitiate our morals, and thereby render us deserving of destruction. Hence the rude din of arms, which broke in upon your solemn devotions in your temples, on that day hallowed by heaven, and set apart by God himself for his peculiar worship. Hence, impious oaths and blasphemies, so often tortured your unaccustomed ear... Have not our infants almost learned to lisp curses, before they knew their horrid import? Have not our youth forgotten they were Americans, and regardless of the admonitions of the wise and aged, copied, with a servile imitation, the frivolity and vices of their tyrants?..

With such as these, usurping Caesar passed the Rubicon; with such as these he humbled mighty Rome, and forced the mistress of the world to own a master in a traitor. These are the men whom sceptred robbers now employ to frustrate the designs of God, and render vain the bounties which his gracious hand pours indiscriminately upon his creatures.
To Hancock, America's very identity rested on its virtues; virtues that were being taken away daily. The time had come to act! He threw himself into the cause, and in 1773 abetted the Boston Tea Party. The British government now realized its enemy, and a regiment was sent out to capture him. However, the patriots repulsed them at Concord, giving Hancock and Sam Adams enough time to escape. Even so, the British troops were literally on the doorstep when Hancock fled his lodging. Governor Gage had had enough. He issued a proclamation of pardon to all patriots except Hancock and Adams, who were beyond forgiveness.

In contrast to his British reception, the patriots took Hancock into their deepest councils. He was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774, and at the resignation of Peyton Randolph in 1776, Hancock was elected president of the entire Congress. Although his intellectual accomplishments were dimmer than some of his colleagues (Thomas Jefferson of instance), his sacrifice to the cause was unparalleled by any of the other Founders. In his Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich wrote of Hancock:
In promoting the liberties of his country, no one, perhaps, actually expended more wealth, or was willing to make greater sacrifices. An instance of his public spirit, in 1775, is recorded, much to his praise. At that time, the American army was besieging Boston, to expel the British, who held possession of the town. To accomplish this object, the entire destruction of the city was proposed by the American officers. By the execution of such a plan, the whole fortune of Mr. Hancock would have been sacrificed. Yet he immediately acceded to the measure, declaring his readiness to surrender his all, whenever the liberties of his country should require it.
At the time of his death on October 8, 1793, Hancock had quite literally carved out a name for himself. He served on the Continental Congress from 1774-1777, as governor of Massachusetts from 1777-1782, and was elected again as governor in 1783. In 1776 he flourished his name on the Declaration of Independence, forever linking it with liberty.

Image of John_Hancock from Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Reynolds,

    I came across this site while doing research for a project for Students for Liberty, and am most impressed. I would like to send you some more info about the project, but I've looked in vain for email or another contact form on the site. If you could please send an email to emlisull "at" gmail "dot" com, I'd be most appreciative.


    Evan Lisull


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