Revolutionary War Historical Article

John Hancock: The Man Behind the Signature

By Donald N. Moran

John Hancock was the President of the Second Continental Congress and the first delegate to sign the Declaration of Independence,. He did so in such a way that in America his name has become a synonym for the word 'signature'.

But who was John Hancock?


He was born on January 23rd, 1737 in the small Massachusetts town of Braintree, the son of a clergy man of Puritan background. He died when John was only seven years old. John was sent to live with his uncle, Thomas Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant who lived in Lexington. Thomas proved to be a good uncle and took a strong interest in his nephew. He saw to it that he received a good education. John graduated from Harvard in 1754, and immediately went to work for his uncle in Boston.

Thomas sent his nephew to England on business and to further his education. John returned in 1764 shortly before his uncle died. Thomas left his entire fortune to his nephew. At age 27, John was one of the wealthiest merchants in all of New England.


He became interested in the local government and was elected a Selectman of Boston. Samuel Adams was quoted by his cousin John Adams ". . . that the citizens of Boston had done a wise thing as they had made John Hancock's personal fortune, their own".

In 1772 John accepted an appointment by Massachusetts' Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson as Colonel in Charge of Boston's the Company of Cadets. This military unit acted as the Governor's honor guard. This was John's first exposure to the military and he quickly learned the British Army's way of thinking - - knowledge he was to benefit from in the future.


In 1774 Hancock was elected President of the Massachusetts's Provincial Congress and as such he was the head of the unofficial government. He was very much involved in the deteriorating of relations between Massachusetts and the British crown. He was at Lexington the night of April 19th, 1775, when the British marched on that small community and hostilities began. Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and others argued with him that, as President, he could not join John Parker on the town's common to confront the approaching British force. During the entire debate, John busied himself cleaning his sword and a pair of pistols.


Benjamin Harrison of Virginia was the first President of the Continental Congress. His title was chairman of the whole of the Continental Congress. Hancock became President on May 24th, 1775 until October 19th, 1777. He presided over the debates on independence, and was disappointed when Congress appointed Washington Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, a position Hancock wanted for himself. Much has been written about his being jealous of Washington, however, it should be noted that he named his son, born in 1778, John George Washington Hancock.

Obviously, John had the utmost respect for Washington, why else would he honor him by naming a son after him?

On July 4th, 1776, Hancock and Continental Congress Secretary Charles Thomson were the only two to sign the original version of the Declaration of Independence on that day. Hancock is said to have remarked when he wrote his name with great flourish, "So that John Bull could read it without his glasses ".

The printed version (printed by John Dunlap of Philadelphia, an ancestor of our Compatriot Jack Tullis and his sister, Linda Moran) was distributed on July 5th. As a result of his fanciful signature and open demonstration of patriotism, the name of John Hancock became second only to George Washington as a symbol of our struggle for independence.

Hancock was forced to resign, reluctantly, from the Presidency in October of 1777 because of health problems - - severe gout.

In 1778, somewhat recovered from his gout problems, he was commissioned a Major General of the Massachusetts Militia. He commanded six thousand New England men and participated in the Rhode Island campaign. Unfortunately, his first combat endeavor resulted in a retreat, when the French failed to support the siege of Newport.

Hancock was reelected as President of the Continental Congress in 1785, but owing to health problems declined. He was elected Governor of Massachusetts and served an incredible nine terms.

Although his ill health and problems traveling prevented him from participating in the Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia in 1787, he played an important part in the ratification of the United States Constitution. The two most influential states were Massachusetts and Virginia -- this because of their size and populations. Hancock was President of the Massachusetts Ratification Convention which met on January 9th, 1788. He introduced several conciliatory resolutions, including the "Bill of Rights", thereby breaking the existing deadlock.

When Virginia ratified the Constitution, which Hancock was sure they would reject, he realized his chance to be the first president was gone, as George Washington, a Virginian, was the most popular man in the country. Hancock was considered for the Vice Presidency, but it went to his close friend John Adams.


John Hancock died at age fifty-six on October 8th, 1793, in Quincy, Massachusetts. His funeral is said to have been the most impressive in the entire history of Massachusetts. His life long friend, John Adams wrote of him: "Mr. Hancock had a delicate constitution. He was very informed; a great part of his life was passed in acute pain. He inherited it from his father. Though one of the most amiable and beloved men, a certain sensibility, a keenness of feelings, or in more familiar language, a peevishness of temper - - nor were his talents or attainments inconsiderable. They were far superior to many who have been much more celebrated. He had a great deal of political sagacity and penetration into men. He was by no means a commendable scholar or orator, but, compared with Washington, Lincoln or Knox, he was learned."

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