More than a signature
If you think John Hancock’s part in the founding of our nation begins and ends with his memorable signature on the Declaration of Independence – you are very much mistaken. With that said, given this week’s election, I thought it prudent to take you back to the founding of our great nation and re-introduce you to one of our integral founding fathers.
The son of a middle-lower class colonial Christian reverend, John Hancock was born in Braintree, Mass., in 1737. From a very young age, Hancock saw the fruits of Christian virtue, kindness and generosity first hand. After the death of his father while he was still a boy, Hancock was sent by his mother to live with his aunt and uncle, who were childless, as his mother was unable to provide financially following her husband’s death. Hancock was given immense hospitality and opportunity from his doting aunt and uncle, who were able to afford him an education at Harvard and a start in his uncle’s shipping business in Boston, Mass.
Taking the opportunity to rise above his station in life, Hancock, under the close watch of his uncle, grew into a mature, dignified businessman with a talent for seeing financial opportunities. It wasn’t long after his uncle’s passing that Hancock inherited Thomas Hancock and Company, a successful shipping enterprise based in Boston, and began holding various public offices in addition to managing his growing and lucrative business.
And while his money and business interests should have, by all accounts, made him a staunch British Loyalist, Hancock’s sentiments could not have been more patriotic to the American cause for liberty. In 1765, Hancock emerged as a fervent public protester to British tyranny. In one interesting encounter, when Parliament’s new commissioners arrived in 1767 to tighten enforcement of customs laws in the colonies, Hancock refused to allow the government militia unit that he commanded to participate in the welcoming ceremonies. If that was not enough to seal his patriotism in the minds of the colonies, Hancock had several of his own shipmen forcibly remove two Loyalist officials from one of his vessels for going below decks without a warrant to search for goods to tax.
From there, Hancock’s cause for freedom from England’s tyranny only grew.
“Resistance to tyranny becomes the Christian and social duty of each individual…” Hancock said in a speech to the Boston people prior to the official start of the Revolution. “Continue steadfast and, with a proper sense of your dependence on God, nobly defend those rights which heaven gave, and no man ought to take from us.”
A wealthy, educated man of business, with knowledge in the workings of politics and a flair for publicly speaking out against British rule, Hancock was an obvious choice as one of the Massachusetts delegates to the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, Penn., and was unanimously voted by Congress to be it’s first president. And while his rise to political prestige was greatly honorable in the sight of patriot colonials, to England, Hancock had become one of its biggest traitors.
It was with the appointment that Hancock became public enemy No. 2 of the British Crown. With fellow Bostonian patriot, Samuel Adams, taking the No. 1 seat, Hancock and Adams were both publicly denounced by the King of England, and were henceforth denied any possibility of pardon or trial by British forces. Instead, they were both issued death sentences by the King should they ever be caught.
Thankfully for the American cause, Hancock and Adams were never caught or hanged by the British, despite various attempts from the British to kill them. Hancock himself went on to become the first signer of the Declaration, hold a seat for several years in the Continental Congress, get elected as a member of the Massachusetts constitutional convention, and later be elected as the first and third governor of the State of Massachusetts.
“The important consequences to the American States from this Declaration of Independence, considered as the ground and foundation of a future government, naturally suggest the propriety of proclaiming it in such a manner as that the people may be universally informed of it,” he said following the signing, adoption and promotion of the Declaration.
Hancock’s work in the political founding of our nation, despite the immense danger that put him, in speaks loudly to the character and conviction of Hancock. However, it was perhaps the sacrifices he made less publicly that I find humbling.
Upon accepting his nomination to sit on the Continental Congress, Hancock’s lucrative business was irrevocably set aside. And with America’s costly war with Great Britain at hand, Hancock served virtually all of his time in Congress for free, while also acting as one of America’s financiers of the Revolutionary War. In addition, Hancock’s private journals reveal that at the height of the Revolution, he was personally supporting many colonial families in and around Boston who were suffering financially and unable to buy food, clothes or medicine for their wives and children. This generosity, as well as Hancock’s hosting of various Continental army men and foreign delegates at his own expense, was not widely known until the public releasing of his journals and business ledgers years after his death.
“I find money some way or other goes very fast. But I think I can reflect it has been spent with satisfaction and honour,” Hancock wrote in a letter to his wife, Dorothy, as to their decision to give generously of their money during and after the war campaign.
At the time of his passing at the age of 56, Hancock’s multi-million dollar fortune had been diminished to roughly $500,000, a sizable loss for the couple. In addition to their financial sacrifices, Dorothy and John were forced to endure long separations during their marriage. And given Hancock being a wanted man, the couple’s ability to write back and forth to each other was likely done sparingly at times to avoid British interception.
Despite the loss of his business, the long separations from his family, and even under pain of death – John Hancock remained a true patriot for liberty, justice, merciful giving, and ultimately - freedom. He understood, I believe, that for America to be the great and sovereign nation he and others hoped for, all the country’s people would have to come together, pray for peace, and at times, sacrifice some.
Let us look to our forefathers’ example and pledge our lives to uniting as a nation under the basic principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We all have work to do in maintaining our great nation, so let us begin that work by loving one another and rejoicing in the truth.
As Hancock himself once said, “Some boast of being friends to government; I am a friend to righteous government, to a government founded upon the principles of reason and justice; but I glory in publicly avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny.”