John Hancock was born on January 23, 1737 in Braintree, Massachusetts, present day City of Quincy. His father was Reverend John Hancock and his mother Mary Hawke Thaxter. His paternal grandfather was also a clergyman. When John was 7 years old his father died and his mother remarried years later. He was adopted by his paternal uncle, Thomas Hancock, and his wife, Lydia Henchman. The couple did not have children and treated John as their own child. Thomas Hancock was a successful businessman who owned the House of Hancock, a trading firm importing and exporting goods from and to Britain. Old Hancock was a wealthy individual, one of the richest in the colonies.
John Hancock went to Boston Latin School and after his graduation in 1750 he was accepted in Harvard College where he graduated in 1754. He worked for his uncle right after graduation being groomed to take over the family business. Later he spent four years in England furthering his studies in commerce. He acquired a taste for expensive clothing but he worked hard, he had a natural talent for forging relationships and translate it into business.
As his uncle’s health weakened John gradually took over the business and in 1764 Thomas Hancock died leaving the House of Hancock to John. He also inherited a number of properties and several thousand acres of land. At 27 John Hancock became one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts.
His political career started in 1765 when he took his first public post as a Boston selectman. That year the Stamp Act, a tax affecting all paper documents, was approved and he joined forces with Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty by boycotting British goods which made him more popular. In 1766 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
In 1767 the Townshend Acts went into effect in the colonies. The new regulations were oppressive for many colonial merchants and Hancock called for a non-importation agreement and a boycott of non essential British goods. In 1767 Hancock’s political views took a turning point when he was targeted by the new Board of Customs Commissioners. They may have suspected him of smuggling or it was retaliation for his political views. His resistance at an attempt to seize a cargo in his brig Lydia without a writ of assistance and the capture of his sloop Liberty, made Hancock a popular hero.
On May, 1775 Hancock was unanimously elected President of the Continental Congress. He presided Congress while the country was at war until 1777 when he resigned. He used his own money and influence in society to raise funds for George Washington’s army, to buy supplies, arms and uniforms. As president of Congress he was the first one signing the Declaration of Independence. His iconic signature was the largest on the document and it is at display at the National Archives in Washington D.C.
Hancock was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1780, capturing more than 90% of the votes. He served as governor until 1785 when he resigned due to an onset of gout or as some historians agree, to avoid a difficult political situation, his successor was James Bowdoin. The following year unrest in the countryside developed into what is known as the Shay’s Rebellion. In 1787 he was elected governor again and reelected until his death at the age of 56 on October 8, 1793.