Study Guide

John Hancock in Declaration of Independence

By Thomas Jefferson

John Hancock

Have you ever been asked for your "John Hancock"? Did you wonder what they were talking about at first, and worry that it was something inappropriate? Well, it (probably) wasn't. It's a reference, most frequently used by people your parents' age, to one of the Founding Fathers involved with the creation of the Declaration of Independence.

(Not a) One-Hit Wonder

Despite the fact that his name has become synonymous with an everyday action, signing a document, not nearly as much is written about this figure of early American history. Basically, everyone remembers his signature, for its flair as well as for being the first one on the Declaration of Independence. But he actually was a prominent figure in the lead-up to the American Revolution.

Hancock wasn't only the first delegate of the Second Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence, but was also one of the few who did so openly, at the serious risk of being tried for treason (and hanged) if the colonies lost. At the time, he was president of the Second Continental Congress, meaning that he had a major leadership role in the colonial government as it prepared for independence. Only two people signed the original copy of the Declaration presented to Congress on July 4, 1776: John Hancock and Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the Congress. (Source)

Hancock was then the first to sign the "engrossed" version on August 2nd. Not only did he openly sign, he used a signature that couldn't be missed.

The Richest Revolutionary

Hancock had been involved in politics for years. Raised by a wealthy, childless merchant uncle, John inherited the family business in 1763, instantly becoming one of the wealthiest men in the colonies.

Being super-rich made him one of the big fish in the colonies. As a merchant, he was very much against the Stamp Act in 1765, and participated in the rather unsuccessful Stamp Act Congress trying to get the law repealed. From that point until 1774 he served on local governments in Massachusetts, first as a selectman of Boston, then as member of the provincial legislature, and finally president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts. He was elected to the First (1774) and Second (1775) Continental Congresses, and soon took over as President in May of 1775.

Aside from his involvement in politics, John Hancock was a staunch defender of the rights of the colonists. On June 10, 1768, his ship Liberty was seized for supposedly smuggling contraband goods. Whether he actually was smuggling things is unclear, but it wouldn't be surprising either way. Given the state of colonial-British relations at this stage, the seizure of the Liberty led to a local riot, but somehow Hancock's buddy John Adams got the British to drop any charges against the merchant. The event only made Hancock's anti-British sentiment stronger.

Wanted: Merchant Politician, Preferably Alive

Hancock also led a Boston town committee convened after the Boston Massacre in 1770, and was a friend of Samuel Adams, co-leading the group known as the Massachusetts or Boston Patriots. His participation in the colonial rebellion was obvious enough that the British government offered a reward to anyone who arrested him.

On the night of Paul Revere's famous ride in 1775, one of the silversmith's stops was to John Hancock, to warn him that the British were on their way, and there was an order to arrest him and John Adams. The warning worked, and the two men escaped.

Hancock had hoped to be commander of the troops when the Revolutionary War broke out, but George Washington was chosen instead, so Hancock served as a leader in the Massachusetts militia. (Clearly no hard feelings, since Hancock's son was named John George Washington Hancock.)

Signing Off

John Hancock (senior), along with John Adams, was also a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention to create a constitution for the state in 1780, and in the same year was elected the first American governor of that state. He held that position until 1793, except from 1785-1787, when health problems forced him to take some time off. He also led the Massachusetts Convention in 1788 that ratified the sparkly new U.S. Constitution.

Essentially, he was a well-known political figure who had many leadership roles in government as the United States was coming into being. The Massachusetts State House in Boston is built on land that was once owned by Hancock. John Hancock is way more than just a signature on the Declaration of Independence.

Hancock's involvement illustrates how widespread people's discontent with the British policies was, and how that discontent united people from different backgrounds in support of the Declaration of Independence. His signature lives on as the ultimate symbol of defiance that ignited the American Revolution, so famous that it has become its own synonym.

So now, if you're asked for your John Hancock, you can not only immediately pick up the pen, but throw in a factoid about our underappreciated Founding Father. People love getting history trivia when they haven't asked for it…especially when it has nothing to do with the rest of the conversation. We speak from experience.