“The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward.” ~ Founding Father John Hancock, upon signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
OK, I don’t know about any of you out there in column-reading land, but when I was in grade school, I would have killed (figuratively) to have been able to sign my name in the flowing and beautifully legible handwriting of one John Hancock.
I mean, if you are a student of history — or even if you hated the subject in school — you have to admire the signature of John Hancock.
If I had a vote to choose the single most-enduring icon from American history, it would be his signature.
To me, it’s absolute perfection.
Shoot, I can hardly sign my name the same way twice, and it’s now devolved into a miss-mash of cursive and printed letters.
I am — for want of a better term — signature-challenged.
I’ve used much more colorful language in the past to describe my signature, but this is a family newspaper.
That aside, when I set out to write this column, I realized I didn’t know much at all about the man.
I mean, signing your “John Hancock” on reams of pages to get a home mortgage is kind of a standard line over the years.
Thankfully, with the advent of the digital age and electronic banking, technology has taken the task of signing a check out of my hands.
Or, John Hancock … you know, the guy that has that big life insurance company.
Anyway, how did Mr. Hancock’s signature thrust his name into our everyday vocabulary, and yet, I — and we — know so little about the man?
Hancock was born in January 1737 in Braintree, Mass., but after his father died, the boy was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, Thomas Hancock, a wealthy merchant who lived in a Boston mansion.
While it would seem his younger years were not all that good — since he lost his father and was sent away to grow up — as it turned out, that really didn’t seem to be a bad thing.
He was able to attend Harvard, graduating in 1754, and then went to work for his uncle.
Young Hancock inherited his uncle’s lucrative import-export shipping business, and by luck and good fortune, became one of the richest men in New England.
Now, Hancock’s lavish lifestyle somewhat contrasted with the most-times gritty look of the American Revolution, as most men and families of great means during the days leading up to Revolution (and during) were staunchly Tories, and loyal to the crown and King George III of England.
In fact, Hancock later would be criticized in some quarters for his lavish lifestyle.
Yet, he was known by reputation for being generous and using his great personal wealth for public projects that benefited Massachusetts citizenry.
As Hancock’s story goes from history.com, he entered local politics and was elected a Boston selectman, quickly winning election to the Massachusetts colonial legislature.
Right at this time in his life, British Parliament began to impose a series of regulatory measures, including tax laws, to gain further control over the 13 British Colonies.
Of course, American colonists, with no voice across the sea in London, opposed these measures, and in particular the tax laws, arguing only their own elected assemblies should impose taxes upon them.
For the next decade, the 13 Colonies stewed under England’s heavy thumb.
Hancock himself came in direct conflict with the British government in 1768, just scant years before the American Revolution exploded on this continent in 1775.
One of Hancock’s merchant ships, the Liberty, was seized in Boston Harbor by English customs officials, who claimed Hancock had illegally unloaded cargo without paying required taxes.
Ever popular in Boston, the seizure of Hancock’s ship led to angry protests by residents, and that single episode seems to have propelled Hancock headlong into involvement in the movement for American independence.
Of course, Massachusetts — in American history — was the center of our revolutionary movement, and Boston was known as the “Cradle of Liberty.”
Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, declaring itself an autonomous government. He also served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
His revolutionary activities made him a target for the British, and in 1775, as it seemed the American Revolution was inevitable, he and fellow patriot Samuel Adams avoided arrest in Lexington, Mass., after the famed nighttime ride of Paul Revere — and others — warned them British soldiers were coming.
The battles at Lexington and Concord followed.
And thus, in 1776, he was the first to sign his John Hancock to our most treasured of documents — the Declaration of Independence.