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John Hancock was an 18th century U.S. merchant who was president of the Continental Congress and the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence.
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Born on January 23, 1737, in Braintree, Massachusetts, John Hancock inherited a thriving trading business in Boston and would, with Samuel Adams, become a major figure in colonial agitation against British rule. He was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence and would later be elected the first governor of Massachusetts. He also faced accusations of financial mismanagement.
John Hancock was born on January 23, 1737, in Braintree, Massachusetts, to Mary Hawke and the senior John Hancock, who was a clergyman. The elder Hancock died when John was a child, and his mother took him and his siblings to live with in-laws in Lexington. She later sent John to live with Lydia and Thomas Hancock, his aunt and uncle. The couple had no children and hence adopted the boy.
Thomas was a wealthy merchant who owned a highly successful shipping business. John went on to attend Harvard College, his father's alma mater, graduating in 1754 and subsequently working with his uncle. In 1759, John ventured to London and lived there for a spell, returning to the colonies in 1761. His uncle's health was failing and upon Thomas's death in 1764, John inherited the family business and estate.
Hancock—who reputedly maintained a lavish lifestyle and often faced staunch criticism for his exorbitance—would become a major figure in the American Revolution. In the mid-1760s, he won two consecutive political positions, first managing affairs on a local level in Boston and then moving to the colonial legislature. He entered politics at a time when American colonialists were becoming increasingly agitated by British parliamentary tax regulations and restrictions, with Hancock becoming inextricably involved due to his importing-exporting affairs.
Protesting financial regulations like the Stamp Act and Townshend duties, Hancock commandeered public acts of protest. To avoid British taxation, Hancock had also allegedly taken to smuggling goods aboard his vessels. In 1768, Hancock's ship the Liberty was taken ahold of by British authorities who stated the merchant hadn't paid the required fees on his imports. Hancock was given a huge fine and taken to court. These actions in turn prompted mob violence on Boston streets and eventually led to British authorities sending in military forces.
In 1770, after the Boston Massacre, where British troops fired into a crowd with no matching weaponry, Hancock chaired the committee that demanded the removal of British forces. After a period of improved transatlantic relations, Boston became a volatile site once again with the Tea Act of 1773, with Hancock helping to organize protests. He, along with fellow New England agitator and legislator Samuel Adams, was increasingly seen as a major rabble rouser by the British government.
In 1774, Hancock was made leader of the Massachusetts delegate to the second Continental Congress, which would convene the following year in Philadelphia. Yet Hancock and Adams were hunted by British general Thomas Gage.
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They are American icons—they're on our dollars and coins, they are the subject of our monuments, and we live our daily lives in the world their ideas helped create. America's Founding Fathers include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and, of course, Benjamin Franklin. These men, together with several other key players of their time, structured the American democracy and left a legacy that has shaped the world. But beyond their legends, these men were human beings who led complex and fascinating lives. Learning their stories helps us better understand what made them tick, as well as their influence on our world today.
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