A rollicking portrait of the paradoxical patriot, whose measured pragmatism helped make American independence a reality.
Americans are surprisingly more familiar with his famous signature than with the man himself. In this spirited account of John Hancock’s life, Brooke Barbier depicts a patriot of fascinating contradictions—a child of enormous privilege who would nevertheless become a voice of the common folk; a pillar of society uncomfortable with radicalism who yet was crucial to independence. About two-fifths of the American population held neutral or ambivalent views about the Revolution, and Hancock spoke for them and to them, bringing them along.
Orphaned young, Hancock was raised by his merchant uncle, whose business and vast wealth he inherited—including household slaves, whom Hancock later freed. By his early thirties, he was one of New England’s most prominent politicians, earning a place on Britain’s most-wanted list and the derisive nickname King Hancock. While he eventually joined the revolution against England, his ever moderate—and moderating—disposition would prove an asset after 1776. Barbier shows Hancock appealing to southerners and northerners, Federalists and Anti-Federalists. He was a famously steadying force as president of the fractious Second Continental Congress. He parlayed with French military officials, strengthening a key alliance with his hospitable diplomacy. As governor of Massachusetts, Hancock convinced its delegates to vote for the federal Constitution and calmed the fallout from the shocking Shays’s Rebellion.
An insightful study of leadership in the revolutionary era, King Hancock traces a moment when passion was on the side of compromise and accommodation proved the basis of profound social and political change.
A concise and highly readable biography…[Hancock’s] legacy is very much worth our remembering.
[An] approachable biography…American history buffs will enjoy the immersive portrait of Boston’s Revolutionary era.
King Hancock is a vastly enjoyable work of popular history that wears its impressive scholarship lightly. It deftly explains the wider forces that unraveled the colonists’ close bonds with the mother country… The book also features an almost tactile account of what it was like to live in Boston in the eighteenth century.
A terrific book. Barbier’s meticulous research sheds light on how one of the wealthiest men of his time made himself into a man of the people—a politician whose genuine capacity for sensing the popular mood commanded fierce loyalty, even as he clashed with both Loyalists and radical Patriots. John Hancock was an important figure, and this biography helps restore him to his proper place.
Barbier has written a fine biography, carefully guiding readers through Hancock’s life, his political career, and the world around him. In our politically polarized times, this founding father’s legacy of political moderation is sure to resonate.
In this lively and insightful biography, Barbier illuminates John Hancock’s mastery of popular politics in an age of revolution. Drawing on a rich and profound knowledge of eighteenth-century Boston, she recovers the social world of a leader whose skills extended far beyond his celebrated penmanship.
An exuberant biography, well told and spirited. As we follow John Hancock through the turmoil that led to the Revolution, we see a man guided more by a desire to charm, entertain, and curry favor with both elites and ordinary people than by a rigid commitment to a specific politics or ideology. In Barbier’s hands Hancock’s life unfolds as dramatic theater.
Hancock’s success might seem inevitable given his resources, his canny political sensibility, and just plain good fortune. Yet, as Ms. Barbier suggests, biography and history are contingent. What looks inescapable did not seem so to those who struggled to create a new country.
- 320 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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