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John Hancock: a Patriot of Fascinating Contradictions

Interview

King Hancock
King Hancock Brooke Barbier

Brooke Barbier’s King Hancock: The Radical Influence of a Moderate Founding Father is a rollicking portrait of John Hancock and an insightful study of leadership in the revolutionary era. In this interview, Barbier introduces us to the “man of contradictions,” whose measured pragmatism helped make American independence a reality.

Author - Editorial Staff

Date - 4 October 2023

Time to read - 6 min

Most of us know John Hancock for his large signature on the Declaration of Independence, but he actually played an outsize role in the American Revolution. What aspects of Hancock’s character made you want to tell his story?

I was fascinated by the fact that most Americans know the name John Hancock, but few realize how popular and impactful he was in the eighteenth century. He was only rivaled in notoriety by Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

Hancock is intriguing because he was a man of contradictions. When we think about the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution, we think of radicals and rebels—and Hancock was neither of those. Yet despite his lack of political conviction, it’s difficult to find someone as involved in the resistance movement of the 1760s and 1770s who also took on such a leadership role in the new republic. Hancock was also widely considered a traitor to his class. Despite his extreme wealth, his wig, and his embroidered clothing—signs of gentility—men of the lower orders connected with him, supported him, voted for him. Hancock reached a level of popularity in Massachusetts that was unrivaled.

How did he do that?

Hancock was incredibly charismatic, which was the key to his political success. Even though he had more wealth and stature than most people in Boston, he made people feel like he was one of them, and he treated people well. He talked to them with affection, which was very unusual for a man of his status, and gifted townspeople with alcohol, firewood, and loans. He had resources to offer people, and he made good use of them—people felt grateful for Hancock. On political issues, he often sided with the struggling or middling rather than the elites, and he even took a break from politics altogether in the early 1770s because he was worn out from the pressure and tension. People trusted him as a result.

A Prospective View Of Part Of The Commons New York Public Library
A 1768 depiction of Boston Common. The Hancock mansion dominates Beacon Hill and the occupying soldiers and their tents are visible below. The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Can you tell us the origin of your book’s title?

I love the story of the title. King Hancock was a nickname given to John Hancock and was either an insult or a compliment, depending on who said it. The first time we see it in the historical record comes after the Boston Tea Party in 1773. British soldiers occupying Boston held a Bostonian named Samuel Dyer captive and asked him who ordered the destruction of the tea. When Dyer answered “nobody,” the officer yelled that “he was a damned liar, it was KING HANCOCK and the damn’d sons of liberty.” Hancock’s reputation as a leader had preceded him. The nickname is clever: it captures Hancock’s popularity and has the added benefit of making fun of colonists for their lack of an aristocratic ruling class.

And then something interesting happened: the colonists appropriated the nickname and made it their own. On April 19, 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord broke out in the Massachusetts countryside. After the Battle of Concord, beleaguered British soldiers needed to retreat 20 miles back to Boston, but it wouldn’t be easy. Men from over twenty neighboring towns had mobilized to take on the redcoats. As they were being fired on, the colonists shouted, “King Hancock forever!” The men of Massachusetts proudly took on this nickname and used it as a rallying cry against their enemies.

“Much as Adams would hate to admit it, he didn’t have Hancock’s charisma or appeal, and his ideas needed someone more popular to temper them and make them more palatable.”

What was John Hancock’s relationship with other well know figures in history like John Adams and Samuel Adams?

Hancock’s relationship with the Adams cousins was mostly contentious in the years of resistance and rebellion, largely because Hancock wasn’t as politically radical. As a very prosperous man, Hancock had considerably more to lose if the colonies separated from the British Empire than the poorer Adams cousins. Hancock allied with Samuel Adams during parts of the 1760s and early 1770s, but also backed away from him when he felt Adams was being too extreme. Hancock was a supporter of the Boston Tea Party, but a couple months after the destruction of the tea, he attended the funeral of a royal official. Samuel Adams was furious that Hancock would honor the man and perhaps surprised, thinking that the moderate Hancock had finally and firmly come over to the radical side after the destruction of the tea. But Hancock displayed his independence by going against Adams's wishes and dignifying a man he disagreed with politically.

As a historian, how do you see the relevancy of John Hancock to our current political culture? Are there lessons we can draw from his life that are applicable today?

This is such an important question because we often hear politicians and pundits citing what the Founding Fathers would do in our current political climate, as if they are a monolithic group who all thought the same, rebelled in the same way, or sought the same result. That wasn’t the case, and King Hancock shows that the founding leaders improvised, fought amongst themselves, and sought personal glory.

On another note, Hancock shows us that moderation is essential to political change. While you need radicals like Samuel Adams to stoke ideas and get people’s attention, those people usually don’t bring lasting change. You need someone the people trust to lead by finding a middle way. Much as Adams would hate to admit it, he didn’t have Hancock’s charisma or appeal, and his ideas needed someone more popular to temper them and make them more palatable.

Portrait of John Hancock (1737-1793)
Portrait of John Hancock by John Singleton Copley

You run a local business here in Boston, a historical tavern tour company, Ye Olde Tavern Tours. Can you tell us why you started this and a bit more about what you do?

I started the company ten years ago, in 2013, to give visitors and locals a fun and experiential way to learn about Boston’s revolutionary history. After I finished my Ph.D. program at Boston College, I threw a party for family and friends. I organized a Freedom Trail pub crawl, complete with a written guide to the sites and taverns we’d see that afternoon. We had such a big, fun time, and I was excited that I also got friends and family interested in the city’s history that I’d studied. My older brother, who isn’t impressed by much, told me I should do this for other people. So, I started giving tours for other people, and I loved it! On the tours, we see historic sites on Boston’s Freedom Trail while stopping at historic taverns to have a beer or cider in each. We talk about how critical this city was to the American Revolution and the role that alcohol and tavern culture played in the resistance.

Brooke Barbier Author Of King Hancock
Brooke Barbier is a public historian and independent scholar with a doctorate in American history from Boston College. The author of Boston in the American Revolution: A Town versus an Empire, she founded and operates Ye Olde Tavern Tours, a popular guided outing along Boston’s renowned Freedom Trail.