“[H]ow dare you tread upon the earth which has drunk in the blood of slaughtered innocents, shed by your wicked hands? How dare you breathe that air which wafted to the ear of heaven the groans of those who fell a sacrifice to your accursed ambition?”
Boston was ground zero as tensions between Great Britain and her American colonies moved toward revolution in the 1770s. Radical Bostonians, led by Samuel Adams, gradually gained influence in the city and fostered firm resistance to royal governance. With high-profile events such as the annual commemoration of the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770), they introduced and sustained a public discourse about independence. However, it was moderates and not radicals who would eventually make an independence movement viable, and chief among the Massachusetts moderates was John Hancock. For years, the wealthy merchant had masterfully negotiated the line between loyalty and resistance to the Crown, but as tensions mounted and his commercial interests suffered, he was forced to choose a side. With his commemorative oration in 1774, Hancock asserted leadership over the rebellion in Massachusetts. Framing a practical agenda for moving forward, he called for the rejection of tyranny and the creation of political and military infrastructure—a continental congress and colonial militias—that made revolution possible.
When Hancock arrived at the Old South Meeting House on Massacre Day in 1774, the building could not contain the crowds. Citizens filled every available corner and flowed out the doors into the streets. Such was the interest in hearing Hancock speak that the venue had been changed at the last minute from the stately Faneuil Hall, which proved too small to accommodate the audience. Dressed in velvet and wearing a powdered wig that marked him as an aristocrat, Hancock stepped down from his elaborate carriage and made his way to pulpit at the front of the church.
Four years had passed since five colonists had died at the hands of British troops in what came to be called the Boston Massacre. Through this annual address, radicals had kept the memory of the bloody day alive. After the shootings, a trial had acquitted the commanding officer and all but two of his soldiers, and tensions in the city slowly declined. The busiest port in British America, Boston, went back to business. Yet radicals refused to forget the day when soldiers had turned guns on citizens; thus were commemorative orations annually scheduled. On March 5, 1774, the political atmosphere was more heavily charged than in previous years. Only three months before, on December 16, 1773, the Boston Tea Party had set the city on a collision course with the British Parliament and Crown. Refusing to allow tea to be unloaded on the city’s docks, merchants joined radicals in resisting an import tax on what was a staple of all colonial homes. When residents, masquerading as American Indians, dumped more than three hundred chests of tea into the harbor, a line had been crossed. Anticipating retribution from Parliament and the Crown, the annual Massacre Day oration took on heightened significance. As the city awaited punishment, the citizenry debated their next move.
In the wake of the Tea Party, Hancock and other selectmen on Boston’s town council would be formally charged with treason. Warrants for their arrests preceded a series of coercive measures, called the Intolerable Acts, which were designed to force the city into submission. On Massacre Day 1774, as the wealthy merchant entered the meeting house and took his place at the rostrum, his future and that of his city had never been so uncertain. The crowd looked to Hancock for direction; through the commemorative oration, he unequivocally set a new course.
John Hancock was born on January 23, 1737, south of Boston at Quincy, Massachusetts, where his father served as a Congregational minister. When his father died suddenly, his mother moved her children to the home of their paternal grandfather, an aging but influential minister in Lexington. Hancock did not remain in his grandfather’s home for very long. At the age of seven, he went to Boston to live with his uncle and aunt, Thomas and Lydia Hancock. Childless, they raised the boy as their own. Thomas Hancock had amassed a fortune through ship building, trans-Atlantic trade, retail, and real estate, and he provided his nephew with a luxurious life. Educated at the Boston Latin School before attending Harvard University, Hancock emerged from formal education to begin his business training. Over a dozen years, Thomas Hancock groomed his nephew to run the business he would eventually inherit—the House of Hancock, Boston’s most successful commercial operation. With mentoring, Hancock learned every aspect of the family business. He worked in offices at the docks in Boston and spent a year abroad building commercial relationships in London.
At his uncle’s death, Hancock continued to expand the operations and investments of the House of Hancock. The business had historically earned huge profits by outfitting British soldiers and sailors who waged battles with the French on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet perpetual British-French conflict was costly, and by the 1760s, parliament instituted a series of tax-based revenue schemes to reduce imperial debt. In the American colonies, new taxes on British imports produced public resentment toward the royal government and the local merchant class.
As Massachusetts moved toward open rebellion, Hancock was regularly elected to the colony’s legislature and Boston’s town council. In the aftermath of the Tea Party, parliament enacted the Coercive Acts, or Intolerable Acts, and issued arrest warrants for Hancock and other city leaders. Though resolution of the conflict was in Hancock’s best interest as a merchant, he acted on behalf of the broader community. Offering leadership and financial support to the emerging revolution, he became president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a rebel body that illegally operated in opposition to the colony’s royal government. By 1775, after the first shots of the war were fired at Lexington and Concord on April 19, Hancock assumed the presidency of the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia. There in 1776, he boldly affixed his now famous signature to the Declaration of Independence. A national hero, Hancock remained president of the Second Continental Congress until November 1777, and spent much of his personal fortune on the war effort. Elected governor of the State of Massachusetts in 1780, he served in that office twice, for a combined ten years, until his death in 1793.
John Hancock’s commemoration of the Boston Massacre came exactly four years after five Bostonians died at the hands of British soldiers. Joining a tradition established on the one year anniversary of that event, Hancock took his turn standing before a large crowd to condemn the captain, soldiers, and parliamentary policies that had produced bloodshed in the streets of the city. Yet while the explicit focus of the oration was the tragedy of 1770, the implicit message responded to a more recent event. Only three months separated the 1774 observation of Massacre Day from a December 1773 evening when frustrated Bostonians had dumped a boatload of tea into the city’s harbor. Although parliament’s response to the Tea Party was not yet known—at the time, trans-Atlantic communication took months—rumors of impending arrests and brutal retribution were widely circulating in Boston. With nervous speculation thick in the air, Hancock used the opportunity to outline a new course of action. As much as a commemorative reflection on the past, his address was a provocative assessment of the present and a proactive agenda for the future.
While condemning British Parliament in his speech, Hancock focuses much of his anger on the troops sent to enforce its policies. He recounts the massacre but makes clear references to the troops still occupying the city center—a force that would certainly increase in the wake of the Tea Party. Questioning the use of a standing army during peacetime, he catalogs soldiers’ “barbarous” acts in the city. British troops in Boston had arrived not to protect the public against a foreign enemy, he rails, but to act against citizens. As they were not from Massachusetts, they did not understand the social, economic, and political climate in the colony. In the eyes of Hancock, such men were nothing more than paid mercenaries who followed orders for a “scanty pittance of bread and water.” Led by a commander who manipulated “them only as the instruments of his ambition,” they knew nothing of local grievances. Fighting not for God and country—”pro aris et focis”—but for a salary, they were prone to committing abuse against the public. Hancock collectively equates officers, soldiers, and the politicians who sent them to Boston, with Satan.
Recounting the massacre and the ongoing “shameful” crimes committed by the troops, Hancock makes the case for coordinated defensive action by the colonists. More than a year before the first shots of the American Revolution were fired, he calls for the establishment and expansion of colonial militias for the protection of local communities. Previewing a near future, when the region’s militias would band together to fight a powerful standing army, he tells locals to be on guard. Anticipating harsh retribution for the Tea Party, the colonists had to be strong and courageous. They should not fear death, Hancock asserts, but the slavery of tyranny. Instilling confidence for what was to come, he articulates the strengths of the citizen militia over the professional army they would face. Local troops had the courage of the most celebrated armies of history—the Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Ottomans, French, and British—because justice was on their side. In defense of family, property, and community, colonial militias were not “instruments” of someone else’s ambition but defenders of liberty.
In rallying support for an impending fight, Hancock recognizes the need for leadership to coordinate resistance. Militias would stand ready to protect local communities, but in preparing to face a standing army, communication and coordination could not be left to chance. Under the influence of radicals like Samuel Adams, mob violence had become commonplace in Boston, but Hancock hoped to avoid it; it could do more harm than good. Advocating a more moderate course than what radicals were advocating, Hancock celebrates the benefits of restraint. Reviewing Bostonians’ immediate reaction to the massacre, he emphasizes that the restraint they had shown gave them moral superiority over the soldiers. Such superiority was a powerful psychological weapon that should not be forfeited by the vengeful acts of a reactionary mob. Though the temptations were great to unleash the “hand of public justice,” rage over abuses by soldiers and parliament had to be directed effectively. If the colonists acted in the moment without building consensus among them, the advantage of moral superiority would be lost. If, on the other hand, they coordinated their response and restrained angry mobs, “the great tribunal of succeeding generations” would validate their actions. Complementing his endorsement of local militias, Hancock also suggests the organization of a continental congress to coordinate the broader American response to the looming crisis. In doing so, he provides a blueprint for building the military and political infrastructure that would make a revolutionary movement viable.
Ultimately, the success of that revolution would not have been possible without the military and political infrastructure that Hancock encourages in his oration. Soon, community militias and the Continental Congress coordinated their efforts, and in doing so, they brought down one of the world’s most powerful standing armies. Also crucial to the victory, however, was the emergence of an American identity among individuals in each of the thirteen British colonies. Once a majority began to view themselves as distinctly American, cultural bonds to Britain and loyalty to the Crown weakened. As citizens of the colonies recognized their common “American” interests, a declaration of political independence became possible. Hancock’s oration grounds a common American identity in commitment to freedom, justice, and the common good. Repeated references to American geography, character, and history punctuate the address, demonstrating how American identity was emerging in public discourse. For example, Hancock tells his audience: “let all America join in one common prayer.” Though not a nation, America was the land they loved and the “country” that united them. A “noble” people, Americans were born into freedom; “the liberties of America” were their common cause and they were willing to sacrifice “and even die, for the prosperity” of it.
Tensions between British Parliament and the colonies had been mounting since the mid-1760s, and they gradually fostered American identity. In the wake of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) in Europe and its counterpart, the French and Indian War, in North America, Britain’s economy suffered. Typical of wartime, economic production in key areas had increased dramatically as troops on both sides of the Atlantic were outfitted and provisioned for battle. Merchants who held contracts to gather and transport supplies to battle zones profited handsomely during the war, and Boston’s House of Hancock was among the greatest beneficiaries of the conflict. Yet economic downturn came with the war’s end as production orders slowed and businesses attempted to adapt to changing markets. Temporarily at least, many producers and shippers faced high economic uncertainty. Significantly, as postwar commerce dropped, so too, did collections of tax revenues by the British government. With the national treasury heavily in debt after years of warfare and with tax revenues declining, Parliament looked in desperation for new revenue streams from the American colonies.
The Sugar Act of 1764 targeted the smuggling of molasses from which colonists made rum. The legislation actually lowered the existing tax on molasses in an attempt to increase compliance, but it simultaneously banned importation of the sugary syrup from anywhere but British colonies. For merchants like Hancock, who bought molasses from Spanish and French colonies in the Caribbean and were remarkably successful in avoiding payment of import taxes, the measure constituted a serious restriction on trade and a limitation on profits. For the consuming public, decreased smuggling and more effective tax collection drove the price of the liquor upward and created tremendous resentment. Subsequently, the Stamp Act of 1765 created taxes on a variety of legal documents that the average citizen required. Individuals, families, businesses, and estates now had to pay a royal agent to fix a stamp to their wills, bills of sale, insurance policies, and other formal papers. Like the Sugar Act, this revenue raising measure fueled anger among the colonists. That the stamps constituted a direct tax paid by individuals—as opposed to an indirect tax on imports paid by merchants—made the newer act particularly unpopular.
Opposition to the stamp tax was fierce, and mob violence was common. Creating more problems than the royal governments in Massachusetts and other colonies could handle, parliament relented and passed the Declaratory Act of 1766 to repeal the stamp taxes. In conceding defeat, however, the new act clarified that parliamentary authority over the colonies was absolute. Still searching for a revenue stream and anxious to reassert that authority, Parliament passed the Townshend Act the following year. Not surprisingly, new import taxes on paper, lead, glass, paint, and tea all met with intense opposition in Boston. Adams and the Sons of Liberty organized boycotts of targeted products and pressured merchants to sign nonimportation agreements. Merchants who continued to import these products faced boycotts and angry mobs prone to vandalism.
A few years later, as boycotts continued, the Boston Massacre resulted from growing conflict between British soldiers stationed in Boston and a general public that resented their presence. Sent to the colonies to enforce royal authority and suppress resistance to the new tax measures, the troops were treated as foreigners. They were openly harassed by the citizens, and on March 5, 1770, soldiers faced a particularly intimidating mob. Overreacting, they opened fire. After five colonists were killed—whom Hancock mentions by name in his oration—and another was severely wounded, the deaths of innocents became a rallying cry for radicals who had then grown comfortable speaking in bold words against Parliament, the king, and the injustice of the colonial relationship more generally.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of the American Revolution, customs officers and merchants in Boston were frequent targets of vandals and angry mobs. Before “taxation without representation” became the rallying cry for revolution, most colonists were simply concerned with rising prices, and they despised any agent who complied with new tax laws. As imported merchandise became the focus of parliamentary revenue schemes, merchants were caught in the middle. They had much to lose by signing nonimportation agreements, but if they did not, they faced boycotts, vandals, and decreased sales. At the same time, with new efforts by Parliament to control smuggling and with soldiers and sailors deployed to collect taxes on imports, a merchants’ vessel might be seized. Livelihoods were placed in jeopardy. When one of Hancock’s ships, Liberty, was seized in 1768 under charges of smuggling, his public defiance earned him the respect of many in the city. Hancock was wealthy enough to suffer occasional losses, but many fellow merchants were not. Those who paid their import taxes, stocked their shelves with boycotted goods, and grudgingly accepted Parliament’s authority to levy taxes were branded traitors to the local community.
From the mid-1760s through Massacre Day 1774, both radical Bostonians and the royal governors vied for Hancock’s support. Radicals courted him for his influence among the general public. Though an aristocrat, his reputation in the city was strong. Generous to the poor and philanthropic toward the community, he was embraced by the city he endowed. Radical opponents of royal rule made tremendous efforts to win Hancock to their position. Simultaneously, as conflict was increasing, the royal government also recognized Hancock’s influence among merchants, radicals, and the general public; though they had been suspicious of his leanings and knew him to be a smuggler who evaded taxes, it was better to have him on their side. Repeatedly elected to the Massachusetts legislature and Boston town council, Hancock had great influence among the public. Though royal governors had more than once used their authority to reject Hancock’s appointment to leadership positions in the legislature, as revolution approached his more moderate views made him more acceptable to the local representatives of the Crown.
For any who doubted it, Hancock’s Massacre Day oration makes clear that his loyalties rested with the colonists of Massachusetts. He was proud to be a British subject, but his submission to the Crown was not without limits. The rights extended to subjects of the Crown were clear, and all violations had to be resisted. Regardless of how their actions might be framed by royal governors, parliamentarians or the Crown, Hancock assures the crowd of their righteousness in resisting new taxes, rejecting restrictions on commerce, and condemning repression at the hands of British soldiers. Framing contemporary British rule over Boston as tyrannical, he challenges the public to remain steadfast in opposition. Doing so constituted the “discharge of our duty to our country.”
Four years after the massacre, moderate Hancock, who had earlier sought justice within and not outside British dominion, adopted the language of the radicals; though he rejected many of their tactics, his oration engages their rhetoric: “how dare you tread upon the earth which has drunk in the blood of slaughtered innocents.” While stopping short of invoking independence directly, his words suggest his growing comfort with American autonomy. Following the Boston Massacre, a formal trial acquitted the commanding officer and six of the soldiers implicated in the shootings. Two others were convicted of manslaughter, but they legally escaped imprisonment and were allowed to leave the colony. Had the end of the trial not coincided with Parliament’s decision to repeal much of the Townshend Act, frustrations with the judicial outcomes might have flamed continuing mob violence in the colony. But the repeal was interpreted as a victory by most Bostonians, and the city was calmed.
Though the repeal of the Townshend Act was a clear win for the colonists, one element of the original law remained: a tea tax. Colonists continuing their boycotts and nonimportation campaigns took a toll on the British economy. In reaction, parliament devised a new strategy with the Tea Act of 1773. Offering discounted prices on the product, the measure also circumvented colonial merchants like Hancock by allowing the East India Company to sell directly to colonists. Yet after years of successfully fighting new taxes, the colonists were not so easily manipulated. In refusing to allow the unloading of tea on the city’s docks, they prevented the collection of the import taxes. When a standoff developed in early winter and the royal governor ordered the tea unloaded, radicals fired up crowds; they boarded a ship and dumped more than three hundred crates into the harbor. Tea was carried by currents for miles. As a merchant, Hancock was not unhappy to see the monopoly of the East India Company resisted by the consuming public or nor did he mind that their product was carried away with the tides.
Retribution for destruction of the tea, the most recent in a series of bold challenges to English authority, would come in the form of the Intolerable Acts of 1774. As Hancock began his oration on March 5, the provisions of the acts were not yet known, but all expected them to be severe. And they were. Soon, the port of Boston was closed pending reimbursement to the East India Company. The colony’s legislature was officially disbanded. In addition, trials of any accused royal official or soldier could now be removed from the colony, and increased burdens were placed on the public for the quartering of troops. While these coercive measures were meant to punish Boston and Massachusetts into submission, they had the opposite effect; they solidified the resistance movement. In joining radicals like Adams and moderates like Hancock in common cause, the Intolerable Acts fueled a revolution.
More than two centuries after his death, Hancock is most remembered for his elegant signature on the Declaration of Independence. The presiding officer at the Philadelphia congress that adopted the document, Hancock signed his name in large, clear script. By July 1776, he had lived under threat of arrest for years, but as his bold signature demonstrates, he had courage that matched his conviction. Later, as the Declaration of Independence assumed a revered position in American history, the name John Hancock became a synonym for the word signature.
While the efforts of Samuel Adams, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Washington, and others are the subject of countless books and articles, Hancock and his revolutionary activities are less celebrated. That Hancock was not a prolific writer and that his public addresses were few helps to explain his relative absence from the historical record. Still, his leadership was crucial to the independence movement.
Boston’s most successful merchant, Hancock spent much of his personal wealth financing the American Revolution, but his contribution was much more than monetary. In the aftermath of the Tea Party and with the implementation of the Intolerable Acts, the independence movement achieved critical mass as moderates embraced the radical philosophy of those such as the Sons of Liberty. To the movement, Hancock offered the skills he had developed over decades leading a massive, trans-Atlantic commercial operation. More than the radicals who had inspired resistance through agitation and mob tactics, he understood the logistics of moving people and supplies over great distances, the necessity of establishing communication lines and chains of command, and the value of establishing consensus. Reactionary violence had worked for the radicals in the narrow streets of Boston, but it would not sustain a broader war. More moderate and realistic strategies were needed.
Hancock used his Massacre Day oration to redirect rebellion in Massachusetts and beyond. Stoking colonists’ anger but advocating restraint, he began to build consensus around an agenda for moving forward. Fostering American identity and articulating the infrastructure which would make victory possible, he masterfully asserted new leadership just as the rebellion moved into a more serious phase. In the weeks following his address, as the Intolerable Acts became the catalyst for the first battles of the war, fellow citizens acted on his recommendations regarding militias and a continental congress. Over the course of America’s independence struggle, the experienced hand of Hancock would continue to guide the movement.
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