John Hancock — Founding Father and First Signer of the Declaration of Independence

January 23, 1737–October 8, 1793

John Hancock was a leader of the Patriot Cause in Massachusetts, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, and President of the Second Continental Congress. He was also aligned with the Sons of Liberty.

John Hancock, Portrait, Copley

John Hancock. Image Source: MFA Boston.

John Hancock Biography

John Hancock (1737–1764) was a Founding Father, President of the Second Continental Congress, first signer of the Declaration of Independence, and nine-time Governor of Massachusetts. Despite being one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, Hancock risked his life and fortune for the cause of American liberty. Hancock was closely associated with Samuel Adams, John Adams, and the Sons of Liberty. On the night of April 18, 1775, Hancock was in Lexington, Massachusetts. Thanks to a warning from Paul Revere, Hancock escaped just as British forces opened fire on the Lexington Militia, starting the American Revolutionary War.

John Hancock Personal Facts

  • Born: John Hancock was born on January 23, 1737, in Quincy, Massachusetts (present-day Braintree).
  • Parents: His parents were John Hancock Jr. and Mary Hawk Thaxter.
  • Spouse: Hancock’s wife was Dorothy Quincy.
  • Died: He died on October 8, 1793, at his home in Quincy. He was 56 years old.
  • Place of Burial: Hancock is buried in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Fun Fact: Upon the death of his uncle in 1764, he reportedly became the richest person in Massachusetts, and possibly the richest man in the 13 Original Colonies.
  • Fun Fact: The phrase “signing your John Hancock” refers to Hancock’s bold signature on the Declaration of Independence.
John Hancock Signature, Declaration of Independence
Signature from the Declaration of Independence. Image Source: Wikimedia.

John Hancock Accomplishments

  • John Hancock graduated from Harvard College in 1754.
  • He was elected to the Boston Assembly in 1766.
  • Hancock publicly condemned the Boston Massacre in a speech he delivered at the annual Boston Massacre Memorial in 1774.
  • He was a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1780.
  • Hancock served as President of the Second Continental Congress from May 25, 1775, to October 1777.
  • He was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Hancock served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1780 to 1785.
  • He was a delegate from Massachusetts to the Confederation Congress from 1785 until 1786.
  • Hancock served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1787 to 1793.
  • He served as president of the Massachusetts state convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788.

The Life and Career of John Hancock, Founding Father, Son of Liberty, and the Richest Man in Massachusetts

John Hancock, born in 1737 in Braintree, Massachusetts, was an orphan adopted by his uncle, Thomas Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant. 

Education

He graduated from Harvard College in 1754. Ten years later, in 1764, he took over his uncle’s business, during the economic depression that followed the French and Indian War

Stamp Act

The news of the passage of the Stamp Act arrived in Boston in 1765, carried by one of Hancock’s ships.

Sons of Liberty

Hancock was associated with men like Samuel Adams, and although he had concerns about aligning himself too closely with the Patriot Cause, fearing it would hurt his business, he is believed to have been a member of the Sons of Liberty.

Samuel Adams, Painting, Copley
Samuel Adams. Image Source: MFA Boston.

Liberty Affair and the Townshend Acts

In 1768, he refused to allow customs officials to inspect the cargo of one of his ships, defying the provisions of the Townshend Acts. The incident, known as the Liberty Affair, placed him in a prominent position as a leader of the Patriot Cause.

Boston Politics

Hancock entered politics and held positions as a Boston selectman (1765–1774) and a member of the General Court (1766–1774). 

Boston Massacre Oration

In 1774, he delivered the annual Boston Massacre Oration. In the speech, which may have been written by Dr. Samuel Cooper, Hancock called on the people of Boston and Massachusetts to be wary of the ongoing attacks by Parliament against their personal liberties.

Massachusetts Provincial Congress

In October 1774, Hancock became the first president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He also chaired the Committee of Safety, which was responsible for militia mobilization. Hancock played a part in issuing recommendations to the towns in Massachusetts to prepare for war by gathering military supplies, training militia, and establishing Minutemen contingents.

Targeted by the British

In April 1775, General Thomas Gage received orders to confiscate the military supplies and to apprehend the leaders of the resistance. Gage targeted the military supplies at Concord and dispatched troops to destroy them on the night of April 18.

The American Revolutionary War Begins at Lexington

That night, Hancock and Samuel Adams were in Lexington, which was on the road from Boston to Lexington — the same road the British were marching on. 

The spy network in Boston found out the British were on the march and Dr. Joseph Warren sent two express riders, Paul Revere and William Dawes, on different roads to Lexington, so they could warn Hancock and Adams. Revere arrived in Lexington first and delivered the warning.

Hancock and Adams were packing the last of their belongings when British troops marched into Lexington, where their path was blocked by the Lexington Militia, under the command of Captain John Parker. Just as Hancock and Adams escaped, the first shot of the American Revolutionary War was fired.

Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, General Gage offered amnesty for leaders of the Patriot Cause — but he excluded Hancock and Adams.

Second Continental Congress

Hancock served in the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1780, serving as President from May 24, 1775, to October 29, 1777. Although he wanted to lead the Continental Army, he was not selected. Instead, the position went to George Washington.

President of Congress and First Signer of the Declaration of Independence

During his time as President of Congress, the Declaration of Independence was approved, and his signature appears prominently on the document. Unfortunately, a rift developed between Hancock and Samuel Adams, and the two men, who were once close friends and associates, became political enemies.

The Battle of Rhode Island

Hancock eventually resigned from Congress for health reasons and returned to Boston. He served as a major general in the Massachusetts militia and commanded 6,000 troops in August 1778 at the Battle of Rhode Island, but played a minor role in the operation.

Battle of Rhode Island, 1778, Siege, LOC
This illustration, published in February 1779, depicts American troops advancing on Newport on August 25, during the siege that preceded the Battle of Rhode Island. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Governor of Massachusetts

On September 1, 1780, John Hancock became the first Governor of Massachusetts under the new state constitution, which was written by John Adams. He faced economic challenges and growing public discontent. Hancock resigned as governor on January 29, 1785, citing health issues.

Shays’ Rebellion

During the winter of 1785–1786, Shays’ Rebellion occurred while he was out of office. He returned as governor in 1787 and granted pardons to the Shaysites. 

Support for the United States Constitution

Although initially withdrawing from the state convention to ratify the United States Constitution in 1788 due to another gout attack, Hancock eventually rejoined. Despite some reservations about federal power, Hancock supported ratification. He played a crucial role in securing ratification with a vote of 187 to 176. This was considered his most significant moment, as support from Massachusetts support was pivotal to the overall success of the constitutional effort.

Death of John Hancock

Hancock was reelected as Governor of Massachusetts and served nine terms before passing away at the age of 56.

Hancock’s Timeline in the American Revolutionary War

Hancock participated in these events during the American Revolutionary War.

John Hancock APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study John Hancock, the American Revolutionary War, and the Founding Fathers for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

John Hancock Definition APUSH

John Hancock for APUSH is defined as a prominent American Patriot and political leader during the American Revolution. He is best known for his bold signature on the Declaration of Independence, making his name synonymous with signing one’s name. Hancock played a significant role in colonial resistance efforts, serving as President of the Second Continental Congress. His wealth and influence made him a key figure in Massachusetts politics, and he contributed both financially and militarily to the Revolutionary cause.

John Hancock Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Ancestral Findings discusses John Hancock and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title John Hancock — Founding Father and First Signer of the Declaration of Independence
  • Date January 23, 1737–October 8, 1793
  • Author
  • Keywords John Hancock
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date February 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024

John Hancock — Founding Father and First Signer of the Declaration of Independence is Part of the Following on AHC