As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year, our attention will once again turn to such luminaries as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Samuel Adams. However, another founder who made substantial contributions to American independence, John Hancock, is typically overlooked and underappreciated. Although he served as the first president of the Continental Congress, did more than any other man except Robert Morris to finance the American Revolution, presided over the Massachusetts convention that ratified the Constitution, and played a major role in the state’s politics for two decades, Hancock has been overshadowed by many other founders.
As a Boston selectman, the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a delegate to the Continental Congress, Massachusetts’ first governor who served 11 years, and one of the richest merchants in the colonies, Hancock had tremendous influence. Hancock’s support of the Revolution cost him much of his fortune and put his life at risk, but the patriot victory gave him great political power, international acclaim, the gratitude of many Americans, and the deep affection of most residents of Massachusetts.
Today, a Boston-based company uses his name and occupies the most prominent building in the city, and a World War II aircraft carrier and dozens of streets bear his name, but at best, most Americans know that his signature is by far the largest on the Declaration of Independence. Hancock had no connections to the company named for him—John Hancock Financial Services, Inc. The enterprise chose his name because he was a famous founder, Massachusetts’ first governor, and a very generous philanthropist who assisted many whose houses and businesses were destroyed by Boston’s numerous fires and helped rebuild the city after the devastation of the Revolutionary War.
Moreover, Hancock has usually remained on the sidelines in the often heated debate over how to classify the religious beliefs of the founders. He has not been identified as either a devout Christian (as have John Jay, Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, Elias Boudinot, Roger Sherman, Samuel Adams, and Charles Carroll) or as a deist (as have Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Gouverneur Morris).
Neither scholars nor popularizers have paid much attention to Hancock’s faith even though it strongly shaped his view of the world and his actions. A life-long member of the Brattle Street (Congregationalist) Church in Boston, Hancock frequently used biblical arguments to justify America’s revolt against England and providentialist language to describe its battle to obtain independence. In addition, while serving as Massachusetts’ governor, he repeatedly thanked God for blessing its residents, exhorted them to repent of their sins, and strove to base state policies on his understanding of the biblical norms of justice and fairness. Convinced that moral conduct depended on Christian commitment, he supported the establishment of Congregationalism in Massachusetts and the strict observance of the Sabbath.
In numerous statements as president of the Congress and governor of Massachusetts, Hancock asserted that God was sovereign over earthly affairs and reassured Americans of His blessings. Writing to the leaders of the Continental Army in March 1776, Hancock proclaimed that the same God who had baffled the British attempt to conquer Massachusetts would defeat their “deep-laid scheme” against other colonies. In an appeal to all the states in September 1776, he declared that members of Congress relied firmly “on Heaven for the justice of our cause.” “I am persuaded,” he added, that “under the gracious smiles of Providence, assisted by our own most strenuous endeavors, we shall finally succeed.” In his inaugural address as governor in 1780, Hancock praised God for “the peaceable and auspicious” adoption of a state constitution. In 1782 Hancock assured members of the Massachusetts legislature that “the favor of heaven” would eventually establish America’s righteous claims. Hancock’s Thanksgiving proclamation the next year exhorted citizens to express their gratitude for God’s numerous blessings and to recognize their “entire Dependence” on “His Goodness and Bounty.”
Hancock’s contributions to American independence and to the political foundation and success of the new nation were monumental. As the president of the Continental Congress for two-and-a-half grueling years, he effectively mediated between various factions and helped convince them to work together. When competing interests threatened to tear the fledgling country apart, Hancock supplied a symbol of stability, moderation, and compromise that enabled Americans to elevate their mutual goals above their selfish desires. His effective leadership helped preserve the unity essential to winning the war against Britain. He guided delegates through numerous crises, including resolving their 15-month debate over the Articles of Confederation. As governor, Hancock helped persuade the Massachusetts constitutional convention to support the Bill of Rights, contributing to its passage.
While Hancock did not possess Washington’s character, John Adams’ intellect, or Jefferson’s eloquence, he played the principal role in Massachusetts politics for almost a quarter of a century and did much to attain and preserve American independence. Although Hancock’s vanity, lavish lifestyle, and some of his business practices conflicted with Christian principles, his faith appeared to be genuine and helped motivate his sacrifices for his nation and his concern for the poor and needy and informed his political philosophy and service. Many of his letters, speeches, relationships, and actions clearly testify to his religious commitment.
So as we celebrate our nation’s independence, let us give Hancock the acclaim he so richly deserves.