January 23 marks the birth of John Hancock (1737-93),1 often remembered for his bold signature to the Declaration of Independence. President of the Second Continental Congress, Hancock was the first to sign the document.
A Boston selectman and representative to the Massachusetts General Court, Hancock financed much of his region’s resistance to British authority. In addition, he presided over insurgent groups including the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts (1774) and its Committee of Safety. On June 19, 1775, President of the Continental Congress Hancock commissioned George Washington commander-in-chief of the Army of the United Colonies.
A year later, Hancock sent Washington a copy of the July 4, 1776 congressional resolution calling for independence as well as a copy of the Declaration of Independence. He requested Washington have the Declaration read to the Continental Army. Hancock was also active in creating a navy for the new nation.
Hancock’s skills as orator and moderator were much admired, but during the Revolution he was most often sought out for his ability to raise funds and supplies for American troops. Yet, while governor of Massachusetts even Hancock had trouble meeting the Continental Congress’s demand’s for beef cattle to feed the hungry army. On January 19, 1781, General Washington warned Hancock:
I should not trouble your Excellency, with such reiterated applications on the score of supplies, if any objects less than the safety of these Posts on this River, and indeed the existance of the Army, were at stake. By the enclosed Extracts of a Letter, of Yesterday, from Major Genl. Heath, you will see our present situation, and future prospects. If therefore the supply of Beef Cattle demanded by the requisitions of Congress from Your State, is not regularly forwarded to the Army, I cannot consider myself as responsible for the maintenance of the Garrisons below [West Point, New York], or the continuance of a single Regiment in the Field.
George Washington to John Hancock, January 19, 1781. Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775-1785. Subseries 3C; Letterbook 4. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division
After the war, Hancock represented his state under the Articles of Confederation (1785-86). He resumed the governorship of Massachusetts (1780-85 and 1787-93), and led his state toward ratification of the federal Constitution. He died in 1793 while serving his ninth term as Massachusetts’ governor.
- With the intention of more accurately reflecting a solar year, the Julian (“Old Style”) Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. Some sources will still note Hancock’s birth date in the “Old Style”, which at that time would have been January 12, 1736. (Return to text)
- Search on John Hancock in the George Washington Papers to read 15 years of correspondence between the two men.
- Examine documents signed by Hancock during his tenure as president of the Continental Congress. Search the collection Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789 on John Hancock. Or, search the collection A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 on his name to read entries from the Journals of the Continental Congress.
- To find additional images and documents associated with John Hancock, search across all digital collections on his name.
- The original Declaration of Independence is on display in the Exhibition Hall under the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
- Learn more about events and people related to the history of Massachusetts by searching on that state in Today in History. In addition, consult the Massachusetts State Guide to locate manuscripts, broadsides, government documents, books, and maps.