John Hancock

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.

John Hancock. Photograph of painting by John Singleton Copley at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, [between 1900 and 1912]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776 / painted by J. Trumbull; engraved by W.L. Ormsby, N.Y. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Cole & Co., 1876. Popular Graphic Arts. Prints & Photographs Division
  1. 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)

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Elizabeth Blackwell

On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from Geneva Medical College. She was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

I do not wish to give [women] a first place, still less a second one—but the most complete freedom, to take their true place whatever it may be

Letter, Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Isabella Milbanke Byron concerning women’s rights and the education of women physicians, March 4, 1851. (Blackwell Family Papers) Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. Manuscript Division

While Blackwell had been studying medicine on her own for four years when she began applying to medical schools, Geneva Medical College, a forerunner of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, was the only institution to accept her application. She entered the college in 1847 and graduated at the head of her class two years later, despite having endured ostracism by students and townspeople for daring to challenge barriers against women in the field of medicine.

In 1851, after completing graduate studies at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, Blackwell returned to the United States. Barred from practicing in city hospitals, she opened a small dispensary in the tenement district of New York City. In 1857, Elizabeth, her sister Emily, and a third female colleague opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, a hospital staffed entirely by women.

Hobart College, Geneva, N.Y. Haines Photo Co., c1909. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

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The Poll Tax: Twenty-Fourth Amendment Ratified

Over twenty years after Atlanta textile worker “Mr. Trout” lamented his inability to vote to a WPA interviewer, collection of poll taxes in national elections was prohibited by the January 23, 1964, ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Passage of the amendment affected voting in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and Virginia.

Do you know I’ve never voted in my life, never been able to exercise my right as a citizen because of the poll tax?

Mr. Trout.” Homer L. Pike, interviewer; Atlanta, Georgia. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Projects, 1936 to 1940. Manuscript Division

At ceremonies formalizing ratification in February, President Lyndon Johnson noted that by abolishing the poll tax the American people:

…reaffirmed the simple but unbreakable theme of this Republic. Nothing is so valuable as liberty, and nothing is so necessary to liberty as the freedom to vote without bans or barriers…There can be no one too poor to vote.

Sign, Mineola, Texas. Russell Lee, photographer, January 1939. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

Adopted by many Southern states in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the poll tax circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment, disenfranchising many blacks and poor whites. In the 1890s, the Populist party momentarily succeeded in uniting poor black and white Southerners on the basis of common economic interest. Some historians argue that this threat to the Democratic Party and upperclass control of Southern society led to the institution of poll taxes and segregation laws.

With his history of union leadership and his chronic poverty, Mr. Trout was exactly the kind of man the poll tax was intended to disenfranchise.

On five separate occasions in the 1940s, the House of Representatives passed anti-poll tax legislation, only to be blocked or filibustered in the Senate. In 1949, Senator Spessard L. Holland of Florida initiated efforts to abolish the poll tax by constitutional amendment. The Senate finally approved the measure in 1962 by a vote of 77 to 16. The amendment was submitted to the states for ratification on September 14, 1962.

Voters at the Voting Booths. ca. 1945. The Civil Rights Era. The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. NAACP Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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