John Hancock is best known for his large signature on the Declaration of Independence, which he jested the British could read without spectacles. He was serving as president of Congress upon the declaration’s adoption on July 4, 1776, and, as such, was the first member of the Congress to sign the historic document.
John Hancock graduated from Harvard University in 1754 at age 17 and, with the help of a large inherited fortune, established himself as Boston’s leading merchant. The British customs raid on one of Hancock’s ships, the sloop Liberty, in 1768 incited riots so severe that the British army fled the city of Boston to its barracks in Boston Harbor. Boston merchants promptly agreed to a non-importation agreement to protest the British action. Two years later, it was a scuffle between Patriot protestors and British soldiers on Hancock’s wharf that set the stage for the Boston Massacre.
Hancock’s involvement with Samuel Adams and his radical group, the Sons of Liberty, won the wealthy merchant the dubious distinction of being one of only two Patriots—the other being Sam Adams—that the Redcoats marching to Lexington in April 1775 to confiscate Patriot arms were ordered to arrest. When British General Thomas Gage offered amnesty to the colonists holding Boston under siege, he excluded the same two men from his offer.
While Hancock served as president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Samuel Adams’ cousin John Adams convinced Congress to place Virginian George Washington in command of the rebel army. In 1776, the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain. The next year, John Hancock returned home to Massachusetts, where he served as a major general in the militia and sat in the Massachusetts constitutional convention that adopted the world’s first and most enduring constitution in 1780. Having helped to create the new state government, Hancock proceeded to serve as the state’s first governor, a position he held on and off until his death in 1793.