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HANCOCK took an early and strong interest; and probably no individual was more active than himself in instituting those memorable associations of the citizens for the purpose of preventing the introduction and circulation of English goods, which so materially contributed not only to ward off some of the encroachments of tyranny, but to awaken the attention of the American people to a discussion and decision on the whole subject of monarchical and ministerial abuse. His name was brought more particularly before the public, in the course of this controversy, by the seizure of one of his vessels, by the custom-house officers, under the pretext of its being taken in contravention of the revenue laws. It was removed by the officers under the protection of the guns of a British vessel then in the harbor. The citizens, however, were exasperated by this proceeding, and they assembled in great numbers, pursued them, beat them with clubs, and drove them aboard their vessels. The collector's boat was then burned by the mob, in the midst of loud rejoicings, and the houses of some of the most odious of the supporters of “divine right," razed, in the first transport of popular fury, to the ground. This affair, trifling as it may seem, has been considered as among the principal of those immediate original causes or occasions, which hastened the great dispute between the mother country and the provinces to a crisis.
Another incident of still greater interest, tending to the same effect, was the celebrated massacre of the Boston citizens, by the British troops, on the 5th of March, 1770. Probably the excitement produced by that bloody affair was and is altogether unprecedented in the history of the city. The bells were tolled, and the streets filled with the population of all the neighboring towns; and it was only by the judicious withdrawal of the offenders at a seasonable juncture, and the energetic interposition of some of the popular leaders, that matters failed of being precipitated to the utmost verge of frenzy. Mr. Hancock, with several others, was the next day appointed, by an assembly of the citizens, to wait on the royal governor and procure of him the removal of the troops from the town. The proposition was evaded at first, but subsequently urged in such a manner as to effect the prompt execution of the object desired by the people. Mr. HANCOCK was called on, in 1774, to deliver an oration on the anniversary of the massacre, over the remains of the murdered victims of tyranny. This composition, which increased even the author's established reputation, is still preserved, and is justly considered, though not remarkable for any thing like a learned or classic taste, a fine specimen of indignant patriotism, expressed in the fiery phraseology of a fearless freeman. It was about this time that he declined accepting the appointment of counsellor by the governor, and this indignity, as the latter considered it, was followed by his removal from the captaincy of the cadets, or governor's guard, by General Gage. The company disbanded themselves on that occasion, and the whole affair added to his popularity with every class of the people. Several years before he had manifested a similar spirit, on being offered a military commission by Governor Bernard. At that time he tore up the paper in presence of his fellow citizens.
In October, 1774, Mr. Hancock, now but thirty-seven years of age, was elected president of the Massachusetts provincial convention, by an unanimous vote. The next year, the first of the revolution, found him at the acme of his political distinction, in the honorable station of president of the continental congress. Sanderson correctly remarks, in reference to this appointment, that "by his long experience in business as moderator of the town meetings, and presiding officer and speaker of the provincial assemblies, during times of great turbulence and commotion, he was eminently qualified, as well as by his natural dignity of manners, to preside in this great council of the nation.” The officer elect is reported to have received the announcement of his election with evident symptoms of embarrassment-a sensation creditable at least to his modesty but being conducted to the chair by the friendly arm of a southern member, he soon recovered his usual composure.
He held the presidency until October of the year 1777, a period of about two and a half years, during which the incessant application he gave to business had rendered his health somewhat precarious. This consideration induced him to resign his office, and he retired to his native province, attended by most gratifying testimonials of the universal respect of his countrymen.
But his fellow citizens did not suffer him to remain long in the quietude of private life. A convention was about this time appointed to frame a constitution for the state of Massachusetts; to this he was elected; and he took, as usual, an active part in the deliberations of that important occasion. In 1780 he was chosen governor, being the first under the new constitution. He continued to hold the office, annually, by the suffrages of the people, till 1785, when he resigned; owing, as was stated, to the condition of his health, though his enemies failed not to assert that his purpose was rather to escape the troubles of that stormy period, which finally resulted in the famous insurrection of Shays. However this might be, the people appear to have been satisfied with his reasons and his administration, for in 1787 he was again called from his retirement to the gubernatorial dignity, and he continued to fill that station successively and very acceptably till his death, which occurred in October, 1793, in his fifty-sixth year. Mr. Sanderson gives him the credit of directing the suppression of Shays' rebellion, during the latter term of his office; but this praise belongs justly to Mr. Bowdoin, who was governor during the two years of HANCOCK's retirement, and when the troubles in question were at their height.
The great reputation acquired by the subject of our memoir among his own countrymen at the period when the revolution broke out, cannot be better proved than by the importance attached to his patriotism by the enemy, who perhaps had a particular ill will against him from the connexion of his signature, (alone, in the first instance,) as president of the continental congress, to the memorable declaration of independence, issued by that body on the 4th of July, 1776. A year previous to this, however, he had the honor of being pointed out, in conjunction with that other “notorious offender," Samuel Adams, as an exception to the pardon offered by the royal governor of Massachusetts, in the proclamation, declaring the province in a state of rebellion, which he issued after the battle of Bunker Hill. It was even intimated, that the chief purpose of the expedition, sent on the 19th of April to Lexington, was to obtain possession of the persons of these two obnoxious compatriotspur nobile fratrum.
To the adoption of the federal constitution by the state of Massachusetts-a most important event, which occurred in 1788, no individual probably contributed so much as HANCOCK; and it was generally believed, at the time when he submitted that instrument to the consideration of the legislature, that if this state refused to ratify it, the passage of it would infallibly be lost in the other twelve. A convention assembled in Boston, to consider the question of acceptance, and of that large and highly respectable body, comprising all the distinguished talent of the statenot excepting Fisher Ames, Rufus King, Judges Cushing, Parsons, Dana, and Sedgwick, General Lincoln, Gore, Brooks, Strong, and many others, HANCOCK was chosen president. Sickness compelled him to leave his seat during part of the debates, but he returned to it in the last week of the session, and it is said that his great influence, exerted with his utmost discretion and energy at this juncture, especially in pressing sundry amendments, which obviated the exceptionable features of the proposed code, finally turned the scale in favor of the adoption, It succeeded, after all, by a majority of only nineteen votes, out of three hundred and fifty-five. This event was celebrated in Boston with great rejoicings, and was hailed with satisfaction throughout the country.
The funeral obsequies of Governor Hancock were observed in a manner which plainly indicated the strong hold he continued, till the last, to have on the popular good will. His body lay in state at his mansion for several days, and the interment of it was conducted with great ceremony. The militia of both the town and the surrounding country were called out, and the judges of the supreme court joined the immense procession, which followed the remains to their last resting place, in robes of mourning hue. The disease from which the governor had suffered most in his latter years, was the gout, but his decease was probably occasioned not more by this cause, than by the fatigue of the laborious and responsible public duties to which his whole time and thought seemed to be directed.
Governor Hancock left no lineal descendant. He had married, about twenty years before his death, Miss Quincy, of Boston, (who belonged to one of the most distinguished families of New England,) and by this connexion, had one son, but this child died at an early age.
The public character of the great man whose life we have thus imperfectly set forth, appears from the facts therein comprised much more clearly than any dissertation of ours could exhibit it. His private reputation, on the other hand, was not only free from serious reproach, even in the most excited times, but at all periods of his career, maintained in a rank worthy even of his political popularity. The diffusive liberality, with which he dispensed around him the benefits of his splendid wealth, was especially the subject of admiration. Nor did he ever hesitate, when patriotism called upon him, to sacrifice any thing he possessed for his country's good ;—when, for example, in 1775, it was proposed by the American officers, who carried on the siege of Boston, to bombard and destroy the town that the enemy might be driven out, HANCOCK, whose whole property was thus exposed to destruction, was among the foremost to require that no regard to his personal interest should obstruct the operations of the army.
The author of “Familiar Letters on Public Characters,” generally understood to be a gentleman who was personally acquainted with most of the great men of the period of HANCOCK's official life, describes the appearance of the governor in 1782, when, it is said, though but forty-five years old, he wore very much the aspect of advanced age. He is said to have been nearly six feet in stature, of thin person, stooping a little, and apparently enfeebled by disease. “His manners were very gracious, of the old style, of dignified complaisance. His face had been very handsome. His dress was adapted quite as much to be ornamental as useful.* Gentlemen wore wigs when abroad, and commonly caps when at home. At this time, (June,) about noon, Hancock was dressed in a red velvet cap, within which was one of fine linen, the latter was turned up over the lower edge of the velvet one, two or three inches. He wore a blue damask gown, lined with silk; a white stock, a white satin embroidered waistcoat, black satin small clothes, white silk stockings, and red morocco slippers. It was a general practice in genteel families to have a tankard of punch made in the morning, and placed in a cooler when the season required it. Visiters were invited to partake of it. At this visit Hancock took from the cooler, standing on the hearth, a full tankard, and drank first himself, and then offered it to those present. At his table might be seen all classes, from grave and dignified clergy, down to the gifted in song, narration, anecdote, and wit, with whom 'noiseless falls the foot of time, that only treads on flowers."
To acknowledge that the governor had his faults and his foibles, is but to allow that he was human. Among the latter, perhaps, was two scrupulous a stickling for etiquette on some occasions, and on others, a somewhat haughty preference of his own mere will and wisdom to those of parties who were, by their situation at least, entitled to respect, if not to concession. The author of the “Letters"
• The writer recollects to have heard it stated by an orator in Fanueil Hall, on an occasion when the sentiments and character of Hancock came under discussion, that he was at one time in the habit of wearing gold buttons with the figure of a sheep engraved on them, under the motto, "you gain more by our lives than our deaths.” It was no doubt a political allusion.