J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

“Calling out, ‘King Hancock forever’!”

According to Lt. Frederick Mackenzie of His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot, as the British column made its way back to Boston on 19 Apr 1775:
During the whole of the march from Lexington the Rebels kept an incessant irregular fire from all points at the Column, which was the more galling as our flanking parties, which at first were placed at sufficient distances to cover the march of it, were at last, from the different obstructions they occasionally met with, obliged to keep almost close to it.

Our men had very few opportunities of getting good shots at the Rebels, as they hardly ever fired but under cover of a stone wall, from behind a tree, or out of a house; and the moment they had fired they lay down out of sight until they had loaded again, or the Column had passed.

In the road indeed in our rear, they were most numerous [or, according to the earliest transcript, “they were not numerous”] and came on pretty close, frequently calling out, “King Hancock forever”!
Mackenzie’s account was first published by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1890. Though he clearly wrote from the perspective of a British officer, he was generally calm and factual, and most historians trust him on the details.

So if we believe Mackenzie about the provincials shouting, “King Hancock forever!” what did they mean by that?

Giving John Hancock the nickname “King” could have been an allusion to his wealth. Likewise, colonial Americans referred to Robert “King” Carter of Virginia (1663-1732), and Robert “King” Hooper (1709-1790) of Danvers. Men in Lexington might have had a particular fondness for Hancock because his paternal grandfather had been the minister of their town for a long time.

But Lt. Mackenzie probably heard sedition in those calls. With Hancock just concluding a stint as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, royal officials might have suspected he wanted to set himself up as monarch of Massachusetts.

Hancock and other leading American politicians of April 1775 would have hotly denied such an ambition. At the time they were still professing their loyalty to George III and the British constitution. The source of all the troubles, they complained, was the corrupt ministry in London, not the king. So I doubt those men would have been pleased to hear the provincial soldiers shout “King Hancock forever!”

In fact, in nearly all the uses of the term that have come down to us, “King Hancock” was a pejorative thrown out by supporters of the royal government trying to discredit or ridicule Hancock and the Patriot cause.

COMING UP: The birth and rise of the “King Hancock” meme.


David Niescior said...

"King Hancock" was an appellation for Hancock which had existed as early as 1770. On the 29th of May, 1770, at the hospital which was kept on the Common after the troops had largely been withdrawn from Boston to Castle William and to New Jersey, a crowd of townspeople appeared and roughed up some of the soldiers there. One soldier of the 29th Regiment, Edward Osbelddeston recounted in a deposition taken in the following August the crowd exclaiming, "Damn the King of Great Britain, Damn the Ministry, and all the Scoundrels that order’d the Lobsters to Boston, and drinking a health to King Hancock hoping King George would not be long on the Throne." This is, as you have put it, from a supporter of the royal government, but given that it is 5 years apart from the later reference, "King Hancock" may indeed have been a common cheer for Hancock, if perhaps something he may not have desired.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that reference! It's four years earlier than the first appearance of the phrase in American newspapers (which I plan to share tomorrow). As with most uses of the phrases, it comes from a British witness claiming to describe what Americans said. And I'm not 100% sure we can rely on all those testimonies.

John L Smith Jr said...

Historian Page Smith, whom I knew and respected greatly, passed along the story that as Lord Percy's troops were recollected, marching out of Lexington for their original destination of Concord, [April 1775]they played a version of "Yankee Doodle" that ended with ... “Yankee Doodle’s come to town, for to buy a firelock;
We will tar and feather him, and so will we John Hancock”.

J. L. Bell said...

Those words for "Yankee Doodle" seem to have appeared in print around 1830, and in Washington or Philadelphia rather than Boston. I found another set of remembered verses that actually includes reference to Hancock as a king. Again, these are American sources saying what British people said about Americans.

David Niescior said...

Boston's radical leadership, the people who would have most objected to the term "King Hancock," were very controlling of the written record. Further, the types of Americans who may have said "King Hancock" are likely not the ones to have left written materials behind, at least not such that concerned what things they may have cheered.

If the phrase shows up in numerous British accounts, written by people who in all likelihood never met, perhaps it is something that was said by Americans, albeit only those at the lower end of the social spectrum, and those who were somewhat more zealous than the radical leadership may have wanted.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree; the relative paucity of testimony from outside the genteel class makes it hard to know what ordinary Americans were saying, especially in the middle of a riot or battle. Did they shout praise for “King Hancock"? If so, what did that phrase imply about their loyalty to King George?

Since writing the comment above I found an earlier reference to the phrase “King Hancock,” predating even the fight that Osbelddeston wrote about. I added it to tomorrow's posting, but I can't say it makes the situation any clearer.

H.T. Harrington said...

Perhaps I'm being cynical but the shouting of any political slogan during battle strikes me as questionable. Personal, vulgar, or obscene verbal attacks on the enemy would seem far more likely than political slogans. Might McKenzie have had some other motive?

J. L. Bell said...

It's conceivable that shouting "King Hancock forever!" was more of an insult against George III's soldiers than a real expression of the provincials' political loyalties. Sure, they admired John Hancock and would have been pleased to have preserved him from arrest. But up and down the Whig ranks their goals was a return to the old charter with more self-government within the British system, not a new royal dynasty. Within a monarchy, as the Sex Pistols discovered later, shouting disrespect for the monarch might have been one of the biggest insults.