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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Monday, April 22, 2013

“King Hancock” in 1770

The term “King Hancock” predates the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, when Lt. Frederick Mackenzie of the British army reported hearing Massachusetts farmers shout it. The challenge is interpreting what people meant and understood when they referred to John Hancock that way.

The earliest sign of “King Hancock” I’ve found is in a satirical verse that Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette published on 26 Mar 1770, three weeks after the Boston Massacre. This verse was headlined “A New SONG (Lately compos’d on Castle Island,) Said to be in vogue among the Caledonians.” The British army commanders had just moved the 14th and 29th Regiments to Castle William (mapped above). Thus, the newspaper, which was the voice of Boston’s Whigs, presented this verse as coming from the British military.

The new song’s second stanza read:
If you will not agree to Old England’s Laws,
I fear that K—g H——k will soon get the Yaws;
But he need not fear, for I swear that we will,
For want of a Doctor, give him a hard Pill.
   Derry down, down, hey, derry down.
Obviously this song wasn’t complimentary about Hancock. And the printers weren’t complimentary about the British they portrayed as enjoying the song; the term “Caledonians” suggested they were disloyal Scotsmen. (Frank Moore later wrote that the verses were also published as a broadside with a headline making it even more clear they came from the British troops.)

So did Bostonians coin the term “King Hancock” as a compliment for their leading merchant and politician? Did British army officers pick up that term and use it sarcastically, or did they invent the term sarcastically? Or did the Whig printers sarcastically invent the British officers sarcastically inventing the term in order to rile their readers?

Yesterday Boston 1775 reader David Niescior quoted another appearance of “King Hancock” from 1770. Months after the Massacre, royal officials collected depositions from British soldiers who had been in Boston about how they had been treated. In his sworn testimony Pvt. Edward Osbaldiston or Osbelddeston of the 14th Regiment stated that in May 1770 a crowd had attacked the British military hospital on the Common and shouted:
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.
One might question the likelihood that people in the middle of a riot would pause for “drinking a health to King Hancock.” Pvt. Osbaldiston was a few months and a few colonies removed from Boston, and unlikely to encounter any challenge to his recollection. The officials who arranged for the soldiers’ depositions wanted testimony that put Bostonians in the worst light.

For example, Pvt. George Smith of the 14th told magistrate James Murray about hearing “a number of well dress’d Men” on King Street in Boston calling out:
What King, for the King of England had no more business with them than any other Man, and if they imagin’d any person present thought so, they would, Tar and Feather him immediately and afterwards cut off his Head & stick it up on the highest post in the Town.
Is that an accurate description of how Boston gentlemen were behaving in late February 1770? Certainly they said nothing close to that in print or private letters. As I wrote yesterday, until 1776 American political leaders were careful to portray themselves and their supporters as patriotic subjects of George III, opposing only the government ministers who were corrupting his fine intentions.

But were ordinary Bostonians in May 1770 already willing to curse the king, as Pvt. Osbaldiston described, or behead his defenders? Or were those locals sarcastically echoing a phrase from the March 1770 newspaper back at the army (i.e., “You guys threaten ‘K—g H——k’? We’ll cheer for him, and you can’t do anything about it. How do you like them apples?”)? Or was Osbaldiston exaggerating, picking up a phrase he’d heard back on Castle Island?

COMING UP: The further career of “King Hancock.”

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