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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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Slinging “King Hancock” Back and Forth

Of all the people in Revolutionary America I’ve found saying, “King Hancock,” so far only one used the phrase at all proudly. Boston 1775 reader Richard Doctorow quoted that item in a comment a while back.

The 15 Jan 1778 Independent Chronicle and other newspapers printed an anecdote about an eight-year-old American fifer taken prisoner during a raid on Long Island. To a British officer he proudly identified himself as “one of King Hancock’s men.”

Was that unnamed boy using a term common among American soldiers? Or was he, too, speaking sarcastically, spitting a term used by British officers back at them? Did this boy even exist? Even if he didn’t, it would be significant that a Patriot newspaper wanted people to believe he did.

In contrast, it’s easier to find stories of people loyal to the Crown using the phrase “King Hancock” in insults to the American cause. For example, in 1778, the American military tried Col. David Henley, at his request, for how he had attacked some of the British prisoners of war in the “Convention Army” at Cambridge. For more on that conflict, see Don Hagist’s recounting.

One witness in Henley’s court martial, Cpl. John Buchanan of the British army, testified:
After [Pvt. Samuel] Reeves was returned to the guard-room, and the other prisoners dismissed, Reeves said to me, “This is a poor pass I am come to, to be taken out of the guard-house and stabbed, and my king and country damned—damn King Hancock and the Congress.”
Buchanan acknowledged that Col. Henley might have heard this remark and become even angrier at Reeves.

Because by that time most Americans had become republicans and disdained having a king of any kind. Which meant “King Hancock” became purely an insult.

COMING UP: “King Hancock” in verse later in the war.

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