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.

Follow by Email

Friday, May 10, 2013

“King Hancock” After the Revolution

Yet another complication in interpreting the phrase “King Hancock” in 1775 is John Hancock’s later political career. In 1780 he became governor of Massachusetts. That prominence affected how people spoke about him, and quite possibly about how people remembered others speaking about him.

As careful as he was to maintain his political popularity, Hancock developed rivals and enemies. In the new republic, one easy way to attack a rich politician was to tag him as having monarchical ambitions. Samuel Breck, born in Boston in 1771, recorded a sarcastic reference to Hancock in a political verse:
Madam Hancock dreamt a dream;
She dreamt she wanted something;
She dreamt she wanted a Yankee King,
To crown him with a pumpkin.
According to Breck, the line about “a Yankee King” was a commentary on Hancock’s political ambitions in the early federal period, when he enjoyed being the most important officeholder in New England and supposedly took as little notice as possible of the national government.

Within a couple of decades after Breck’s memoirs were posthumously published in Philadelphia in 1863, authors were saying the British had sung those lines in Boston at the start of the Revolutionary War. But back in early 1775 there was no “Madam Hancock” wishing her husband to be a king. (Or, rather, “Madam Hancock” was John’s aunt Lydia.) Hancock didn’t marry Dolly Quincy until after the war began. Breck had actually written that British soldiers had sung other words to “Yankee Doodle,” which he didn’t record.

I suspect that later memories of Hancock as an American politician also colored John Adams’s 1815 recollection about the Continental Congress’s choice of commander-in-chief:
Who, then, should be General? On this question, the members were greatly divided. A number were for Mr. Hancock, then President of Congress, and extremely popular throughout the United Colonies, and called “King Hancock” all over Europe.
In fact, in June 1775 Hancock wasn’t popular “throughout the United Colonies”; he was well known in New England, and folks elsewhere might have heard about Gen. Thomas Gage’s proclamation offering amnesty to any rebel but him and Samuel Adams. But Hancock had become president of the Congress only on 24 May and had hardly enough time to grow “extremely popular.”

Adams carefully avoided saying any Americans referred to the man they supposedly admired as “King Hancock,” but he did claim that people “all over Europe” used that phrase. Most likely, however, few Europeans had ever heard of John Hancock before the Declaration of Independence. When he visited England as a young businessman, Hancock was heartily annoyed at how little respect he got; he was used to being the biggest frog in Boston’s Frog Pond.

No evidence besides Adams’s letter forty years after the fact suggests that any Congress delegates wanted to appoint Hancock commander-in-chief. As with other details of Adams’s recollection, what he wrote about “King Hancock” makes me doubt the reliability of his storytelling.

COMING UP: A myth about another king.


Mark said...

"Most likely, however, few Europeans had ever heard of John Hancock before the Declaration of Independence"....I would probably disagree. Many people had known of his uncle, both in England and in France, because of his involvement in removing the Acadians from Nova Scotia to the 13 Colonies in the 1750's. When Thomas passed on his well known mercantile business to John, I'm sure people took notice. It was this very business that made contracts w/ the British gov't to expel the Acadians.

J. L. Bell said...

The best way to demonstrate that hypothesis, I think, would be to find references to Thomas or John Hancock in newspapers in Britain and Europe before 1776.

When the Acadian expulsion began, Thomas Hancock was the junior partner of Charles Apthorp, an older and richer merchant in Boston. Apthorp died in 1758, and for the next six years Hancock was probably the richest and certainly the most prominent merchant in Boston. But I doubt that translated into much renown in Europe. As I said, when his nephew visited England to meet with mercantile partners, he was annoyed at how little respect he received.

g. Lovely said...

I suspect there is an issue of perception here. It may not be that the Europeans that upset Hancock didn't know who he was, it was that they didn't care, a far more galling fact for an egotist.

Mark said...

By his trip to England, are you referring to that of 1760-1761 ? If you are, then yes, it is possible he was relatively unknown or given short shrift. But by 1763-4, when he took control of his uncle's biz, he became very well known to the English. His uncle didn't just contract to remove the Acadians - he had extensive, ongoing contracts with the British to help settle NS as well. John's possession of his uncle's well-known business was 12-13 years before the Rev'n started. By 1767 or so, John's ship Liberty was seized by the British after the Townsend Act. Again, well before the Rev'n started. You don't need to scurry about for obscure newspaper references, when you can likely find more direct confirmation that he was known to the British.

J. L. Bell said...

I'd be glad to see other evidence that John Hancock was widely known in Europe in 1775 besides European newspapers, but it should be some evidence. Newspapers are a good way to show widespread interest and familiarity; they hardly seem like an "obscure" source when it comes to assessing popular knowledge. But government reports or personal letters mentioning John Hancock in the early 1770s would serve just as well, if they exist.

The argument seems to be that a significant number of British and French people knew Thomas Hancock's name because of his business and involvement in the Acadian removal. Are there contemporaneous sources to confirm that? When Thomas Hancock's designated heir visited London at the height of his influence, he complained that people gave him no respect.

From a Massachusetts perspective, John Hancock's entrance into politics, his attempt to corner the whale oil market, and his late-1760s dispute with the Customs service were big news. But did they matter that much in London? In Paris? When London officials discussed trouble in the provinces, how often did Hancock's name come up before 1775?

Mark said...

Oh, so now it has to be POPULAR knowledge of John. And I see the temporal parameters have been refined to the "early 1770's". Are there any more qualifications you'd like to add ?? I don;t think John took umbrage b/c some street urchin in east london didn't know of him.

If you want SOME evidence of how well known the Hancocks were to the British, you'd simply have to go to a public archive, like the one in Halifax, where they have copies of the actual contracts (i believe), between Thomas Hancock and the British gov't.

J. L. Bell said...

In 1886 Adams Archibald told the Nova Scotia Historical Society that “The expulsion of the Acadians from this Province, which occurred some 130 years ago, does not seem to have attracted, at the time, much notice outside our own borders." It's possible that he was mistaken, and the event was widely discussed in Britain and France. Where would we look for evidence of such discussions?

J. L. Bell said...

There's been no change in the historical question, Mark. John Adams wrote that Hancock was “called ‘King Hancock’ all over Europe.” In response to that I wrote (and you quoted) that “few Europeans had heard” of Hancock before the Declaration. Sure, London merchants who traded with Boston and government officials who dealt with colonial affairs knew who he was, but Adams claimed that he was well known in Britain and on the Continent, and I find that unlikely, given the sparse evidence of discussion about him.

One needn't create straw men, or straw "street urchins," to refute that. One can simply point to evidence, like newspaper stories about Hancock, letters mentioning him, portraits in magazines, &c. to show that he was prominent in European discussions of British America.

That is, of course, a very long distance from contracts with his uncle that might be filed in government archives in Nova Scotia. Many government contractors in far reaches of the British Empire were not well known in London, much less in Paris or all over Europe.

Mark said...

Thanks for publishing my other comments...NOT ! They likely didn;t help your cause, so maybe that explains why.

As for Archibald, you probably shouldn't pull a sentence from a backside orifice b/c its convenient for you, esp when there's a huge contextual component to all of it. Archibald was an apologist for the 1880's english position in NS that the Acadians had to go. Of course he was going to say it wasn't a big deal - in NS, or anywhere else for that matter. His feeling on this matter was aided by the fact that some British archives had deleted/suppressed (mistakenly or not)many of the documents associated with the Expulsion. Read about it here:


In a more general sense, it is incomprehensible that the Acadian Expulsion didn't matter to Europeans, or that people there had barely heard of it. The British spend untold fortunes, and engaged in multiple campaigns to rid the Acadians. You wanna believe they knew about it. So did the French. Their eviction paved the way for thousands of New Englanders who were waiting to take their spots. Letters from General Winslow in some archive in Mass. attest to it being known outside of NS.(his and many others). What a joke !! It was also commemorated in Wordsworth's poem Evangeline and in many other ways in popular culture.

People in Europe, especially those in powerful positions, knew who John Hancock was. Its wrong, I think, to say otherwise.

Mark said...

You keep changing the goalposts....I started this by questioning a very simple assertion....that hardly anyone in Europe(presumably people in higher psitions) knew of him before the D of I. On this matter, I disagree, for reasons of his part in the Lydia nd Liberty affairs, and for reasons of him owning a very well known company which had contracted with the British gov't itself. Moreover, his english trip was in 1760, 15 years before the Rev'n started. Jesus Murphy.

J. L. Bell said...

Mark, I've approved every comment from you that has appeared in my inbox. In my experience, accusations, outbursts, and scatalogical references don't make up for a lack of evidence. They make a person seem less rational rather than more.

Thank you for at last citing evidence on some historical question rather than just your firm convictions. The essay on the historiography of the Acadian expulsion is interesting, but it doesn't address the question we've been discussing, about how many Europeans knew John Hancock's name in 1775. Indeed, the first public discussion of the Acadian expulsion that the article cites came in Nova Scotia in 1790, so the essay offers no evidence to support your contention that people in Britain and France paid much attention to that event or Thomas Hancock's role in it earlier in the century. Again, the way to support such a statement is with contemporaneous references in Europe. Not documents filed away in Nova Scotia or Massachusetts. Not poems written decades later. And not repetitions of a belief in how things ought to have been.

Again, I reject your accusation that I've changed the question at hand. According to John Adams after leaving the Presidency, people all over the continent were referring to “King Hancock” in 1775. According to the sources I’ve read, Hancock's name was not well known in European capitals and ports at that time, and even most of the elite there weren't paying close attention to Boston politics or business.

If you can cite evidence to the contrary, please send it to me and I’ll share it. However, I’m not interested in seeing another restatement of your personal beliefs without pertinent evidence.

J. L. Bell said...

John Hancock was definitely prickly about getting respect, G. When he was in London in 1761, his uncle’s favorite firm refused to advance him some cash, so he stopped doing business with them. There's a 16 Oct 1767 letter in which he complains to his new London contacts (who were, of course, his creditors): “I look back on myself as a Man of Capital & I am not to be put on a footing with every two penny Shopkeeper that addresses you.”

There are similar letters from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Patriot leaders to their London creditors. Though of course they wouldn’t admit it, their own debts and resentment at the insinuation that they might not actually pay those debts undoubtedly fed into their feeling that they weren’t being treated as political equals, either.

Meanwhile, the merchants in London probably just wanted their money.