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, October 15, 2017

“His death was unexpected, although he has been indisposed”

John Hancock was in poor health for the last decade of his life. Political opponents, and even some friends, muttered that he exaggerated his medical problems to get out of difficult situations.

The most famous example of that was when he lost a war of wills with President George Washington in 1789 over which man would call on the other, thus implying political inferiority. Hancock had himself carried in to meet the President with bandages on his legs to excuse his not coming earlier.

Hancock also pled illness in stepping down from the governorship in 1785, shortly before the economic crisis that led to the Shays Rebellion came to a head, and in keeping quiet on the proposed new Constitution for as long as he could in 1788.

The historian James Truslow Adams summed up this view by writing in Harper’s: “his two chief resources were his money and his gout, the first always used to gain popularity, and the second to prevent his losing it.” Adams’s article was titled “Portrait of an Empty Barrel.”

But Gov. Hancock did have health problems, and they prevented him from doing not only what he didn’t like but what he liked. On 18 Sept 1793 he prepared a speech to the Massachusetts General Court about a landmark legal case (which I’ll get to later). But he was too weak to deliver it, and had to watch the secretary of the commonwealth, John Avery, read it instead.

Hancock died less than a month later on 8 Oct 1793, aged fifty-six. A letter relaying that news to New York said, “Governor HANCOCK died this morning; his death was unexpected, although he has been indisposed for some time past.” People had gotten so used to the governor being ill that no one expected him to actually die.

The 11 October American Apollo reported:
On the morning of his death, he expressed no unusual complaints, till about seven o’clock, when he suddenly felt a difficulty in breathing; his physicians were immediately sent for, who gave him some temporary relief, but the dissolution of nature made such rapid progress, than before eight o’clock, he resigned his soul into the hands of HIM who gave it.
TOMORROW: How Boston heard the news.

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