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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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Lauding “the Trajan of America”

In looking at accounts of John Hancock’s funeral in 1793, I was surprised at the praise that newspaper writers heaped on him.

Today we think of Hancock as a lightweight compared to the Adams cousins, the Virginians, and most other Revolutionary politicians who remain household names. But those laudatory essays show how his contemporaries—at least some of them—esteemed the man.

For example, here’s a taste of the 9 October Columbian Centinel:
To record, with precision, the virtues of his mind—the philanthropy of his heart—his patriotism, or his usefulness, were to insult the judgment of every American.

If we ascend into the Senate of the Union, we there find his name first on that MAGNA CHARTA, which ascertained, vindicated, and declared the Independence of AMERICA—and the repeated suffrages of his fellow-citizens to sustain the important office of First Magistrate of this Commonwealth, shew how highly he was esteemed as capable to guard their rights in the Cabinet of Massachusetts.

If we search our Municipal Records, we shall see him sustaining with honour the most important and arduous stations.

Look we into the Temples dedicated to the Most High, we shall there view numerous marks of charity and benevolence.

But if we explore the hearts of the indigent and distressed—the Widow—and the Orphan—we shall see those lively emotions—which emphatically say,—our friend and our supporter is gone.
The 11 October Massachusetts Mercury praised Hancock for restoring civic peace after the Shays Rebellion and for spending down his inherited fortune:
we are bound in duty to remark that upon his Excellency’s assumption of the supreme command, he bent every effort of a philanthropic mind to close the wounds of a bleeding republic; and instantly smoothed the rough waves of opposition. Indeed, he was the Trajan of America, who counted every day lost that was not marked by active goodness, and thousands of his momentarily deluded fellow citizens in the western countries, dwell with transport on his name.—Hancock and humanity are synonymous.

Of an immense fortune, he has made the noblest sacrifices. Seminaries dedicated to Science, Temples inscribed to Religion, bear honorable witness to his munificence. Our Gallic brethren were distinguished by the polite attentions at the expence of decreasing affluence; and many individuals, who seized the opportunity of a fluctuating currency, to pay hard money bonds, have effected their dishonest purposes, at the loss of thousand to this patriotic Magistrate, who nobly resolved to support the credit of his country, tho’ he sank every farthing of his own patrimony.
And here’s the 17 October United States Chronicle, published in Providence:
The suavity of his manners, and the politeness of his deportment, portrayed him the Gentleman; the classic purity and chaste elegance of his language announced him the Scholar; and the undeviating stability of his principles, the charity of his heart, and the beneficence of his hand, marked him the Man of Virtue.

He was the Patriot [that’s probably supposed to be“Patron”] of Literature; and the records of our university have ranked the name of Hancock among the foremost of her generous donors. . . .

When the new Federal Constitution was proposed to the people of Massachusetts, he canvased it thoroughly, and after long deliberation, though convinced that it had some imperfections, yet as the door of amendment was left open, and the necessity of a more firm union was obvious, he finally threw the whole weight of his influence into the scale of its adoption:—And it is believe by many, that had not Hancock come forward in the unequivocal manner he did—the Federal Government would never have existed. Though convinced of the propriety of its adoption, he has always been a watchful centinel against its encroachments;…
All three of those newspapers supported the Washington administration, and the Federalist press was more rapturous than the opposition press.

Hancock wasn’t really part of either nascent national party, though. He steered for whatever policy kept his voters happy and himself elected. He came out for the new U.S. Constitution only at the last stage of the state’s ratification debate, and after that he worked hard to uphold the standing of states—especially Massachusetts and especially its governor.

COMING UP: More encomia.

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