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, October 16, 2017

Reactions to Gov. John Hancock’s Death

The 14 Oct 1793 Boston Gazette reported this response to Gov. John Hancock’s unexpected death on the 8th:
Tuesday last, agreeably to previous orders, the several Independent Companies and the several Companies of Militia in this Town, paraded early in the Morning, in complete Uniform, in order for Inspection, &c. But immediately upon the Death of His Excellency being announced, counter-orders were issued by the Commander in Chief, to the Major General, and the several companies were dismissed, some on their march to the common, and others at their place of parade.—

This measure gave general satisfaction to the Citizens of Boston, who willingly gave up the pleasures which they previously anticipated, and with countenances fully expressive of the sorrow of their hearts, retied, to mourn the lose of Governor HANCOCK,

Their Country’s Savior, and Columbia’s pride,
The Orphan’s father, and the widows’ friend.
May future HANCOCKS Massachusetts guide;
HANCOCK!—The name alone with time shall end.
The “Commander in Chief” who called off that militia muster was the new acting governor, Samuel Adams. After bumping heads during and after the war, the two pre-Revolutionary colleagues had allied on a political ticket in 1787.

Bostonians were thus all excited for a big militia parade when they heard about Hancock’s death, and then they had to go home. I suspect that was an additional reason for the big turnout at his funeral six days later. If they couldn’t march one week, then they could march the next.

The community quickly began to respond to the governor’s passing. The next day, the Suffolk County court, “on motion of Judge [Thomas] Crafts, adjourned till after the Funeral.”

In Thursday the news reached Portland, Maine. The Eastern Herald reported, “The colours of all the vessels in the harbour were immediately placed half mast high, and the bell was tolled from that time till the close of the day.”

Then the town government acted:
At a legal Meeting of the Inhabitants of this Town on Friday last, to take into consideration the measures proper to be taken by them, for attending the Funeral of His Excellency JOHN HANCOCK, that every mark of respect may be paid by his fellow-citizens to the remains of so illustrious a Patriot and Friend to Mankind; the following Votes passed unanimously, viz.

In order to pay that respect to the funeral solumnities of his Exellency the late Governor HANCOCK, which is suitable to the feelings of the Inhabitants on the occasion,

Voted, That it be recommended to the Inhabitants, that they shut their Stores and Shops, at One o’Clock, P.M. on Monday next, and continue the same shut until the Funeral Solemnities shall be performed.

Voted, That the Selectmen be requested to cause the Carriages, Trucks, and other Obstructions, to be removed from State Street and other Streets where the Procession may be on Monday Afternoon.
That was as close to declaring an official holiday as a town of that time could do.

In his 2000 biography of Hancock, Harlow Unger wrote that Gov. Adams declared the day of the funeral to be a holiday, and other books have repeated that statement since. I don’t see any evidence for that, however. A gubernatorial proclamation would have been an official, widely published document—like the Thanksgiving proclamation that ran in the 9 October Columbian Centinel. (That announcement, dated 28 September, was still in Hancock’s name.) So I don’t think Hancock’s funeral day was an official state holiday.

TOMORROW: But no work got done that day.

(The picture above is a 1797 engraved portrait of Samuel Adams based on a painting that John Johnson had made two years earlier. The painting itself was destroyed in a fire a few years after that.)

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