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, November 27, 2006

John G. W. Hancock: governor's son

The Smithsonian Institution's website offers a look at the silver and coral rattle that John and Dolly Hancock bought for their son, John G. W. Hancock, when he was born in 1778. He remained their only child. (The couple also had a daughter in 1776, but she died the following year.)

In 1787, when little John was eight, his father was reelected governor. (With his keen instincts for the electorate's mood and for avoiding tough decisions, Hancock had served in that office from 1780 to 1785, sat out the year in which the Shays Regulators closed down Massachusetts's courts and were then closed down themselves, and then returned to state politics with his popularity undiminished.)

In January, father and son were walking with a family friend in Milton. The boy saw a pair of skates in a store window and asked his father to buy them. The governor refused, so the friend said he'd make young John a present of the skates.

John G. W. Hancock soon tried out his new toys on a small patch of ice, fell, and hit his head. He died of the injury shortly afterwards, on the 27th.

The American Herald newspaper wrote:
This amiable child gave every indication of future eminence; and while his sweetness of temper, his strength of memory, and brilliancy of genius, led his parents to hope, that he would be not only the staff of their age, but eminently useful in the world!—Their hopes are suddenly blasted, and they feel the deepest affliction:
Why falls the budding flower? why dies the youth?
Presumptuous reason crys. 'Tis not for us
To search the ends of fate nor fault its means;
Religion answers and our breasts are calmed.
In fact, some friends said that John Hancock, son and grandson of ministers, never recovered emotionally from this loss. He died six years later, only fifty-six years old.

(Well, that was terribly sad, wasn't it? One aspect of this episode that strikes me is how the Hancocks and others of the time obviously knew who that well-meaning family friend was, but I've never seen an account of the boy's death that names him.)


Anonymous said...

What a devastating story.

About the friend's name: either everyone involved had impeccable manners (probable) or the friend changed his name when he went into the monastery and repented for forty years (less probable, but perhaps easier than meeting up with the Hancocks every day).

Anonymous said...

P.S. I realize after reflection that retiring into a monastery would not be usual in this period and setting, but there must have been some equivalent -- removing to London? to Albany?

J. L. Bell said...

There was the possibility of moving out west. Such Massachusetts gentlemen as Timothy Pickering and Winthrop Sargent took up federal posts on the frontier in the decades after the war.

Anonymous said...

The friend's name wasn't publicly mentioned out of respect for that person.

J. L. Bell said...

Indeed, but even after that person died and decades passed no one mentioned his name, as far as I can find.