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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Friday, April 26, 2013

“King Hancock” and Samuel Dyer

A few days back, I quoted two appearances of the phrase “King Hancock” from 1770, noting that it was written down only when one side of the political divide was attacking the other, usually sarcastically.

That makes it very hard to figure out the phrase’s original meaning—was it ever a sincere compliment to John Hancock? It’s also hard to know who in pre-Revolutionary America actually used the term, as opposed to who was accused of using the term by political opponents.

Take, for example, this appearance of the phrase in the 20 Oct 1774 Norwich (Connecticut) Herald, reporting news from Newport, Rhode Island:
Last Tuesday arrived…Mr. Samuel Dyre, of Boston; who gives this account of himself;---That on the 6th of July last, early in the morning, he was kidnapped by the soldiers in Boston, in consequence of orders from Col. [George] Maddison, and carried into the [army] camp, confined in irons, and kept so till early the next morning, when he was conveyed on board the Captain, Admiral [John] Montague, still in chains.

When he was first confined in the camp, Col. M-------n asked him who gave him orders to destroy the tea, to which he replied nobody; the Col. said he was a damned liar, it was King Hancock, and the damned sons of liberty, and if he did not tell he should be sent home in the ship Captain, where he should be hung like a dog; then told him to prepare a good story, that General [Thomas] Gage would come to examine him, &c. . . .

We must leave time to unfold this dark, very dark affair, of governmental kidnapping, which is a true spawn of hell, nursed up by the church of Rome!
We thus have another American describing how another Briton described other Americans. More specifically, another American Whig, quoted in Whig newspapers, accused a British military man of using the term “King Hancock” to suggest that was how Americans thought of John Hancock. [And I bet you didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition to show up at the end there.]

Adding to the confusion, Dyer is an unreliable witness. He told wild, and wildly different, stories to people on either side of the conflict. He tried to assassinate a British officer. He persecuted American prisoners. And yet he really was held captive and transported by the British military. (Someday I’ll trace Dyer’s whole twisted story.)

So I don’t think this newspaper story is solid evidence of what Lt. Col. Maddison actually said in 1774. But it is solid evidence that Americans of that time thought it was credible for a British officer to refer to one of their leaders sarcastically as “King Hancock.”

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