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, May 09, 2013

“King Hancock” in Verse

I’ve been tracking appearances of the phrase “King Hancock” in Revolutionary sources, starting in 1770. A couple of those references were complimentary; most were sneering references from supporters of the royal government.

In the fall of 1778, John Hancock helped to command an expedition of Massachusetts, Continental, and French troops against the British military in Newport, Rhode Island. It failed.

That prompted the outwardly Loyalist New York newspaper printer James Rivington to publish a satire in the 3 Oct 1778 Royal Gazette that included this verse:

In dread array their tatter’d crew,
Advanc’d with colors spread Sir,
Their fifes play’d Yankee Doodle, doo,
King Hancock at their head Sir.
Frank Moore’s Diary of the American Revolution (1860) reprinted the whole poem and also quoted a letter from Joshua Longstreet dated 3 Sept 1778 which described “King Hancock, that insufferable piece of bravery, at their head.” Alas, no other author appears to have found Joshua Longstreet or his letters.

In his Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution (1855), Moore reprinted another Loyalist poem, this time celebrating the British capture of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780. It began:
King Hancock sat in regal state,
And big with pride and vainly great,
Address’d his rebel crew:
“These haughty Britons soon shall yield
The boasted honors of the field.
While our brave sons pursue.”
That appears to have been a reference to Hancock as president of the Continental Congress at the time of the Declaration of Independence, though he had stepped down from that post in 1777. In the Carolinas the phrase “King Hancock” might also have brought up memories of the Tuscarora War of 1711-1715, when one Native leader was called King or Chief Hancock.

Unfortunately, I can’t find a period source for that second poem. Moore printed it with two paragraphs of annotation about the phrase “King Hancock,” which he said appeared in Loyalist newspapers about the same time. One paragraph was about Hancock and Samuel Adams as “malignant stars” and the other about Hancock traveling “attended by four servants, dressed in superb livery, mounted on fine horses richly caparisoned.” However, those paragraphs appear in two separate issues of the Pennsylvania Ledger, dated 7 and 11 March 1778—two years before the events in this verse.

To add to the confusion, William Wells’s Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams quoted the first of those paragraphs, citing Moore’s Diary—but linking it to the wrong footnote on that page and thus misdating it by two years. And when Lilian Whiting quoted the second item in Boston Days: The City of Beautiful Ideals (1902), she put the Loyalist criticism of Hancock’s ostentation into Samuel Adams’s mouth. So the whole situation is a citational mess.

But it’s clear that most printed references to “King Hancock” during the Revolutionary War came from people who opposed American independence.

COMING UP: After the war.


Unknown said...

This is a fantastic site to explore, and the verse here is splendid.

I'll share these at the next Lodge of St. Andrew Table Lodge, and again, many thanks for all your research and maintaining this resource.

J. L. Bell said...

Frank Moore's Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution is available on Google Books, so you can find the whole poems there. They do go on!