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John Hancock

John Hancock Portrait, oil on canvas
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

John Hancock, patriot, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1736/7, the son of the Reverend John Hancock and his wife Mary Hawke. Upon his father's death, John Hancock at age nine went to live with his childless uncle, the wealthy Boston merchant Thomas Hancock, and his wife Lydia Henchman, in their mansion on Beacon Hill. After attending Boston Latin School and Harvard College, where he graduated in 1754, he learned the business of shipping and importing both on Hancock's Wharf in Boston and in London through his uncle's associates abroad. When Thomas Hancock died in 1764, his nephew inherited one of the largest business concerns and one of the greatest fortunes amassed in New England.1 Able, ambitious and gregarious, the young merchant was also drawn to public life. His political career began at twenty-eight with his election to the office of selectman in Boston. Though his uncle's political ties were loyalist, John leaned toward the Whigs and gradually lost his faith in the ability of the royal ministry to provide just government for Massachusetts.2

At the time this portrait was painted in the early 1770s, John Hancock had been transformed by the Liberty affair from a member of the radical Whig party to patriotic hero. In 1768 Hancock's firm imported a large cargo of Madeira wine in the company sloop Liberty and smuggled it ashore to avoid taxes. There is little doubt that Hancock was a regular participant in the locally accepted smuggling activities, but this time the royal governor decided to make an example of the prominent Hancock and seized the Liberty as she was being reloaded for her next voyage. Townspeople rioted in protest of the seizure, and Hancock gained much prestige as the patriotic victim of English repression.3

Hancock sat for a large portrait by John Singleton Copley (City of Boston, deposited at the Museum of Fine Arts) in 1765, the year following his inheritance. Now, to demonstrate his solidarity with the Whig Party after a skirmish with the royal governor, he commissioned Copley to paint a matching full-length portrait of Samuel Adams (City of Boston, deposited at the Museum of Fine Arts), well-known leader of the Whig party and a zealous patriot, which he then hung side by side with his own in his parlor.4 To further the patriot cause, the images of the two leaders were also displayed together before and after 1776 in Faneuil Hall, Boston's public meeting place.5 About the same time he commissioned the Adams portrait, Hancock sat for the waist-length portrait in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. A second almost identical portrait of John Hancock exists in a private collection.6

The Historical Society's portrait, like Copley's portrait of James Allen represents the more sober mood of the artist's work in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Hancock wears a short wig and an elegant black coat with gold embroidery and buttons. His face, showing the shadow of a beard, is strongly lighted and, along with his white collar, contrasts dramatically with the black suit and the dark brown background.


1. John Langdon Sibley, and Clifford K. Shipton. Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass., and Boston, 1873-1975, 13:417.

2. William M. Fowler, Jr. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston, 1980, p. 147.

3. Ibid., p.87.

4. John C. Miller. Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propoganda. Stanford, 1936, p.254.

5. Carol Troyen. “The Boston Tradition: Painters and Patrons in Boston, 1720-1920.” In The Boston Tradition. Boston, 1980, p.9.

6. Barbara N. Parker and Anne B. Wheeler. John Singleton Copley: American Portraits in Oil, Pastel, and Miniature, with Biographical Sketches. Boston, 1938, pp.96-98; Jules David Prown. John Singleton Copley, 2 vols., p.217.