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The Boy on Beacon Hill
John Hancock was the third of his line to carry that name, and from the moment he was born, his family had little doubt that he would follow the first and second John Hancockhis grandfather and fatherto the pulpit of the Congregational Church. In the towns near Boston, the Hancocks were the Congregational Church and had been since the beginning of the eighteenth century. The first John Hancock assumed the pulpit of the North Precinct Church in Cambridge in 1698, when power over church and town was indivisible in Massachusetts. After fifteen years in command, the first Reverend Hancock led a tax revolt in the North Precinct, which was ten miles from central Cambridge. He declared the North Precinct and its church independenta perfectly legal procedure under the Cambridge Platform of 1648, which gave every Congregational church the right to total autonomy. Despite protests from Cambridge, the North Precinct became Lexington, Massachusetts. Its parishioners kept their taxes in their own pockets and made the first John Hancock their all but absolute monarch.
Quickly dubbed the Bishop of Lexington, he brooked no opposition to his ironfisted rule. Although Congregationalists ordained no bishops, he ruled like a Roman Catholic bishop. His power, like that of all Congregationalist ministers of the time, stemmed from the determination of early Puritan settlers to found a Bible commonwealth in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They limited free speech and political privileges and reimposed in New England the same religious discrimination that Anglicans had imposed on themin old England. They limited voting rights to propertied male members of the Congregational Church and converted town after town into theocracies, where ministers ruled the spiritual world and deacons and elders ruled the material world.
Bishop John Hancock was the first of his family to join the ruling class. His grandfather Nathaniel was an English Puritan farmer who landed in America in 1634, a dozen years after the Mayflower, and settled in Cambridge (then New Towne). His only surviving son, also Nathaniel, inherited fourteen acres to farm, but he sired thirteen children and had to supplement his income as a shoemaker and town constable. He also became a church deacon, an office that assured his sons instruction by the minister and preparation for Harvard College, the wellspring of New England spiritual power. His second sonthe future Bishopentered Harvard in 1685 but ranked only thirteenth in a class of fourteen boys under Harvard's humiliating system of gradation by family social rank. The son of a Massachusetts governor or Harvard president stood, marched, or sat at the head of his class in processions, in church, in recitation rooms, and at meals. Next in rank came grandsons of governors, sons of trustees, sons of large landowners, and so on. Sons of farmers ranked last.
Whatever Harvard may have taught him about social rank, it also taught him theology, along with the logic, argumentation, and rhetoric that gave his booming voice and strong personality the wherewithal to overwhelm those who questioned his judgment.
From the beginning he ruled firmly but fairly. He was powerfully built, with a dour face that brooked little or no discussion. Every parishioner knew to accept his every suggestion as a command. Asked to resolve a long-standing dispute between two parishioners over property lines, the Bishop ordered each to cut some stakes and plant them in the ground several feet apart from each other. He drew a line in the earth and told them, Your line runs there, and there let it run forever. . . . And let us have no more quarreling about this matter. The issue was settled.
And later, when two church deacons protested his failure to consult them on church decisions, he told them that saddling his horse and holding his bridle was all I ever can consent to let the ruling elders do for me. Although no one ever again bothered to seek election as elder, his despotic rule provided nothing but wealth for the members of his church and community especially after he freed them from heavy Cambridge taxes by making Lexington independent. In the end, the town rewarded him with handsome wage increases, about fifty acres of land, and the right to cut timber from common land. More important, they retained himand his despotic waysfor fifty-four years, until his death, in 1752, at eighty-two.
The Bishop of Lexington was no less a despot at home than he was at church. He married Elizabeth Clarke, the daughter of the Reverend Thomas Clarke, also a Harvard graduate, and beginning in 1702, they produced a quick succession of five children. His tyranny all but crushed the spirit of his firstbornthe second John Hancockbut his second son, Thomas, inherited his father's strong personality, and at fourteen he willingly traded his father's tyranny for near bondage as an indentured apprentice in a bookseller's shop.
The second John Hancock grew up a meek little chap who obediently followed his father s footsteps through Harvard and, eventually, to the pulpit, although his lack of sparkle delayed his ordination by several years. Mr. Hancock, wrote one of his classmates, has no great Character for his Abilities Either Naturale or Acquired. The professor told me He . . . could make a very handsome bow, and if the first did not suit He d Bow Lower a Second time. Unable to obtain a ministry, John took a job as librarian at Harvard, while Thomas completed the apprenticeship that channeled his passions in the world of trading, where he amassed one of America s great fortunes.
Despite the Bishop s ambitions, the second John Hancock languished at the Harvard library for three years, until the winter of 1726, when the tiny North Parish in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, invited the shy young man to their dilapidated little meetinghouse. Built in 1666, the little stone church had all but collapsed, and during Hancock s first winter, cartloads of snow drifted into the building for him to shovel out before he could conduct Sunday morning services.
Braintree was, nonetheless, a prosperous community, with several large, established farms and families. The Adams family had fifty acres, and the Quincys had even more. Both families had ties to Boston s merchant community. The Adamses were cousins of Deacon Samuel Adams, the Boston brewer, who was a church leader and powerful political boss. The patriarch of the Braintree Quincys was Col. Josiah Quincy, who was a merchant and trader as well as a farmer, with political ties to the royal governor. Aware of the wealth that farm families disguised with plain clothes and simple houses, Bishop Hancock set out to negotiate a handsome contract for his son from the reluctant parishioners. In a thundering sermon at his son s ordination, the Bishop told them, "Those who are called by office to preach the word of God have power of rule, also. . . . And therefore are the keys of the kingdom to be committed unto them. Not only the key of doctrine but of discipline. The keys are an emblem of power. I might have addedtheir power to ask and receive wages for this their service. . . . And the laws of Christ have given them this power to take wages for their work and to take it not as alms or charity but as justice."
The Bishop cowed his son s parishioners into building their minister a new house, ceding him a few acres of farmland, giving him £200 for resettlement, and paying him a salary of £ 110 a year£10 more than his predecessor and slightly more than the average annual income of skilled tradesmen. The Bishop concluded his son s ordination with a homily: "He that desires the office of a bishop desires a good work. You are where God would have you be . . . you have not begged the office nor invaded it nor shuffled yourself into it . . . but have tarried till a wide . . . door is opened unto you."
In December of 1733, the younger Reverend Hancock married Mary Hawke, a local farmer's daughter, and in the spring of 1735 their first child, a daughter, was born. Their first son, who would bear his father's and grandfather's name, was born eighteen months later, on January 12, 1737; their third and last child, Ebenezer, followed in November 1741.
The Reverend Hancock's church stood by the village green, the geographic, spiritual, social, and governmental center of a community of about forty families. Most of the town s three hundred people lived on farms tied to town by long ribbons of dirt wagon trails. Six homes shared the green with the Hancock manse and the meetinghouse. The old, unused stocks stood silent vigil nearby to warn those who would violate the laws of God. Free of his domineering father s influence, the gentle minister of Braintree served more as mediator than governor. He earned the town s love and respect by letting church deacons deal with secular governance while he concentrated on baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Only fifteen months before baptizing his own son, John, he baptized the Adams family s newborn son, John Adams, the future president.
When the third John Hancock was born, Braintree farmers had stripped the land of most of the oaks, elms, and maples that once covered the slopes to the bay, across from Boston. Farmhouses, barns, and an assortment of variously shaped outbuildings dotted the land. Farmers spent their days slogging behind their horses or oxen, and cows grazed on whatever grass they could find along the fields edges. Most farms grew wheat, corn, oats, barley, hay, or flax to sell in Boston markets, although some had orchards and all had kitchen gardens nestled close to their houses to provide food for the family. Indian-corn meal was a staple that supplemented the typical diet of fruits and vegetables. Fresh meat was a luxury, as was flour. Most families salted down a slaughtered pig or a side of beef each fall to assure themselves some meat through the winter. In 1740 a brewery opened in Braintree, to quench community thirst with a steady flow of ale and rum. Braintree and the rest of New England had been at peace for more than twenty years. The Peace of Utrecht had ended Queen Anne s War in 1713 and pushed the French too far inland for them and their Indian allies to stage the deadly raids that had terrorized the New England frontier for so long.
Living on the village green, young John Hancock grew up free of tiresome farm chores, but he was often alone with little to do. His father was either away visiting parishioners or busy writing sermons, and his mother tended to dote over John s older sister, Mary. Jeffrey, the gentle slave, was the only member of the household who had no option but to listen to the boy s chatter. As he grew more independent, Hancock took to following older farm boys. John Adams and the Quincy boys Edmund and Samuel went on frequent gambols through the woods to the stream for a swim or up to the crest of a ruined old fort to fire imaginary rifles at phantom Indian raiders. Some Indians actually came into their sights, but they were harmless Punkapoags from the reservation at Stoughton, who came to fish in the Neponset or buy goods in town. The Quincy boys father, Col. Josiah Quincy, was agent for the few Indians the colonists had not killed.
Adams and the others had mixed feelings about their young hanger-on, but the Reverend John Hancock was the town s most exalted citizen and only Harvard graduate and could send bad little boys to hell! So John Adams and the others tolerated the minister s son, but they did not like him. As Adams later wrote of Hancock, "He inherited from his father, though one of the most amiable and beloved of men, a certain sensibility, a keenness of feeling, or in more familiar language a peevishness that sometimes disgusted and afflicted his friends."
When he reached the summer of his fifth yearin 1742Hancock followed Adams and the other boys to Mrs. Belcher s dame school. Massachusetts had made universal education compulsory a century earlier. Under the School Act of 1647, communities with fifty or more householders were required to establish formal petty (or elementary) schools, and communities with a hundred or more householders had to establish Latin grammar (or secondary) schools.
In small communities without schoolhouses, educated ladies like Dame Belcher ran petty schools in their kitchens to teach local children elementary reading, writing, and arithmetic. If Hancock had completed his studies, he would have moved to the town's Latin grammar school to prepare for Harvard and the pulpit, with four to seven years of Latin, Greek, history, geography, geometry, algebra, and trigonometry.
In the spring of 1744, however, Hancock s father became ill and died, just three weeks short of his forty-second birthday. His wife and three children faced poverty and homelessness until they received a letter from the old Bishop. At seventy-four, he still preached in Lexington and lived with his wife in a large manse. 9 The rooms that once housed his own children were empty, and he invited his daughter-in-law and three children to move in. The old man looked forward to molding his grandson into the greatest Reverend John Hancock of them all.
Before the Bishop could devour his grandson, however, another, equally forceful Hancock appeared at the manse in Lexington in an English-built gilt-edged coach and four, attended by four liveried servants. A silver-and-ivory coat of arms emblazoned its doorsthree fighting cocks, the topmost with a dragon s tail, above a raised hand of protest 10 which the owner believed was his due, if not his verifiable birthright. Beneath it heraldic gold script proclaimed, Nul Plaisir Sans Peine ( no pleasure without pain). Thomas Hancock, the Bishop s second son, who had left home at the age of fourteen, had returned after twenty-seven years. He had left as an indentured apprentice and now reappeared as one of America s richest, most powerful merchants, owner of Boston's prestigious, world-renowned House of Hancock.
Like many powerful eighteenth-century merchants, Hancock's enterprise was a conglomerate that included retailing, wholesaling, importing, exporting, warehousing, ship and wharf ownership, investment banking, and real estate investing. What made Thomas Hancock different was that he was more successful than most other merchants, and he had succeeded in Boston, then the richest city in the New World. Although no one had a firm idea of all the things Hancock traded, everyone knew that whatever in the world one might want, one could find it at Thomas Hancock's, and if he didn t have it, he could get it for a price. Every bit as overwhelming as his father, the Bishop, Thomas Hancock could buy anything he wanted; and what he wanted more than anything else in the world when he strode into his father s house in Lexington in the summer of 1744and what he intended to buy at any pricewas a son and heir to the House of Hancock.
Thomas Hancock had spent twenty-seven years building his commercial empire and he was not about to let it fall into the hands of strangers after his death. He and his wife, Lydia as ladylike person as ever lived 11 had been married in 1731, but after thirteen years had been unable to have the children they both craved so much. His older brother's death provided the first opportunity to adopt an acceptable child. At seventy-four, the Bishop was too old to raise three small children and did not earn enough to send two boys to Harvard. Thomas pledged to provide lifelong security in the most generous fashion for his father, his brother's widow, Mary, and all three children if Mary would allow him to raise the older boy, John, as his own in Boston. His uncle would assure him the finest schooling, culminating at Harvard, where he would follow in his father s and grandfather's educational footsteps. Mary Hancock and the Bishop had little choice but to yield to the forceful merchant king and to watch as her little boy, the third and soon to be the greatest John Hancock, left the manse in Lexington and waved good-bye from his uncle's stately carriage.
They were an incongruous sight, the merchant king and his new son. The little country boy was dressed in an ill-fitting washed-out gray suit his mother had made. His hair flowed back to a little bobtail, and his skin glowed red from the scrubbing his mother had administered early that morning. His uncle was built as powerfully as the Bishop, but his face was less dour. It bore a benign smile, whose inscrutability had lured many traders into deals that plunged them into financial oblivion while increasing the House of Hancock s varied assets.
Although Thomas Hancock lacked the Harvard credentials of Boston's other aristocrats, he had impeccable personal taste, from his immaculate, carefully powdered wig to his silver shoe buckles. Embroidered ruffled shirt cuffs flared from the ends of his jacket sleeves and embraced his soft, puffy hands. The rest of his costumethe magnificent knee-length velvet coat and the shirt frills that peeked discreetly from the front of his jacketshowed the care he took to compensate for his academic deficiencies with well- displayed evidence of his wealth, power, and high standing. A gold chain held a magnificently fashioned watch. It was his most prized personal possession. To little John Hancock, even the great robes of the church that his father and grandfather wore on Sundays had never looked so grand as the clothes of his uncle the merchant king. He was simply splendid.
The horses of Thomas Hancock's coach stepped out slowly at first, carefully avoiding the deep ruts of the parched country road, but as the road improved at the approaches to Boston they picked up their pace, until they reached the town gate on Boston Neck, a narrow little strip of land that connected the city to the mainland. Colonial Boston was almost an island, an outcropping at the end of a narrow, hilly spit. All the hills except Beacon Hill would later be carved away to fill the surrounding marshes and mudflats that separated the town from the mainland. From above, eighteenth- century Boston lay in the water like a fallen bird, its stubby wings outspread. One wing lay in the Charles River, on the northwest, while the opposite wing lay in the harbor. A short neck connected the body of the bird to its head, or North End. At high tide the Charles River estuary flooded the mudflats and salt marshes to the west of the city and formed the Back Bay. On the east, or harbor side, endless finger piers reached into the water, side by side, embracing the hundreds of ships that sailed in and out of the busy harbor.
After entering the town gate, Hancock's carriage passed the gallows before trotting onto Orange, Newbury, and Marlborough Streets (all, now, Washington Street) . They passed Province House, the magnificent mansion of the royal governor, and turned left up School Street. Simple two-story wood and brick houses lined both sides of the way, sometimes separated by tiny alleys. Dismal little workshops and stores lay inside most of the dark entries. A handful of church steeples towered above, but none higher than Christ Church (Old North Church), whose steeple reached more than 190 feet above the town. After forging their way through a swamp of horse dung, Hancock s team reached the bottom of Beacon Hill and slowly hauled the coach up to the edge of the Common, at the peak of the hill on the left. A gateway opposite the Common opened on the grandest home the little country boy and indeed most of Boston had ever seen, a Georgian palace three stories tall, including roof dormers.
Built of square-cut granite blocks and trimmed at each corner with brownstone quoins, the mansion had two large windows on either side of a central entrance on the ground floor and a large balcony above that provided a breathtaking view across the entire Common, the city, harbor, and sea beyond, and across the surrounding countryside. In all, the house had fifty-three windows, including those in the dormers, lighted by 480 squares of the best crown glass from London. Hancock s London agent had taken particular care about my window glass, that it be the best and every square cut exactly to the size. Outside, a two-acre landscaped green bore a variety of shade trees and elegant gardens. At the far end, a small orchard included mulberry, peach, and apricot trees from Spain. A gardening enthusiast, Hancock ordered many trees and plants from English nurseries and unwittingly enriched the entire New England landscape with species of trees, shrubs, and flowers that were new to North America: all originated from windblown seeds from Thomas Hancock s gardens on Beacon Hill.
He told one horticulturist "to procure for me two or three dozen Yew trees, some Hollys and Jessamine vines; and if you have any particular curious things . . . [ that ] will beautify a Flower Garden, send a sample. . . . Pray send me a Catalogue of that Fruit you have that are Dwarf Trees and Espaliers. . . . My Gardens all Lye on the South Side of a hill, with the most beautifull Assent to the Top; and its Allowed on all hands the Kingdom of England don t afford so fine a Prospect as I have both of Land and Water. Neither do I intend to Spare any cost or pains in making my Gardens beautifull or Profitable." Hancock's gardens were the most beautiful and most envied in Boston.
Inside his house, a wide, paneled central entrance hall reached through to a set of rear doors that looked onto the formal gardens. Delicately carved spiral balusters bounded a broad staircase that rose along the left wall of the main hall. A ten-foot-tall "Chiming Clock" topped with sculpted figures "Gilt with Burnished Gold" stood against the opposite wall. Oil portraits of important men, in uniform or formal clothes, stared out from large gilded frames on the walls in the rooms off the hall, casting silent judgments on all who entered. The great parlor, or drawing room, lay off the hall to the right as one entered the house, and the family sitting room sat opposite. Mahogany furniture filled the parlor, upholstered in luxurious damask that matched the drapes. Imported green-and-scarlet "Flockwork" from Englanda "very Rich & Beautiful fine Cloth" wallpaper ornamented with tufts of wool and cottoncovered the walls. Elegant brass candlesticks sparkled with reflected light from the marble hearthone of three downstairs. The servants kept fires burning in every room during the cold Boston winters. Across the hall, English wallpaper in the family room displayed a panorama of brightly colored "Birds Peacocks Macoys [macaws] Squirrells Fruit & Flowers" that Hancock described as "better than paintings done in oyl." Beyond the family room were the dining room and kitchen, which included "a Jack of three Guineas price, with a wheel-fly and Spitt-Chain to it." One of the smaller rooms behind housed Hancock's huge china collection, while the others served as lodgings for servants and slaves.
Hancock stocked his cellar with Madeira wines that he bought "without regard to price provided the quality answers to it." He also bought a docile slave named Cambridge for £160 to help serve his and Lydia Hancock's many guests from "6 Quart Decanters" and "2 doz. handsom, new fash'd wine glasses," made of the finest rock crystal from London.
Upstairs, above the parlor, lay the huge guest bedroom, with furnishings and matching draperies in yellow damask. Years later its canopied four-poster would sleep, among others, Sir William Howe, commanding general of the British army in America during Washington s siege of Boston in the winter of 1775-76. Opposite the guest room stretched the master bedroom, done in crimson. Two other, smaller bedrooms lay on the second floor, with storage and servants' quarters scattered above beneath the roof.
"We live Pretty comfortable here on Beacon Hill," said Thomas Hancock modestly.
Within hours of entering his new home on the hill, little John Hancock began a year of intensive training with a private tutor, who transformed the country boy into a sophisticate with impeccable manners, speech, and behaviora model of mid-eighteenth-century Anglo-Boston society. His doting aunt Lydia groomed and dressed him in velvet breeches, with a satin shirt richly embroidered with lace ruffles at the front and cuffs. His shoes bore the same sparkling silver buckles as his uncle's. Thomas Hancock was immensely proud of his new son s good looks, and as quickly as the boy's bearing and manners permitted, he made a ceremony of introducing him to the scores of military and government leaders, including the royal governor, who constantly came to pay court to the great merchant and dine at his wife s fine table.
In July 1745, John Hancock was ready to enroll in the prestigious Boston Public Latin School (later, Boston Latin School), on School Street, at the bottom of Beacon Hill behind the Anglican King s Chapel. A two-story wooden building with a neat peaked roof and belfry, Boston Public Latin was the academic gateway to Harvard College and leadership in church, business, or governmentand often all three. It was no place for a rebel. Thirty years earlier, ten-year-old Benjamin Franklin, bridling under the harsh discipline, dropped out of Boston Latin after only two years there.
Headed by Tory martinet John Lovell, the school put John Hancock through five years of torturous studies, stretching from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon four days a week, and from seven to noon on Saturdays. There was no school on Thursdays, Sundays, and fast days, or on Saturday afternoons. School ran the year round, with only a week s vacation at Thanksgiving and at Christmas and three weeks off in August. In the end, Hancock and other survivors of Lovell s brutal pedagogy learned to venerate the king and to read, write, and speak fluent Latin and Greek; to read and cite the Old and New Testaments in Latin and Greek; and to read and cite the works of Julius Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Xenophon, and Homer. The boys spent the last hour of every day of those five years mending quills and perfecting their handwriting, which in Hancock s case produced his magnificent signature. Headmaster Lovell punished recalcitrant students with a sharp slap across one or both hands with his ferule, a wooden stick much like a ruler. His idea of a reward was to allow students to work in his garden.
Hancock had little time for play and did not win many friends, arriving at school and leaving as he did each day in his uncle's gilded coach and four, pampered by liveried servants. Quite simply, the boy s sudden access to such vast and almost indescribable wealth and privilege provoked envy among other boys at schoolmuch as his uncle s sudden access to wealth had provoked envy among their parents. Only seven years earlier, Thomas Hancock and his wife had lived with everyone else among the crooked little dung-filled streets and alleys of Boston, dodging the buckets of slop that rained on passersby each morning. Then, suddenly, for next to nothing, he acquired the idyllic pasture on Beacon Hill, fronting Boston Common, and the masons began raising the granite shell of his palace. Hancock kept buying property until he owned the entire crest of Beacon Hill and half the town below, including the massive Clark s Wharf, Boston s second- largest wharf.
"He had raised a great estate with such rapidity, wrote Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, himself one of Boston's most successful merchants when Hancock was building his fortune, that it was commonly believed that he had purchased a valuable diamond for a small sum, and sold it at its full price."
Occasionally, Uncle Thomas took his nephew to Clark's Wharf to see the great sailing ships and visit the House of Hancock, where the huge silver-and-ivory Hancock seal emblazoned the forbidding door to the great compting room. Several times, his uncle let him peer in wonder at the faceless clerks amid mountains of ledgers, journals, and letter books that held the secrets of the House of Hancock. One day, his uncle assured him, those secretsand the vast wealth of the House of Hancockwould all be his.