Copyright 2005 Mark Cole
When is it right for you to rebel against negative powers working against you? When are so weighed down by someone or something that it is absolutely justified for you to strike back? Have you ever asked that? If so, then read on and let’s look back in history and find a time when men of courage and perseverance did just that. Let example of those who have gone before inspire and motivate you!
Rarely has world seen such a formidable body of men gather together for a solemn purpose as when members of Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776.
In addition to weighty duty of representing citizens of their respective colonies, each of delegates who would sign Declaration of Independence brought something significant to Philadelphia: Jefferson brought his eloquence; world famous, brilliant and elderly Ben Franklin lent celebrity and thus political cover; Sam Adams baptized movement with fire and intensity; Witherspoon's religious credibility boosted cause in eyes of devout.
Each signer was courageous and enormously significant; a few of them were truly indispensable.
But even among giants of American Revolution, one man stands out: John Hancock.
Hancock’s early life did not obviously reveal that he would become a leader in independence movement. Hancock was educated at Boston Latin School and Harvard, graduating from college when he was 17 years old. He then went to work for his uncle, and quickly gained a reputation for being capable and honest. He was even sent on trade trips to England and on one of these he observed – perhaps presciently – coronation of King George III.
When he was still a young man, he became heir to family shipping and import/export fortune and richest man in Massachusetts. He thus took his place among Boston elite – most of whom remained unwaveringly loyal to British crown, no matter what abuses were heaped upon colonies.
But Hancock would take a different course. He sided with independence movement. As crown taxed colonies and hampered their commerce, Hancock struggled to maintain his business and supply necessities to colonial merchants. As measures of King George III against colonists became more oppressive and lawless, Hancock became more evasive and covert.
He simply refused to give in. He organized a boycott of British tea and began smuggling lead, glass and paper into Massachusetts. Other merchants – even if they were not as eager to stick their neck out as Hancock – relied on him to fill their shops. And customers of those merchants who purchased necessities of life in those shops also depended on Hancock. Had Hancock taken easy way out, plenty of people would have suffered.
Hancock named ship used in his smuggling operation Liberty and she rapidly became a tangible symbol of cause of colonial independence, if not a celebrity of sorts. When Liberty was impounded by British in 1768, a riot followed.
During 1770's, Hancock was involved in every significant development leading up to Declaration: Boston Tea Party, organization of minutemen, financing of resistance. Indeed, it was often stated that, "Sam Adams wrote letters to newspapers, and John Hancock paid postage." He worked tirelessly behind scenes, but he was not afraid to take a bold public stand, as well. In his famous speech commemorating Boston Massacre of 1770, Hancock spoke to crowds in Boston, and reminded them never to forget events of previous year: "Let this sad tale of death never be told, without a tear; let not heaving bosom cease to burn with a manly indignation at relation of it, through long tracks of future time; let every parent tell shameful story to his listening children, till tears of pity glisten in their eyes, or boiling passion shakes their tender frames.” He then turned his wrath directly on those soldiers who, in a moment of cowardice and panic, fired a volley into a crowd of civilians: "Dark and designing knaves, murderers, parricides! How dare you tread upon earth, which has drunk blood or slaughtered innocence shed by your hands? How dare you breathe that air, which wafted to ear of heaven groans of those who fell a sacrifice to your accursed ambition? -- But if labouring earth doth not expand her jaws; if air you breathe is not commissioned to be minister of death; yet, hear it, and tremble! The eye of heaven penetrates darkest chambers of soul; and you, though screened from human observation, must be arraigned, must lift your hands, red with blood of those whose death you have procured, at tremendous bar of God.” With words like that, it is little wonder that Hancock would soon be charged with treason and become a wanted man.
Fast forward to April of 1775. After a considerable build up of tension between royalist military governor of Massachusetts and local independence-minded patriots, martial law was declared and a crackdown on insurgents was ordered. Hancock and Sam Adams were publicly denounced as traitors and their arrest was ordered. Fortunately for Hancock and Adams, they had been warned by Paul Revere and were able to escape and hide before arrival of troops.
The governor’s troops then marched to Concord where colonial militiamen were stockpiling weapons and gunpowder. The militiamen and red coats met. The Battle of Lexington and Concord followed, “shot heard round world.”
When smoke cleared, more than fifty of colonial militia had been killed. The Crown had declared war on colonies. What would response be?
In John Hancock’s mind, necessary response was obvious.
Because of his certainty of purpose, Hancock was elected President of Continental Congress. One of his first acts (and obviously his most significant one) was to commission George Washington as chief military officer of united army of colonies.
By time delegates met in Philadelphia, Hancock's bold and famous signature on Declaration was a mere formality. He had already put his life, fortune and sacred honor on line in cause of independence. In fact, he likely welcomed company of other signers! His large and flamboyant signature went down in history and this quote – likely apocryphal – has often been attributed to him: "The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward." Whether he actually said that or not, sentiment is pure Hancock, fearless and defiant. Little wonder his name became synonymous with word “signature”.