John Hancock never set out to found a new nation. He was quite happy with the old one, which had made him the wealthiest, most powerful merchant in North America and certain to become the first Lord Hancock. So John Hancock was the least likely man in Boston to start a revolution – until Britain’s Parliament arrogantly miscalculated by trying to refill its treasury by dipping its collective hands into John Hancock’s pockets – and those of other colonial merchants, bankers, and planters.
All were loyal British subjects who would gladly have contributed to Britain’s financial recovery had they been asked. But Britain’s Parliament tried taxing Americans without their consent, and John Hancock went to war, investing almost his entire fortune in arms and ammunition for an army of 13,000 Massachusetts rebels. Almost all farmers untrained in war, Hancock’s “Minutemen” laid siege to Boston and forced the vaunted British Army – the world’s largest, best equipped – to evacuate Boston and sail to Canada, leaving Massachusetts the first American colony to become an independent state. Named president, Hancock joined like-minded foes of British taxation in Philadelphia, where they issued a Declaration of Independence proclaiming all thirteen British colonies independent. Hancock signed their Declaration first, with a large, bold signature that made his name – his “John Hancock” – synonymous with the word “signature.”
After Hancock signed the Declaration, the states united into a Confederation of American States and elected him president of the Confederation Congress – in effect making him first president of the United States – thirteen years before George Washington was elected president.
About the author: Harlow Giles Unger is the author of American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution, Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation, and The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness. The 2008 Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, he lives in New York City.