The thrilling history of American Independence is ever a subject of deep interest to the patriot and philanthropist. It has no parallel in the history of nations. Its causes, progress and successful termination combine to throw around it a sacred halo that fills the reader with wonder and admiration. The noble spirits who planned and achieved it command the profoundest respect over the civilized world.
As time advances that respect is ripening into veneration. The names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, like those of the twelve Apostles, are surrounded with a refulgent glory--unfading and enduring as the planetary system. Among them was John Hancock, born near Quincy, Mass., in 1737. His father was a clergyman of eminent piety, highly esteemed by his parishioners. He died when this son was an infant, leaving him under the guardian care of an uncle, who bestowed upon him all the attention and tenderness of a father. He graduated at Harvard College in 1754, with great credit to himself and satisfaction to his numerous friends.
His uncle was a wealthy and thorough merchant and placed his nephew in his counting house that he might add to his collegiate acquirements a more important acquisition--a knowledge of men and things. In 1760 he was sent to England--saw the mortal remains of George II. laid in the tomb and the crown placed upon the head of his successor. He continued in the employment of his uncle until 1761, who then died, leaving this nephew his entire estate, supposed to be the largest of any one in the province at that time.
John Hancock was long one of the Selectmen of Boston. In 1766 he was elected to the General Assembly. He there exhibited talents of a high order as a statesman, at once gaining the esteem and admiration of his colleagues. He also gained the particular attention of a certain clique, who determined to rule or ruin him. They placed him in the crucible of slander, from which he came like gold seven times tried--triumphant and unscathed.
In the Assembly he was uniformly chairman of the most important committees. He was also elected speaker but the Governor, jealous of his rising popularity and liberal principles, put his veto upon the election.
He was a man of deep thought, general intelligence and strong mind. He had thoroughly investigated the laws of God, of nature and of man. He well understood that men are endowed by their Creator with certain inherent privileges--that they are born equal and of right are and should be free. He drank largely at the refreshing fountain of liberal principles and was among the first to expose the blind and cruel policy of the British ministers. He contributed largely in rousing his fellow sufferers to a sense of impending danger.
Although deeply interested in commercial business and more exposed to the wrath of kingly power than any individual in the province--he boldly placed himself at the head of the association prohibiting the importation of goods from Great Britain. The other provinces caught the patriotic fire from these examples and became prepared to act their part in the tragic scenes that resulted in the emancipation of the pilgrim fathers from monarchical domination.
As a mark of special attention to this uncompromising patriot, the first seizure that was made by the revenue officers under pretence of some trivial violation of the laws was one of his vessels. So great was the excitement produced by this impolitic transaction, that large numbers were speedily collected to rescue the property. It was placed under the guns of an armed ship ready to open a broadside upon any who should dare to reclaim the vessel. The populace rose like a thunder cloud--rushed to the onset--brought away the vessel--razed to the ground some of the buildings occupied by the custom house officers and committed to the flames the boat of the collector. For a time this fire was arrested by the strong arm of power but it was never extinguished--it was the fire of LIBERTY. It only required to be fanned by that ministerial oppression that ultimately blew it into curling flames.
To prevent the recurrence of a popular outbreak several regiments of British troops, with all their loathsome vices fresh upon them, were quartered upon the inhabitants. This was like pouring bituminous coal tar upon a lurid flame. The independent spirits of Boston were not to be _awed_ into subjection. The consequences were tragical. On the evening of 5th of March 1770, a party of these soldiers fired upon and killed five and wounded others of the citizens who had collected to manifest their indignation against those they _hated_ more than they _feared_. Had the town been placed in the terrific cradle of an earthquake and its foundations moved to the centre, the agitation could not have been greater. Had it been melting before the burning lava of a volcano the commotion could not have been increased. The tolling of bells--the groans of the dying and wounded--the shrieks of mothers, widows and orphans--the flight of soldiers--the rush of the inhabitants--the cry of revenge--popular fury rising into a tornado of vengeance--all combined to create a scene of consternation and horror at which imagination recoils, description quails, sympathy trembles, humanity bleeds. It is a commentary, eloquently strong, upon the gross impropriety of quartering soldiers upon citizens--of enforcing civil law by military force--of invading the sanctity of domestic peace and private enjoyment.
On the following day a meeting was called composed of the concentrated talent and virtue of Boston. Strong but discreet resolutions were passed. A committee was appointed to wait upon the governor to request him to remove the troops from the town, at the head of which were Samuel Adams and John Hancock. His excellency at first refused but finding that discretion was the better part of valor, at once ordered the soldiers to the castle. He also gave a pledge that the offenders should be arraigned and tried and thus restored transient tranquillity.
The solemn and imposing ceremony of interring those who were killed was then performed. Their bodies were deposited in the same grave. Tears of sorrow, sympathy, regret and indignation were mingled with the clods as they descended upon the butchered bodies of those victims of tyranny. For many years the sad event was commemorated with deep and mournful solemnity. A hymn was sung to their memory and the torch of Liberty re-illumed at their tomb.
At one of these celebrations during the progress of the Revolution John Hancock delivered the address. A few brief extracts will be read with interest.
"Security to the persons and property of the governed is so evidently the design of civil government that to attempt a logical demonstration of it would be like burning a taper at noonday to assist the sun in enlightening the world. It cannot be either virtuous or honorable to attempt to support institutions of which this is not the principal basis. Some boast of being friends to government. I also am a friend to government--to a righteous government, founded upon the principles of reason and justice--but I glory in avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny."
He then portrayed vividly the wrongs inflicted by the mother country and urged his fellow citizens to vindicate their injured rights. On speaking of the massacre his language shows the emotions of his heaving bosom--the feelings of his noble soul.
"I come reluctantly to the transactions of that dismal night, when, in quick succession we felt the extremes of grief, astonishment and rage--when Heaven, in anger, suffered hell to take the reins--when Satan, with his chosen band opened the sluices of New England's blood and sacrilegiously polluted her land, with the bodies of her guiltless sons. Let this sad tale be told without a tear--let not the heaving bosom cease to burn with a manly indignation at the relation of it through the long tracts of future time--let every parent tell the story to his listening children till the tears of pity glistens in their eyes or boiling passion shakes their tender frames."
"Dark and designing knaves--murderous parricides! how dare you tread upon the earth which has drunk the blood of slaughtered innocence shed by your hands! How dare you breathe that air which wafted to the ear of Heaven the groans of those who fell a sacrifice to your accursed ambition!! But if the laboring earth doth not expand her jaws--if the air you breathe is not commissioned to be the minister of death--yet hear it and tremble! the eye of Heaven penetrates the darkest chambers of the soul and you, though screened from human observation, must be arraigned--must lift up your hands, red with the blood of those whose death you have procured, at the tremendous bar of God."
So bold had Mr. Hancock become that the adherents of the crown put every plan and artifice in operation that could be devised to injure him. His worst enemy, the governor, nominated him to the Council, knowing that his acceptance would turn the populace against him. The plan was just as feasible as to think of baking griddle cakes on the moon. By a prompt refusal he put his enemies to shame and increased the confidence the patriots reposed in him. He was at this time Captain of the Governor's Guard and was immediately removed. His company was composed of the first citizens of Boston. As a testimony of respect to him the members promptly dissolved.
The dread crisis finally came. The war car was put in motion on the heights of Lexington. American blood was again shed by British soldiers. The people heard the dread clarion of Revolution--multitudes rushed to the conflict--the hireling troops fled in confusion--messengers of death met them on the whole route--retribution pressed on them at every corner--the trees and fences were illuminated with streams of fire from the rusty muskets of the native yoemanry and many of Briton's proud sons slumbered in their gore on that eventful day. The watchword was then fixed--LIBERTY OR DEATH.
On the reception of this news the governor issued his proclamation in the name of his most _Christian Majesty_, George the III. declaring the Province in a state of rebellion but _graciously_ offering a pardon to all returning penitents--_excepting_ John Hancock and Samuel Adams. A secret attempt was made to arrest them but was foiled by information sent by Gen. Warren. They were preserved to aid in the glorious cause they had boldly and nobly espoused and to become shining lights in the blue canopy of FREEDOM--bright examples of patriotism for future generations. Their proscription by the royal governor endeared them still more to the people and their personal friends. They asked no pardon--desired no royal favor.
In 1774 Mr. Hancock was unanimously elected President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and in 1775 he was called to preside over the Continental Congress. It was with great diffidence he accepted this high mark of esteem, many of its members possessing towering talents and were much his seniors in age. He discharged the duties of his station with fidelity, great ability and to the satisfaction of the members and the country. His was the only name affixed to the Declaration of Independence when first published and stands, in bold relievo, at the head of the list of that noble band of fearless patriots who bearded the British Lion in his den and drove him from Columbia's soil--whose names are enrolled on the historic sunbeams of unfading light, there to remain in living brightness to the remotest ages of time.
Impaired in health and worn down by fatigue, Mr. Hancock resigned his responsible station in Congress in October 1777, having presided over that body for two and a half years with a credit highly gratifying to his numerous friends and advantageous to the cause of human rights.
Soon after his return he was elected to the convention of his native state to form a constitution for its government. His talents and experience were of great service in aiding to produce a truly republican instrument. In 1780 he was elected the first governor under the new constitution and continued to fill the gubernatorial chair five years when he resigned. At the expiration of two years he was again elected to that office and continued to fill that important station during the remainder of his life.
During his administration there were many difficulties to overcome--many evils to suppress. The devastation of the war had paralyzed every kind of business--reduced thousands from affluence to poverty--polluted the morals of society and left a heavy debt to be liquidated. Conflicting interests were to be reconciled--restless spirits subdued and visionary theories exploded. A faction of 12,000 men threatened to annihilate the new government. Riots were of frequent occurrence--the civil authority was disregarded and it became necessary to call out the military to enforce order. By the prudence, decision and wise conduct of the Governor and those acting under him, all difficulties were adjusted--the clamor of the people hushed--order restored and but few lives sacrificed at the shrine of treason.
By his firm and determined course the Governor incurred the displeasure of many prominent men for a time--but when reason resumed her station and prosperity alleviated the burdens that had been so strongly felt, their better judgment gained the ascendency, the sour feelings of party spirit lost their rancor--admiration and esteem for his sterling virtues and useful talents--the long and arduous services he had rendered his State and country--disarmed his enemies of their resentment and produced uniform love and respect. None but those who then lived can fully appreciate the Alpine barriers the patriots had to surmount to preserve the Independence they achieved and reduce to practice the long nursed vision of a Republican government. To recount them would require a volume. Let them slumber in the shades of oblivion.
Gov. Hancock was strongly in favor of the adoption of the Federal Constitution and left his sick bed in the last week of the session of the Assembly and did much by his advice and influence to induce his State to sanction that important instrument of confederation which has thus far withstood the assaults of demagogues--the thunder gusts of party spirit and held us in the bonds of Union, strength and power. Paralyzed be that arm that would cut the smallest fibre of the--cord of our UNION. Silenced be that voice that would whisper the word _dissolution_ even to a zephyr. If we are true to ourselves we are destined to become the greatest nation known to history. We are appointed by the sages and heroes of the Revolution executors in perpetual succession of the richest estate ever bequeathed to a nation--LIBERTY in its pristine purity. Let us see well to its preservation that when we meet the testators in the realms of bliss, we may find our account approved and passed in the high court of heaven.
John Hancock lived to see prosperity shed the benignant rays of happiness over the broad expanse of the infant republic. He saw her institutions, laws, trade, manufactures, commerce, agriculture--all based on the firm pillars of purchased freedom and eternal justice. His Pierian vision was reduced to a happy reality--he could then die peaceful and happy.
His ill health continued until the 8th of October 1793 when suddenly and unexpectedly his soul left earth and returned to Him who gave it to join the kindred spirits that had gone before and entered upon the untried realities of the eternal world.
Governor Hancock was a man of elegant person and accomplishments--amiable and pure in all the private relations of life--highly honorable in all his actions--a polished gentleman in his manners--fashionable in his dress and style of living--charitable and liberal--a friend to the poor--a visitor of the widow and orphan--diligent in business--open and frank in his disposition--a faithful companion--a consistent patriot--an HONEST MAN.
Source: Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution, by L. Carroll Judson: Copyright, 1854 Available for download at the Project Gutenberg website.