John Hancock

Portrait of John Hancock
Courtesy of the National Archives

As a young boy, John Hancock (1737-1793) was adopted by his merchant uncle, Thomas Hancock and his wife, Lydia. Thomas was an extremely wealthy and influential Bostonian merchant and John was brought up to take over his uncle’s business, becoming a skilled businessman in his own right. The Hancocks had powerful political connections and friendships, including a relationship to Thomas Pownall, who they entertained regularly and a portion of whose finances Thomas managed. After Thomas’s death, that responsibility passed to John.

John was acquainted with Pownall via his visits to the Hancock household. Pownall was also entrusted with John’s care in 1760 when Thomas sent him to study finance in London. At that time, Pownall had resigned as Governor of Massachusetts and was returning to England while John was completing his business education.

Similar to many other colonial merchants, John was initially a political moderate who threw in his lot with the revolutionaries after Parliament refused to grant any compromises on trade issues. It was around the time that this letter was written that his Loyalist views had begun to change, although his opposition to the Stamp Act was principally financial and not philosophical. A man of contradictions, Hancock enjoyed showing off his wealth in the purchase of expensive clothing, but he was also one of America’s first great philanthropists and humanitarians.