Founding Fathers Blog

Was John Hancock a Smuggler?

August 2nd, 2011

We celebrate Independence Day in America on July 4. And rightly so, since that is the day that the official document creating our Independence was approved by the Continental Congress, in effect making America a new nation. Independent from Great Britain, and all other nations on the earth.

While we remember this day with celebrations and festivities, did you know that only 2 members of that Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence on that date? It’s true. Only the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, and the secretary signed their names on July 4, 1776. Then the formal document was sent out to be “engrossed”, or printed by hand in beautiful clear graphic letters by a professional in that business.

Congress reconvened on August 2, 1776, and at that time John Hancock and the remainder of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence added their signatures on that date. It is a beautiful document. When John Hancock placed his “John Hancock” on the parchment, he signed in extra large style, commenting that he wanted King George to be able to read his name without the requiring the use of spectacles. He was brave. This was treason. They all signed a death warrant.

John Hancock was a very wealthy merchant at the time. He owned real estate, ships, businesses, and a “long wharf” in Boston Harbor. His office for his shipping, import and export business was located at the outer end of Long Wharf. When his ships would come into the harbor and dock at the wharf preparing to be unloaded, John Hancock had a regular practice. When the duty officers, or tax collector for the goods to be unloaded from his ships, would arrive, John would invite the duty officer to his office at the far end of the wharf for a refreshment, or a drink. Then he would engage that officer in consuming conversation while the goods would be unloaded from the ship and disappear into the city, without paying the tax to be imposed.

At the appropriate time the tax collector would disengage from the conversation and return to his inspection, only to find that the ship was mostly empty. Of course, the authorities became aware of this practice. On one occasion, the authorities from the Crown stopped and boarded, then confiscated John Hancock’s favorite ship, the Liberty, while it was still at sea. They charged John Hancock with several crimes. He hired his close friend and fellow Harvard College alum, John Adams, an attorney, to defend him. John Adams, through shrewd legal motions and arguments, convinced the Judge in Admiralty to listen to his grievance, and the judge decided to postpone the case. The crown must have been afraid that John Adams and John Hancock would prevail at court, and have the burdensome duties declared “unconstitutional.” The Judge never reconvened the case.

John Hancock didn’t have to pay the fine that was threatened to be imposed. The fine which was to be attached, would have taken most of John Hancock’s vast estate. Hancock was never found guilty of the offenses charged against him. But he also never saw his ship, The Liberty, again. The British kept it. Imagine Hancock’s thoughts as he later read the account of the talk given by a fellow patriot from Virginia, Patrick Henry. “Give Me Liberty, or give me death!” John Hancock was a brave man, a wealthy man, and a true patriot.

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