John Hancock was more than just a signature
WELLSVILLE – History books have a funny way of glossing over the richness and complexity of historical figures. America’s founding fathers are no exception. One founding father, John Hancock, sought to bring that complexity and richness back to life with a visit to the Wellsville Historical Society’s River Museum on Sunday.
A crowd of history buffs gathered at the museum to learn about the man behind the famous signature. Author and public speaker William E. Johnson of Youngstown, played the part of Hancock, illuminating the fateful events that lead to his signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Back by popular demand, this was Johnson’s second visit to the museum to explore the history of the widely recognized yet somewhat enigmatic founding father.
“If you look at history I could have come out of the mists and signed my name just once and left,” said Johnson, playing the role of Hancock. “Hopefully I can enlighten you a bit more about what life was like prior to the signing of that document.”
Adorned in Revolutionary-era garb and powdered wig, Johnson, a.k.a Hancock, recounted everything from his privileged upbringing to his role in the Boston Tea Party.
Born in Braintree Massachusetts in 1737, Hancock came from a long line of ministers, all bearing the name John Hancock. Hancock’s father died when he was only 6, forcing he and his mother to move to Lexington. Hancock’s fortunes improved when he was adopted by a wealthy aunt and uncle looking for an heir to their shipping business.
Now in the care of his uncle, Hancock studied at Harvard University at the age of 14. Johnson notes that many of his classmates, such as John and Samuel Adams would also go on to leave their mark on history.
In 1760, Hancock was sent to London to represent his uncle’s business interests. Hancock returned to the colonies in 1764. His uncle died shortly thereafter leaving him a shipping empire and making him the wealthiest man in Massachusetts at only 27 years old.
Around this time, British Parliament passed a series of acts placing taxes on goods imported to the colonies. Johnson says it is no accident Hancock, who made his living off of the importation of goods such as tea and paper, came to sympathize with the revolutionary cause. Hancock, along with other prominent Bostonians such as Samuel Adams, stirred up anti-British sentiment, culminating in the Boston Massacre and later the Boston Tea Party.
These events, sensationalized by Adams in various newspapers of the day, would plant the seed which would ultimately lead to the Revolutionary War.
Johnson told the audience that he writes and speaks about the founding fathers, not just because of their importance in history, but also for their relevance to today’s political issues. He currently has two books out which explore both the lives of the founding fathers and the historical context of the day: “Snug Harbor Tavern” and “The Seeds of Love and War”
“If you study the history books, what’s referred to as founding fathers get a very short paragraph these days, much to my chagrin, because if it wasn’t for them you all wouldn’t be here,” said Johnson.