The Reading Room
John Hancock: The First U.S. President
He is the answer to the trick question: Who was the first president of the United States? His role as the initial president of the Continental Congress makes John Hancock, not George Washington, the correct answer. Known perhaps more for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence than anything else he did, Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant, played a pivotal role in procuring American independence and in Massachusetts politics for two decades in the late 1700s. Only Robert Morris did more to finance the American Revolution, and few other patriots would have lost as much if it had failed.
Today, a Boston-based company, housed in the most prominent building in the city, bears his name, but the patriot leader had nothing to do with John Hancock Financial Services, Inc. In a shrewd marketing move, the business used his name simply because Hancock was a revered founder, Massachusetts’ first governor, and a generous philanthropist who helped rebuild Boston after the devastation of the Revolutionary War.
During his 56 years, Hancock held several important political posts. He served as a Boston selectman, the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a delegate to the Continental Congress, the president of the Continental Congress for two-and-a-half tumultuous years, and Massachusetts’ governor for eleven years.
Although usually not mentioned in the list of the nation’s most devout founders alongside John Jay, Patrick Henry, John Witherspoon, Elias Boudinot, Roger Sherman, Samuel Adams, and Charles Carroll, Hancock’s faith was deep, meaningful, and life directing. The life-long member of the Brattle Street (Congregationalist) Church in Boston used many biblical arguments to justify Americans’ declaration of independence and providentialist rhetoric to describe their successful campaign to achieve nationhood.
Hancock strongly believed that a politician’s worldview should direct his work. Therefore, he repeatedly expressed his Christian convictions in public pronouncements in both offices. Hancock insisted that God was sovereign over earthly affairs and assured Americans that they would receive divine blessings if they followed biblical norms in public life and acted virtuously in private affairs.
Consider several examples. Hancock told Continental Army officers in March 1776 that the same God who had prevented the British from conquering Massachusetts would thwart their schemes to defeat other colonies. In his appeal to the new nation in September 1776, Hancock assured citizens that the members of the Continental Congress staunchly relied “on Heaven for the justice of our cause.” “Under the gracious smiles of Providence, assisted by our own most strenuous endeavors,” he declared, Americans “shall finally succeed.” In 1782 Governor Hancock promised that God would ensure that America’s righteous campaign succeeded. The next year his Thanksgiving proclamation implored citizens to thank God for their numerous blessings and to acknowledge “His Goodness and Bounty.”
As president of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1777, Hancock helped convince various factions to work together. As conflicting interests threatened to destroy the fledgling country, Hancock promoted moderation and compromise and prodded Americans to place their shared values and aims above their personal interests. His winsome personality and effective leadership helped provide the unity required to obtain American independence.
As governor, Hancock’s faith contributed to his compassion and concern for ordinary citizens. He convinced the state’s General Court to grant full pardons to all those who had participated in Shays’ Rebellion, an armed attempt to overthrow the state government in 1786-1787. He opposed slavery, argued that state lotteries were harmful to the poor, and opposed brutal punishment of criminals.
Like other founders, Hancock had flaws. He had a large ego, lived more lavishly than almost any other American, and engaged in some questionable business practices. Nevertheless, he was an honest politician who, inspired by his faith, made large sacrifices to aid his nation and generously aided the destitute and needy. His Christian commitment informed his political philosophy and service. Historian Charles Akers argues that Massachusetts voters continually elected Hancock to various offices because he personified republican ideals. For many of his countrymen, he represented “public spirit and Christian patriotism.”