Founders and the Constitution
John Hancock (1737-1793)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of John Hancock. They will learn about the ways Hancock worked to support the Revolutionary cause, his partnership with Samuel Adams in resisting British tyranny, the effectiveness of his rhetoric, and much more.
Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
I glory in publicly avowing my eternal enmity to tyranny. - John Hancock (1774)
Forever famous for his outsized signature on the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock was a larger than life figure in other ways as well. Part of the great Boston triumvirate that included Samuel Adams and James Otis, Hancock was a wealthy merchant whose bank account helped to finance the radical activities of the Sons of Liberty. Hancock himself became a thorn in the side of the British, who seized his ship, the Liberty, in 1768 and put a price on his head in 1775.
Hancock served as president of the Continental Congress and presided over the signing of the Declaration on August 2, 1776. Disappointed at being passed over for command of the Continental army in 1777, he returned to Massachusetts, where he had a hand in writing the state constitution of 1780 and served as governor for all but four years between 1780 and 1793. Hancock agreed to support ratification of the Constitution despite his reservations about centralized government power.
Popular in his day and in the hearts of succeeding generations of Americans because of his famous signature, opinion of Hancock remains divided. Some agree with John Adams that he was “an essential character” in the Revolution, while others belittle him as no more than Samuel Adams’s moneyman and tool.
Relevant Thematic Essays
In this lesson, students will learn about John Hancock. They should first read as homework Handout A—John Hancock (1737–1793) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: John Hancock on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre in which Hancock addresses the people of Boston about resisting British tyranny. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document. Handout D—Analysis: John Hancock on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre asks students to imagine the reactions of various listeners to the speech.
There is a Follow-Up Homework Option, which asks students to respond to Hancock’s assertion about the primary purpose of government. Extensions asks students to analyze the symbolic purposes of Hancock’s speech, and identify and analyze similar modern examples.
- explain the ways John Hancock worked to support the Revolutionary cause.
- understand the reasons for Hancock’s reputation in the American colonies.
- understand the partnership between Hancock and Samuel Adams in resisting British tyranny.
- analyze the various purposes of the “Oration on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre.”
- evaluate the effectiveness of Hancock’s rhetorical strategies.
- appreciate Hancock’s contributions to his country.
- Handout A—John Hancock (1737–1793)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: John Hancock on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre
- Handout D—Analysis: John Hancock on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standard IA, IC
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—John Hancock (1737–1793) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of John Hancock.
John Hancock financed the Sons of Liberty. A Patriot leader, he served in the Continental Congress and presided over the signing of the Declaration of Independence, where he affixed his outsized signature. He helped draft the state constitution of Massachusetts and served as governor of the state for nine terms.
Context 5 min.
Explain to students that, one year after organizing the Boston Tea Party in 1773, John Hancock commemorated the anniversary of the Boston Massacre to a large crowd in Boston. Hancock’s speech is representative of growing hostility in New England toward Britain and the use of more violent rhetoric in support of Independence in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: John Hancock on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre.
- Have students read the speech, taking turns every sentence or so.
- Divide students into pairs, distribute and have students complete Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions.
- Once students have finished, ask students to summarize the main points of Hancock’s speech.
- The purpose of government is to provide security for people and property.
- Hancock will not support a government that does not provide these securities.
- It is immoral to support a government that does not protect its citizens’ rights.
- The British Crown has not protected the colonists’ rights.
- The British have abused the colonists with taxes and standing armies.
- Standing armies are repugnant to a civil society.
- The colonies benefit from well-regulated militias composed of brave men dedicated to freedom.
- Do not be swayed by the influence of money and material things. Virtue is more important than money.
- Distribute Handout D—Analysis: John Hancock on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre.
- Have students, still working in pairs, complete the chart on Handout D, assuming the identity of the person(s) on the left side of the chart, and writing a reaction to Hancock’s speech from the point of view of that person or group.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Have each pair share their response for the first section of the chart with the class; continue until all have reported. What are the strongest points of Hancock’s speech? Are there portions that do not work as well?
Follow-Up Homework Options
- Ask students to write a one-page speech agreeing or disagreeing with Hancock’s assertion that “Security to the persons and properties of the governed is … obviously the design and end of civil government….”
- In 1774, Governor Gage pardoned all who had been involved in illegal opposition to the British—all that is, except Hancock and his close ally Samuel Adams. Have students write a dispatch, as Gage, to law enforcement authorities explaining that they should be on the lookout for John Hancock. Gage should explain why Hancock did not receive amnesty and why he is such a serious threat to British rule. Make sure to explain why the “Oration on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre” was so subversive.
John Hancock was famous for his grand symbolic gestures such as his signature on the Declaration of Independence and his participation in the Boston Tea Party. Ask students to write a one-page essay answering the questions: Why did Hancock choose to deliver this speech on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre? Is this an effective rhetorical strategy? Identify at least two examples of modern political figures using symbolic gestures to strengthen the impact of a speech. Compare these examples to the symbolism in Hancock’s speech.
Bailyn, Bernard. The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Brandes, Paul D. John Hancock’s Life and Speeches: A Personalized Vision of the American Revolution, 1763–1793. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 1996.
Fowler, William M. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Unger, Harlow G. John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
Wagner, Frederick. Patriot’s Choice: The Story of John Hancock. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1964.
“The Declaration of Independence.” National Archives and Records Administration. <http://www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/charters/declaration.html>.
“John Hancock, 1737–1793.” USHistory.org. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/signers/hancock.htm>.
“The Sons of Liberty.” Massachusetts Historical Society. <http://www.masshist.org/cabinet/august2001/august2001.html>.
By John Hancock
- Oration on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre (1774)
- Handout A: John Hancock (1737–1793)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: John Hancock on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre
- Handout D: Analysis: John Hancock on the Anniversary of the Boston Massacre
- Thematic Essay