By Brad Dison
John and his wife, Mary, were expecting a child. Like his father, also named John, John was a clergyman in the 13 colonies. He was pastor of the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. Finally, on January 23, 1737, the child was born. As you might expect, John and Mary named the boy John. This made him John III.
When John III was just seven years old, his father died and Mary sent John III to live with his aunt Lydia and uncle Thomas, who had no children of their own. Thomas owned a successful shipping company which imported manufactured goods from England and exported goods such as rum and whale oil. After graduating from Boston Latin School, John III enrolled in Harvard College, his father’s alma mater. In 1754, John III earned a bachelor’s degree and began working for his uncle Thomas.
In the same year John III graduated from Harvard, the North American colonies, then part of the British Empire, entered into a conflict against the French in what is known as the French and Indian War. Thomas’s business thrived during the war as he was able to secure numerous government contracts for shipping supplies to support the war effort. All the while, Thomas was training John III to become a partner in the business, but in 1762, Thomas’s health began to fail. In the following year, John III became a full partner in the shipping company. In August 1764, Thomas died. John III inherited his uncle’s business and became one of the wealthiest men in the colonies.
The British Empire won the French and Indian War, but the victory put the country deep in debt. The British Empire enacted several acts or taxes, such as the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp of 1765, to raise much-needed revenue. John III ignored the Stamp Act. In May 1766, John III’s ship Boston Packet“was the first ship that cleared out at this port [Boston], without stamped papers… and we hear was entered at the custom house in London without any the least difficulty.” Once officials in London began giving John III’s ships difficulty, he boycotted their goods altogether. Word spread quickly of John III’s snubbing the mother country and he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
In the following year, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts which was another tax on various imported goods and John III became a target for customs officials. In 1768, customs officials boarded a ship owned by John III without a search warrant. John III refused to allow the customs officials below decks to search the ship. Customs officials wanted to file charges against John III for smuggling, but the case was dropped for lack of evidence. John III’s supporters contended that John III’s refusal was the first act of resistance against Parliament and was the act which initiated the American Revolution.
In May 1775, John III was unanimously elected President of the Continental Congress. He was presiding when a fellow Massachusetts delegate nominated George Washington as commander-in-chief of the continental army. In the following year, the colonies declared independence and John III was one of the main financiers of the American Revolution. If the series of events had not taken place which enabled John III to inherit his uncle’s fortune and shipping company, the American Revolution might never have taken place and we might have remained British subjects.
John III also snubbed the mother country when he signed the Declaration of Independence. By signing this document, all 56 signers knew that they would certainly be executed if America lost the war. Of all the 56 signatures, John III’s is the largest, the most flamboyant, and the most prominent on the page. John III’s signature became a part of popular culture. Even today, nearly two and a half centuries later, when someone asks for a signature, they sometimes ask for John III’s signature. They ask you for your John Hancock.
1. The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 8, 1766, p.2.
2. The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 29, 1766, p.2.
3. Maryland Gazette, June 12, 1766, p.1.
4. Thomas Jefferson, et al, July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence.