The Baron of Beacon Hill

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

William M. Fowler, Jr. is a history professor who has written two other books concerned with the American revolutionary times: William Ellery: A Rhode Island Politico and Lord of Admiralty, and Rebels Under Sail. In The Baron of Beacon Hill, Professor Fowler combines a thoroughly scholarly presentation of documented events with an easy, direct prose style.

The scholarship is indicated by the fifty-seven-page appendix of notes which specify the sources of the facts and opinions expressed in the fifteen textual chapters. Also, the bibliography appendix is annotated. These appendixes indicate that this work serves as a basis for further historical investigation; and it is on the level of historical scholarship that this book best succeeds. Even the easy prose style contributes to the scholarship as the narration of events proceeds calmly and in a balanced, reasoned manner.

John Hancock is a name that enjoys wide popularity in this country; after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Hancock has more named after him (streets, towns, businesses) than almost any other American. Yet, less is generally known about him than of any of the Founding Fathers. The single fact that everyone can recall is that he penned that beautiful signature to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776; and “John Hancock” has become the antonomasia for any signature. That one act seems to have overshadowed all else this man did and was. It is the contention of this biography, however, that John Hancock deserves to be remembered for a great deal more than merely his signature.

The life of John Hancock was one of privilege. Born to a prominent family, he was educated at Harvard College, apprenticed into, and ten years thereafter inherited, the family business, that of his uncle Thomas Hancock. At that point in his life, he was twenty-seven years old and one of the richest men in America. It may not have been too surprising, therefore, that as the most important merchant in Boston he quickly became a leading social and political figure. As also might have been predicted, the positions he took in the face of mounting British interference in Colonial business soon made him a symbol of resistance to British authority. As the English Parliament sought to punish Massachusetts, the Massachusetts leaders were thrust into major roles of opposition; so, when the American Revolution came about, John Hancock was elected as the President of the Continental Congress. The Second Continental Congress organized a new nation: declared independence, established alliances, raised revenues, formed armies and navies, waged war, and planned and acted for the future. Hancock was a very hardworking and successful congressional President. After independence, however, he was not active in national affairs but rather in state politics: he became the first Governor of Massachusetts, with terms from 1780 to 1785 and from 1787 to 1793, and died in office at fifty-six years of age.

The achievements of John Hancock were considerable and meritorious. One is not always sure, however, about the extent to which great events were thrust upon him. In this regard, Professor Fowler presents the escalation of opposition to successive acts which the British Parliament passed in an effort to raise revenues from the colonies. As examples, when John Hancock opposed the Stamp Act and helped win its repeal, and when his ship, the Liberty, was seized for avoiding the payment of duties on its cargo in violation of the Townshend Acts, he acted logically enough, for business reasons. Yet, the results of these actions placed Hancock in the political limelight of the radical faction. After the Boston Tea Party, when the adversary relationships seem to have been irreconcilably drawn, the series of acts punishing Boston succeeded in coalescing the opposition and in casting Hancock as the rebellion leader. It is recalled that General Gage of the British forces offered amnesty to all except Samuel Adams and John Hancock; and the famous British march to Lexington and Concord, which was when the actual fighting began, was undertaken in order to capture Hancock and Adams. For Hancock, events which may have started as defensive business tactics turned into the American Revolution offensive. Once caught in the tide of events the author vividly describes, Hancock was resolute, courageous, and dedicated to the struggle. The speeches he gave to the Boston populace were stirring. His energies and resources were always available to the revolutionary cause.

Apparently, no life is free from unexpected turns. John...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)