John Hancock Writes His Wife

Hancock portraitMost of us know John Hancock (1737–93) as the first signer of the Declaration of Independence. His large, bold signature sent a clear message to the British people that he hoped their days as rulers of the American colonies would soon come to an end.

Active in politics, Hancock was a member of the Continental Congress, serving as its president, and was the first and third governor of Massachusetts, in office until ill health forced him to give up the position. Before his political life, Hancock was a successful merchant, having inherited his uncle’s mercantile business. The fortune he amassed made him one of the wealthiest individuals in the Americas.

Hancock married Dorothy Quincy (1747–1830) in 1775. By all accounts, Dolly, as she was known, was a highly intelligent and articulate woman and a splendid hostess. John and Dolly had two children, in 1776 a daughter named Lydia Henchman, who died before her first birthday, and in 1778 a son named John George Washington Hancock—a name that would have been difficult to live up to—who died in 1787 after suffering head injuries in an ice skating fall. Their deaths left the Hancocks without direct descendants.

Despite Hancock’s success in politics and business, his contemporaries did not always regard him with favor, and a mid-20th century biographer, Herbert S. Allan, wrote: “He compared unfavorably with some other founding fathers in intellectual power and originality of thought. He was vain, arrogant, egotistic, hypersensitive, petulant, exhibitionistic, capricious, vacillating, intemperate, susceptible to flattery, improvident, and was somewhat of a demagogue and much of a faker.

Allan continues: “Yet the antitheses of all these traits crop up frequently as one studies this most complex character.”

Hancock letterA letter in the Winterthur Library manuscript collection confirms another side of Hancock’s complex character. Written in the autumn of 1783, when he was Massachusetts governor, to “My Dear,” doubtless his wife, Hancock discusses rather unexciting topics, including his diet and his friends. The fondness for his family also shines through. Devoted to his son, Hancock asks after Johnny and notes that he had sent him a large speaking trumpet. Additionally, he lists what he had sent Dolly. In ending, Hancock confirms his affection: “God Bless you. I wish you very happy. Remember me to all.” Not uncharacteristically for the time, he signed his personal letter using his first and last names—again in a rather large and bold hand.

Henry Francis du Pont acquired John Hancock’s letter from The Old Print Shop in 1939 and put it on view in Essex Hall. He transferred it to the library’s Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera in 1965. A transcript follows.

Thursday Morng. 2 Octb. 1783

My Dear

I arrived very safely in Town just before 3 oclock, took Knox in my carriage, & went home, Din’d upon Neck of Veal & Goose, went to Council, & in the Eveng went to Wm. Balch’s, return’d home at 10, and this morng. Breakfasted out at Mr. Davis’s and am going to Dine with Davis on the wild Fowle I brought up – We are all well. Do write me how Johnny is & all of them. I would have you prepare & get all your things ready to go to the Castle on Saturday or Sunday, & Tell Mrs Balch I will Accommodate them all at the Castle–

I have Sent you,

A Baskett of Potatoes from Roxbury, the finest I ever Saw

Six Lemmons

Six Loaves Bread

a Roast Surloin of Beef

A Large Speaking Trumpet for Johnny

I should have Sent you a four Rib piece of Beef Roasted, but I had it Taken off the Spit and the Barge Men with myself Devour’d the whole that you must be Content with the Surloin–

God Bless you, I wish you very happy. Remember me to all

I am, my Dear,

Yours Affectionately

John Hancock

Post by E. Richard McKinstry, Winterthur Library Director and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Librarian

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3 Responses to John Hancock Writes His Wife

  1. William A. Pease says:

    Wonderful, wonderful, Mr. McKinstry. This letter brought John Hancock to LIFE for me, almost as if he were writing to me–if I can put myself in Dolly’s person. Many thanks. That was a wonderful experience.

    Winterthur never ceases to amaze me. I have been a member for over 40 years, I believe, and have visited Winterthur with my wife probably about 200 times over those years, and at least every third visit or so we have popped into the Library to see what was new or to do research. It has never failed us. We are both retired academic librarians, too, by the way, so your work at Winterthur has been doubly admired by us for a very long time.

    Very best wishes,

    Bill Pease

  2. J. L. Bell says:

    Very nice. “Knox” may have been Henry Knox, though he was in New York the next month for Washington’s farewell to the army. I suspect that the words transcribed as “Wm. Balch’s” are actually “Mr. Balch’s,” referring to Nathaniel Balch, a jovial hatter who was one of Hancock’s closest friends. “The Castle” was a fortified island in Boston harbor, and Hancock appears to have been using it for a picnic or vacation site.

  3. J. L. Bell says:

    Alternatively, Knox might have been Thomas Knox, recently appointed keeper of the Boston Light, a lighthouse on another harbor island.

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