John Hancock Collection
John Hancock (1737-1793) was a prominent Boston merchant and leading statesman during the American Revolutionary War period. A 1754 graduate of Harvard College, he served as its treasurer from 1773 until 1777. The collection includes correspondence, receipts, and accounting records relating to Hancock’s tenure as Harvard College treasurer as well as a limited number of his personal papers. The records document the strained relationship between College administrators and Hancock that began in 1774 and continued until his death in 1793, and also offer information about the financial state of the College and the impact of the Revolutionary War on the institution.
- Hancock, John (Person)
The John Hancock Collection is open for research.
Copying of fragile materials may be limited.
Extent.6 cubic feet (1 legal document box and 1 flat box)
The John Hancock Collection includes correspondence, receipts, and accounting records relating to Hancock’s tenure as Harvard College treasurer as well as a limited number of his personal papers. The collection primarily chronicles the College’s attempts to maintain its finances while Hancock was engaged in Congressional activities after the start of the Revolutionary War and documents the strained relationship between college administrators and Hancock that began in 1774 and continued through his death in 1793. It also offers information about the financial state and activities of the College in the late 18th century, and the impact of the Revolutionary War on the institution. The collection also provides some evidence of Hancock's attitude towards Harvard and his administrative duties.
The collection is arranged into three series: Personal Papers, College Accounts, and Administrative Records. The Personal Papers series includes correspondence and a speech that document Hancock’s relationship with Harvard as a student and as a private citizen. The College Accounts series holds documents that record financial transactions related to Harvard. While the series contains items created by Hancock in his capacity as treasurer, it also includes records created by his predecessor Thomas Hubbard, his successor Ebenezer Storer, and Harvard President Samuel Langdon. The Administrative Records series contains documents supporting his appointment and performance as treasurer. The bulk of the series focuses on the exchange between the Harvard Corporation, the Board of Overseers, and Hancock regarding the settlement of accounts after his prolonged absence.
John Hancock (1737-1793) was a prominent Boston merchant and leading statesman during the American Revolutionary War period. A 1754 graduate of Harvard College, he served as its treasurer from 1773 until 1777.
Born in Braintree, Massachusetts, Hancock moved to Boston after the death of his father, the Reverend John Hancock (1702-1744) and lived with his uncle and aunt, Thomas (1703-1764) and Lydia Hancock (1714-1776). Upon graduating from Harvard, Hancock entered into his uncle’s prosperous trading business; in 1763, he became a partner. With the death of his uncle in 1764, Hancock took charge of the business and much of his uncle’s estate. As one of the wealthiest merchants in Massachusetts, John Hancock was conscious of the adverse effects of the British tariffs enacted after the French and Indian War (1755-1763), and was often involved in the escalating clashes between colonists and representatives of the crown. In early 1765 Hancock was elected a selectman of Boston, and later that year Hancock emerged as a vocal opponent of the Stamp Act. In May 1766 he was elected a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Against the backdrop of growing political conflict, Harvard appointed Hancock Treasurer of the College on July 30, 1773. The Hancock family was among Harvard’s leading benefactors in the 18th century. Family contributions to Harvard included £1000 from Thomas Hancock's will to establish a professorship in Oriental languages and John Hancock's generous donation of books in 1767. But Hancock’s attention to the College waned as his civic responsibilities increased. On October 14, 1774, Hancock was elected president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He left for Philadelphia on April 22, 1775 to act as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He served as President of the Continental Congress from 1775, moving from Philadelphia to Baltimore in December 1776 to avoid the approaching British troops. Hancock returned to Philadelphia in early March 1777 until Congress was once again forced to relocate, this time to York, Pennsylvania in September. Finally in October 1777 a leave of absence was approved and Hancock returned to Boston.
Hancock's congressional responsibilities complicated his role as Harvard’s treasurer. By the beginning of 1775, he was nearly unresponsive to the repeated pleas of the College for information about its financial status. For more than two years, the Corporation tried to manage the school's funds while requesting action from their Treasurer. The Corporation elected a new treasurer on July 14, 1777, and Hancock learned of his dismissal from a newspaper advertisement.
In the closing years of the war, Massachusetts citizens elected Hancock governor in 1780. Hancock began a second term in 1784, but resigned on January 29, 1785 due to illness. Though his health problems continued, he was reelected governor in 1787 and continued in the position until his death on October 8, 1793.
Hancock married Dorothy Quincy (1747-1830) in 1775. Their two children, Lydia Hancock (1776-1777) and John George Washington Hancock (1778-1787) died in childhood.
The collection is arranged in three series:
- Personal papers, 1754-1785
- College accounts, 1766-1786
- Administrative Records, 1773-1792
The John Hancock collection draws together material from various sources including a bequest of Charles P. Greenough in December 1926, a gift from Richard A. Ehrlich (Harvard AB 1922) in November 1958, a gift of Mrs. Matthew Bartlett from the papers of Arthur Lincoln (Harvard AB 1863) in October 1943, and a donation from the estate of Artemas Ward in March 1931. A substantial portion of the documents in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business. Individual acquisition information is noted at the item level.
All of the papers have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.
- Fowler, Jr., William M. The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936.
- Shipton, Clifford K." Class of 1754: John Hancock." In Sibley's Harvard Graduates: Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College In The Classes of 1751-1755. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1933.
This document last updated 2022 May 12.
The collection was first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. The collection was re-processed in 2010. Re-processing involved a collection survey, conservation treatment of select items, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid.
A manuscript of the "Hancock Episode" by Edward Vose (Harvard AB 1894) was reclassified as a separate collection in the Harvard University Archives with the call number HUM 22.
This finding aid was created by Diann Benti in May 2010.
Preservation and description of the John Hancock Collection was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
- Hancock, John, 1737-1793. John Hancock Collection, 1754-1792: an inventory
- Language of description
- Preservation and description of the John Hancock Collection was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
- EAD ID
Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository
Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.
Cambridge MA 02138 USA