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John Hancock Writes His Brother with Seasons Greetings, Inquiring of Family News, and Asking About the Family Slaves
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Writing from London while attending his uncle’s business, a young John Hancock asks about his uncle and aunts, congratulates his sister’s marriage, talks about his own ill health and recovery, and inquires about the house slaves at the Hancock Mansion.

JOHN HANCOCK. Autograph Letter Signed, to Ebenezer Hancock. London, England December 27, 1760. 8½ x 7 in., with remnants of a black wax seal.

Inventory #23234       Price: $29,000

Complete Transcript

Dear Brother,

I have before me yo.r agreeable Letters of Nov.r  6.th by Capt Bride, & desire you will write one by every oppry [opportunity]. & acquaint me more particularly with the Circumstances of my Uncle’s Family. I am glad to hear you are well, & earnestly beg you will give great Attention to Business, & let yo.r Conduct be such as to merit the Esteem of all about you, & Remember that the Diligent Hand maketh Rich. I hope at on my Return to find you a Compleat Merch.t I am much please’d at the Advantages you have before you, of which I doubt not but you will make the proper Improvement.

I observe by yor Letter our Sister is Married, & that you was with them at the Celebration of it, I wish them great Happiness & Satisfaction, & I hope they will meet with nothing to Interrupt their Quiet, they have my best wishes, I <2>

I shall write you again soon. Have me Remembered in the strongest Terms of Affection to my Uncle & Aunt Love to all in the Family, particularly Hannah & Betsy. How is Molly, & how does Cate behave. Is Agniss a Breeding, Is Prince as gouty as ever, & Hannibal as peevish as formerly tell him I think of him, as he was the last of the family I saw on the Wharf. How is Thomas & in short all.

I have been lately ill, but am upon the Recovery, hope soon to get abroad again.

I wish you, with Hannah Betsy & all the family many happy New Years.

The Compliments of the Season attend you, & I am,

                        My dear,

                        Your Affectionate Brother

                                    Jno Hancock

Remember my Love to Nicholas Bowes, & all of my Acquaintances

My Respects to my Mr Glover & Brown

[illegible]

                                    Forward the Inclosd Letters

<3> Tell Hannah that Mr Barnard’s where I am ill, is a young woman who is Remarkably Tender & kind to one in any Illness, & often brings her to my mind, that I am as well attended as I could ever desire, & that I am very well off, but had much rather be ill, if I must be so, where my Aunt & she is, But that this young woman is exactly the Image of her in Respect of a good and tender Nurse.

[Address Leaf]

“To Mr Ebenezer Hancock Jr/Boston”

[Docketed]

“Recd. by Capt. Newton/March 12th 1761”

Historical Background

In 1760, future Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock lived in London while learning the English side of his Thomas Hancock’s merchant firm.  Thomas, his uncle, had adopted John upon the death of his father in 1744.  Here, the 23-year-old writes to younger brother Ebenezer, sending season’s greetings, and encouraging his sibling to work diligently to build himself up in business, considering the advantage of family connections given to the two orphans. When John returned to America in 1761, Thomas’s health had declined to the point that John began playing a greater role in the business. His appeal to Ebenezer to “write...by every oppry [opportunity]. & acquaint me more particularly with the Circumstances of my Uncle’s Family”may have reflected his uncle’s poor condition.

He notes his sister Mary’s marriage to Richard Perkins, and inquires about the rest of the family, wishing to be “Remembered in the strongest Terms of Affection to my Uncle & Aunt” Thomas and Lydia Hancock.  The “Hannah & Betsy” to whom he refers were aunts, both women being the sisters of Thomas.

Most interestingly, he inquires about “Molly,” asks if “Cato” was behaving, is curious if“Agniss” was pregnant or having children,  queries whether“Prince” still had the gout, and if“Hannibal” remained“peevish.”

These five individuals were the Hancock family slaves, (although Molly, a maid, was possibly white) who lived with the family in the Hancock mansion on Beacon Hill in Boston. Prince was also known as “Prince Holmes,” and John would inherit them along with the rest of Thomas’s estate in 1764. Hancock clearly considered the slaves a part of the family, even bringing them gifts when he returned from London. (Cato received a cap and French horn). Thomas also left his slaves small bequests in his will, and provided for the freedom of, at least, Cato, upon turning 30 years of age. John, according to biographer Herbert Allan, “ordered a Negro named Frank from London to be his personal servant, just as he would have requisitioned a batch of Irish butter.” Most of Thomas’s slaves were freed by the terms of his will, but Frank died in 1771 and was interred in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground in a marked grave close to Hancock’s own.

John Hancock (1737-1793) was a Boston merchant and leader of the colonial resistance movement. Born in Braintree, his paternal uncle, Thomas Hancock, adopted John after his father died in 1742. Under his uncle, he learned the mercantile trade and was groomed for partnership. The Hancock family engaged in smuggling with the French West Indies in defiance of the Molasses Act. Named a Boston selectman in 1765, Hancock opposed the Stamp Act, and upon passage of the Townshend Duties in 1767, he resolved to prohibit British customs officials from setting foot on his ships. Hancock served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and, in 1774, he was elected president of the revolutionary Provincial Congress. He and Samuel Adams were the targets of General Gage’s projected campaign against Lexington and Concord in April 1775. During the war, Hancock served as President of the Continental Congress, 1775-1777, and in that capacity signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. He was later a popular governor of Massachusetts (1780-1785, 1787-1793).

Sources

Herbert S. Allan, John Hancock: Patriot in Purple (New York: MacMillan, 1948) p. 67, 80, 86, 375.

Thomas P. Chorlton, The First American Republic, 1774-1789: The First Fourteen American Presidents Before Washington (Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2011) p. 78.


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