Updated: John Hancock: The Slave Holder

Featured image  John Hancock was a well-known figure before and during the American Revolution. He served as the president of the Second Continental Congress and was the first and third Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He is well known for his giant signature on the Declaration of Independence. Although Hancock was a patriotic figure and well known for his signature, there are other aspects about him that not many know. The slave trade was becoming prominent in the United States with the selling and buying of slaves. A majority of the wealthy merchants had slaves on their plantations, John Hancock being one of them. Although he did not own many slaves for a long period of time, he did have a few to help around the house. But after the Revolutionary War started and ended, he had a change of heart.

            He was looked at as an American hero, but what many people did not know was he bought, sold, and owned slaves prior to the Revolutionary War. From reading many letters written by Hancock to John Wilkes, it comes across that he was against the buying and selling of the African American slaves. In one of his letters he writes, “We yet to sensibly feel the loss of every right, liberty, and privilege that can distinguish a freeman from a slave…”. I interpret that in a way that since he is stating that, he wants to address the problem and hopefully in the near future fix it as well. In hindsight he is contradicting himself saying he was against slavery but yet he owned, bought, and sold slaves numerous times. Hancock wrote a great amount of letters to John Wilkes, mostly conversing about slavery. From reading a majority of these, Hancock was influenced and I do believe that Wilkes did have part in many of John Hancock’s decisions about the African American slave trade.

After signing the Declaration of Independence, Hancock changed his views about owning his slaves. Many fought along side with the slaves during the Revolutionary War so views on slavery have often changed. Although Hancock did not have much military experience, he was behind the scenes involved in the war and that was another influence on him. Although not stated directly, when the Constitution was being written, Hancock through his idea that slavery should be abolished in the Constitution. The Articles of Confederation were designed in such a way that states had the right to govern however they wanted. The document does not state anything about slavery but the opinions on the subject were forming in the nation quickly. When it was time to form the Constitution the slavery issue showed up during the Continental Congress. Many of the delegates were against slavery even though they were slave holders themselves such as Hancock. At this point it was more important to resolve this issue than have three important states opt out of the Congress, such as Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. There was no set agreement so the three fifths compromise came about. Which basically stated that if you were a slave you were counted as three fifths of a person and that is how you were treated.

John Hancock did not create a law about slavery and abolishing it but the slaves did become free once the 13th amendment was passed. So he technically had an input in freeing the African Americans. But although they were free, a law was enforced called the Jim Crow Laws. Jim Crow laws are basically defined as having the blacks being free of slavery, but in society they were highly segregated from the white people around them. But as time went on the whites and the blacks are created equally. So everyone who was anti-slavery had a part in the freeing and the stop to segregation in the north and south and became united as one. Even though John Hancock owned slaves and sold them, after the Revolutionary War happened he realized that American men were fighting with the slaves and when he signed the Declaration of Independence, he had a change of heart.

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In this image John Hancock is signing the Declaration of Independence,in that document it is stated “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”, I believe that Hancock discretely mentioned the slaves in that quote. By himself and the other founding fathers signing it, they all in their own way were against slavery.


  • “Constitutional Topic: Slavery – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net.” Constitutional Topic: Slavery – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net. Accessed March 4, 2015. http://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_slav.html.
  • “Founders Online: Home.” Founders Online: Home. Accessed March 4, 2015.
  • “Slavery in the Articles of the Confederation and the U.S. Constitution.” Examiner.com. April 12, 2013. Accessed April 20, 2015.

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