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January 25, 1788

April 26, 2021 - 5 minute read

John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin

James Bowdoin has been a force in Massachusetts politics from when he was first elected to the provincial assembly in 1753.  Born in Boston, his father was a wealthy merchant whose own father had immigrated to America as a Huguenot refugee.  Like many of his fellow delegates to the Massachusetts ratifying convention, Bowdoin’s opposition to British rule had increased as British policies became more unpopular and oppressive and Bowdoin himself was viewed as an irritant by the royal governors.

After the Boston Massacre in 1770, Bowdoin was selected in a town meeting to serve on a committee to investigate the affair. Bowdoin wrote the committee’s inflammatory report, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre, which was extremely critical of the governor and British army and contributed to increasingly hostile public opinion against British rule. Forced to flee Boston during the Revolutionary War (while his Beacon Street mansion was occupied by British General John Burgoyne), Bowdoin contributed financially to the war effort but did not participate in military service due to recurring health issues, for which he would later be criticized by political opponents.  Nevertheless, he was elected president of the Executive Council of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, making him, for all practical purposes, the leader of the new State’s government.  In 1779, he was elected president of the convention that drafted Massachusetts’ constitution.

Bowdoin ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1780, losing to John Hancock in a lop-sided election in which Hancock received eleven thousand votes out of a possible 12,281. Bowdoin received only 888 votes which was considered a defeat for Sam Adams who had actively supported him. 

Like Bowdoin, Hancock was a wealthy merchant and early opponent of British laws imposing restrictions on both trade and the colonial assemblies. The third in his family to bear the name John Hancock and assumed to follow in their footsteps as a minister in the Congregational Church, his life took a different turn after his father died. John’s aunt and uncle, Lydia and Thomas Hancock, having no children, promised John’s mother to provide lifelong security for her and her other children if she would allow them to raise John as their own. Thomas Hancock was a powerful merchant and owner of Boston’s prestigious House of Hancock. Upon his death in 1764, John inherited the business, becoming one of the richest men in the colonies.

Hancock’s political career began as British duties on imports, restrictions on trade, and other impositions provoked opposition throughout the colonies.  Boycotts of British goods, buying American-produced goods such as tea and homespun, and outright avoidance of British duties by smuggling were considered acts of patriotism. Opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765 solidified Hancock’s friendship with Samuel Adams whose cousin, John, acted as Hancock’s attorney three years later when he  was accused of smuggling and his sloop Liberty was seized by customs officials. The case was dropped when the British could not provide sufficient evidence against him but Hancock’s popularity among the people soared. As a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, he continued to challenge the British. After being elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, he was unanimously elected as its President and became the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. 

As a Major General in the Massachusetts Militia, Hancock participated in the Battle of Newport in August 1778 and later was elected President of the convention that ratified the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.  That same year, he defeated Bowdoin to become the state’s first elected governor. In January 1785, after successive reelections as governor, Hancock resigned due to ill health. The following spring, Bowdoin won the governorship, this time with the active assistance of Samuel Adams.

In contrast to Bowdoin and Hancock, Samuel Adams was a man of modest means, often finding it difficult to make a living. Although Sam’s father had been a successful merchant, justice of the peace, and member of the colonial Assembly, Sam lacked his father’s business acumen but exceeded him in political shrewdness and influence.  An early critic of British rule, he railed against Parliamentary taxation, organized the Sons of Liberty, and brought about the first union of the colonies to protest British rule. He served with Hancock in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and, along with Hancock and Bowdoin, played an important role in creating the 1780 Massachusetts constitution by serving on the thirty-member drafting committee. Like his fellow Patriots, Samuel was among those who mutually pledged “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” when they signed the Declaration of Independence.

The son of committed Puritans, Sam Adams was a devout Congregationalist who lived his faith and was often critical of Hancock’s extravagant and sometimes flamboyant lifestyle. When an invocation at the First Continental Congress was opposed by John Jay and Edward Rutledge because of the religious diversity of its members, Adams rose and said, “that he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country.”  He was a stranger in Philadelphia, he continued, “but had heard that Mr. Duche’ deserved that character” and moved that Mr. Duche’ be asked to lead in prayer the next morning.  The motion was seconded and agreed to. At the Massachusetts ratification convention, it was Adams who once again successfully moved that “the convention will attend morning prayers daily and that the gentlemen of the clergy, of every denomination, be requested to officiate in turn.”

The lives of John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin are inextricably intertwined in the annals of American independence and constitutional government. Although their political tactics and allegiances to each other fluctuated as circumstances warranted, they were united in their commitment to independence, liberty, and good government.  That commitment was no less evident during the ratification convention. Governor Bowdoin was an outspoken and forceful advocate of the proposed Constitution.  Hancock had been elected President of the convention but did not attend until January 31, citing ill health. He had not made his views known but was believed to lean in favor of the Constitution and was briefed daily about the unfolding debate. It was rumored confidently that Adams opposed the Constitution. He had said so in a letter to Richard Henry Lee a month earlier.  Nevertheless, he faithfully attended the convention but was strangely quiet, perhaps in part because his only son, Sam, died tragically a week after the convention was called to order.  But, as Adams said of himself, he was attending more as “an auditor than objector.”  On these three men, much depends as the vote draws near.

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