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Dorothy Quincy Hancock

Wife of John Hancock

By the accident of being the presiding officer of the Continental Congress of 1775, John Hancock was the first man to affix his signature to the Declaration of Independence and thereby conferred upon his beautiful Boston bride, Dorothy Quincy, the honor of being the wife of the first "signer."

Dorothy Quincy was the youngest of the ten children of Judge Edmund Quincy. She was born May 10, 1747, and grew up in the sheltered environment of a wealthy and well-regulated New England home.

"Carefully reared watchfulness through under a gentle mother's the early part of her life, when old enough she was launched in the social world under more favorable auspices than usually fall to the lot of a young girl. Cultured and agreeable, she drew friends and attracted admirers; she won all hearts and a place in society from which nothing could dethrone her. Admired and sought after, Dorothy Quincy steered through the dangerous shoals of high-seasoned compliments to remain a bright, unspoiled beauty, that no flattery could harm."

If this seems a rather perfervid tribute, it must be attributed to the possibly biased view-point of an admiring descendant. Dorothy's mother was Elizabeth Wendell, daughter of Abraham and Katharine DeKay Wendell of New York, an educated and accomplished woman of high character, with a taste for social life and a liking for the society of young people. So it came that the Quincy household, with its bevy of handsome girls, had many visitors. John Adams, a rising young lawyer of Boston at the time, was a frequent caller, and in his diary we find that several times he "had gone over to the house of Justice Quincy and had a talk with him." Adams occasionally mentions Esther Quincy, an elder sister of Dorothy, and also a cousin, Hannah Quincy. Both are described as being "handsome and brilliant girls," given to lively repartee, and the young lawyer with his badinage met in them his match. In 1759 is found this entry: "I talked with Esther about the folly of love, about despising it, about being above it--pretended to be insensible of tender passions, which made them laugh." Esther at the time had a devoted admirer, Jonathan Sewall, whom she married in 1763. Another sister, Elizabeth, had long been married to Jonathan Sewall's brother, Samuel. Sarah Quincy, fifteen years older than Dorothy, was married to General William Greenleaf. Another sister, Katharine, died unmarried.

John Hancock, the handsome young merchant who had just succeeded to the great wealth and business of his uncle, Thomas Hancock, was, of course, a welcome visitor at the Quincy home. The son of a highly respected minister and the grandson of another, young Hancock had graduated from Harvard College at the age of seventeen. He had immediately gone into the counting room of his uncle and had greatly pleased the old gentleman by his intelligence and attention to his duties. In 1750, the young man was sent to England to take charge of the London end of the business. Here he had a chance to supplement his education with travel and acquaintance with men of affairs. He had listened to the debates of Parliament, witnessed the funeral of George II and the coronation of George III, and in many ways come to have a good general knowledge of the English people and their way of thinking. Then he was recalled to America by the death of his uncle, who had left him the bulk of his great estate.

Thus John Hancock at the age of twenty-seven found himself one of the wealthiest men of Massachusetts. From that time he began closing out his commercial interests and devoting himself more and more to public affairs. His first public office was that of selectman of the town of Boston, in which position he served for years. In 1766, he was elected from Boston to the General Assembly, having as colleagues Samuel Adams, james Otis, and Thomas Cushing, able men and patriotic, whose influence was important in Hancock's after life. Hancock was public-spirited, generous, and always ready to go to the assistance of a friend. At one time during the Revolution, it was said that not less than one hundred families were subsisting on his benevolence. His popularity grew with every one except the Governor and his official clique, who held Hancock and Adams responsible for the constantly growing spirit of opposition to the acts of King and Parliament. Consequently when Hancock was elected Speaker of the Assembly of 1757, the Governor vetoed the selection. Shortly before this, Governor Barnard had offered Hancock a commission as Lieutenant in the militia. Hancock, knowing that it was a covert attempt at bribing him, tore up the commission in the presence of many prominent citizens. At the opening of the next session of the Assembly, Hancock was again elected Speaker, and again it was vetoed. Then he was elected a member of the Executive Council, and that was vetoed by the Governor. All this but endeared Hancock to the people. During the few years immediately preceding the Battle of Lexington, the British Government was constantly and apprehensively watching Hancock and Adams. They were regarded as dangerous men. They could not be frightened, bribed, nor cajoled. In 1774, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts unanimously elected John Hancock as its President. "This is the foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent ever issued from the egg of sedition. It is the source of rebellion," writes one loyalist pamphleteer of the period.

All this time, John Hancock was courting the handsome daughter of Judge Quincy. Her father was an earnest patriot and their home, from which the mother had departed in 1769, was the gathering place for such men as Samuel and John Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, James Otis, and others of their rebellious group. John Hancock probably seemed very much of a hero in the eyes of the young woman. Anyway, we are told that she was as enthusiastic a patriot as her lover and entered keenly into their plans and consultations.

John Hancock at this time was living with his aunt, Lydia Hancock, and for safety had removed from Boston to the old Hancock homestead in Lexington, a relative, the Rev. James Clark living in the same house. Early in 1775, Judge Quincy was called away from home on business and Mistress Dorothy, being left alone in their Boston home, accepted an invitation from Lydia Hancock to pay her a visit, and that is how Dorothy Quincy came to be present at the Battle of Lexington.

The Boston authorities, acting on advice from Great Britain, decided to take Hancock and Adams into custody, and it was arranged to arrest them at the home of Hancock, in Lexington, where they had been staying for several nights. They had been chosen as delegates to the Continental Congress and expected arrest at any time if their whereabouts were known. Through their spies the authorities had learned where Hancock and Adams were staying. They had also learned that a considerable quantity of ammunition and other stores had been gathered at Lexington. Elbridge Gerry had already warned Hancock and Adams to remain constantly on their guard. On April 18th, General Gage ordered the march to Concord. It was then that Dr. Joseph Warren hastily dispatched Paul Revere on the ride that has made his name immortal. About midnight, Revere galloped up to the Rev. Mr. Clark's house, which he found guarded by eight men under a sergeant who halted him with the order not "to make so much noise."

"Noise!" exclaimed the excited Revere. "You'll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out!"

A window on the second floor was raised and a voice came down: "What is it, courier Revere? We are not afraid of you." It was John Hancock himself and Revere delivered his message.

"Ring the bell!" ordered Hancock, and the bell soon began pealing and continued all night. By daybreak, one hundred and fifty men had mustered for the defense. John Hancock, with gun and sword, prepared to go out and fight with the minute-men, but Adams checked him:

"That is not our business; we belong to the cabinet." Hancock was loath to accept this, but finally saw the wisdom of Adams's decision and went with him, back through the rear of the house and garden to a thickly wooded hill where they could watch the progress of events.

Dorothy Quincy and Aunt Lydia remained in the house, as no danger was apprehended there, and so by chance were eye witnesses of the first battle of the Revolution. Dorothy watched the fray from her bedroom window and in her narration of it notes: "Two men are being brought into the house. One, whose head has been grazed by a ball, insisted that he was dead, but the other, who was shot through the arm, behaved better."

Hancock and Adams retired from their resting place in the woods to the home of Rev. Mr. Merritt in what is now Burlington, and later removed to Bellerica where they lodged in the house of Amos Wyman until they were ready to proceed to Philadelphia.

It is said that John Hancock and the fair Dorothy had a little disagreement following the Battle of Lexington, just before he started for the Pennsylvania capital. The lady, somewhat unstrung by the events of the day, announced her intention of returning to her father's home in Boston. Hancock, who realized the disordered and unsafe condition of the city, refused to allow this. "No, madam," he said, "you shall not return as long as a British bayonet remains in Boston."

"Recollect, Mr. Hancock," she replied with Vehemence, "I am not under your authority yet. I shall go to my father's to-morrow."

Next day, however, Aunt Lydia smoothed down the ruffled plumage of the little lady and it was many months before she again saw Boston, and when she went back it was as John Hancock's wife.

A few days after the Battle of Lexington, Dorothy and Aunt Lydia Hancock left the residence of Rev. James Clark and went to Fairfield, Conn., where they were to remain for an indefinite period as the guests of Rev. Thaddeus Burr, a leading citizen. There John Hancock and Dorothy Quincy were married on August 23, 1775, by the Rev. Andrew Elliott. They left at once for Philadelphia, by way of New York, arriving September 5th.

John Adams, in writing of the marriage, says: "His choice was very natural, a granddaughter of the great patron and most revered friend of his father. Beauty, politeness, and every domestic virtue justified his predilection."

Hancock was very much in love with his wife. Notwithstanding his many duties as President of the Continental Congress and other public positions, he wrote to her with great frequency when they chanced to be separated, and always with affection and respect, before and after marriage, and in nearly all of his letters he complains because she does not write to him.

The winter Martha Washington spent in Cambridge, she and Mrs. Hancock became warm friends, exchanging frequent visits. It was on the occasion of these informal calls that the wife of the soldier is credited with the somewhat feline remark: "There is a great difference in our situations. Your husband is in the cabinet, but mine is on the battlefield."

John Hancock's position during the Revolution as President of Congress and later as Governor, brought many calls upon both his hospitality and his benevolence. The generosity that marked him as a young man characterized all his career, and his wife entered as heartily into his benefactions as she did his hospitality. After the Revolution, they entertained many people of prominence, as La Fayette, Count D'Estaing, the French Admiral, Prince Edward of England, and many others. One of Mrs. Hancock's grandnieces tells an anecdote of the time when Admiral D'Estaing visited Boston harbour with his fleet. Governor Hancock invited him to dine on a certain date, with thirty of his officers. What was the dismay of the Governor and Mrs. Hancock when the Admiral accepted the invitation, and accompanied his acceptance with the request to be allowed to bring all his officers, including the midshipmen, which would bring the number of guests to above a hundred. There was nothing to do but for the Governor to overlook the Frenchman's bad manners and accede to the request. It was upon Mrs. Hancock's resourcefulness, however, that the duty fell hardest, of providing for so many guests in the short time available. The problem was speedily solved with the exception of the item of milk. The Governor's private dairy could not possibly furnish all that was needed, and there was not a place in Boston where such a supply could be obtained. Mrs. Hancock summoned the life guards and bade them milk the cows pasturing on Boston Common, and if any persons complained, to send them to her. This was done and no one objected. Plenty of milk was obtained and the dinner to the Admiral and his officers was a great success.

Count D'Estaing returned the courtesy by a dinner on board his flagship, at which Mrs. Hancock was the guest of honor. By the side of her plate was a large rosette of ribbon which greatly excited her curiosity. As the toasts were about to be drunk, the Admiral's aide, who sat next to Mrs. Hancock, requested her to pull the ribbon on the rosette, which ran down under the table. She did so and was greatly surprised to find that by so doing she had fired a gun, which was responded to by every vessel in the fleet.

Two children were born to Governor and Mrs. Hancock, a daughter who died in infancy, and a son who died in the ninth year of his age. John Hancock died in 1793, and several years later Mrs. Hancock was married to Captain Scott, who had been a friend of her husband. Captain Scott died in 1809, after which his widow lived a retired life in Boston, until her death several years later.

Source: Wives of the Signers: The Women Behind the Declaration of Independence, by Harry Clinton Green and Mary Wolcott Green, A.B. (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1997). Orignaly Published in 1912 as volume 3 of The Pioneer Mothers of America: A Record of the More Notable Women of the Early Days of the Country, and Particularly of the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons). Pages 18-32. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)


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Last modified January 5, 2004