Boston - A Picturesque Bostonian
( Originally Published 1916 )
He was most prominent Bostonian of Revolutionary days, the Boston man who loomed the largest and still looms most important, was the splendidly dressed John Hancock, and his home, up near the summit of Beacon Hill, was a radiant center of wealth and society. But that home, so typical of the finest and choicest old-time life and architecture, has gone: some half century ago, in spite of the entreative pro-tests of all lovers of the stately and beautiful, it was torn down for the sake of replacing it 'with a huge house that is hopelessly humdrum. Even the fine old furniture, so representative of the best old-time life, and which had the additional value of being so associated with the man of mighty signature and Dorothy Q., was lost or scattered. Out in Worcester I saw a superb double-chair of Chippendale design, that had stood in the Hancock home; in Pilgrim Hall in Ply-mouth is a noble settee that was of the Hancock furnishings; in Marblehead, in the Jeremiah Lee mansion, I saw six mahogany chairs, Heppelwhites, beautiful in design and workmanship, which, so tradition tells, were purchased at a Hancock auction, and carried up to Marblehead on a sloop, after John Han-cock's death. The portraits, by Copley, of Hancock and his wife, are fittingly in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Hancock was such a big figure in his time, and filled such a space in the public eye, that here on Beacon Hill, where his house stood, near the State House that has since heen built; upon his cow pasture, his presence still seems to be felt. Yet not only was his fine home destroyed and his fine furniture scattered, but before these things happened his widow had changed the name of Hancock for that of one of his own ship captains, and forever left the house where, with the gorgeous John, she had welcomed so great a number of personal guests and guests of the State or the Nation. When Lafayette visited Boston in 1824, he was escorted, by a great procession, through the streets, and passing along Tremont Street, beside the Common, thoughts came to him of the noble hospitality that had long ago been extended to him in the Hancock mansion, which was then still standing, on the other side of the great open space beside him. Full of such thoughts he lifted his eyes to a window—and there sat Mrs. James Scott, once Mrs. Hancock! Many years, had passed; but he recognized her, he stopped the carriage, he rose in his place and, hand on heart, bowed low; and as the carriage resumed its way she sank back, overpowered by the rush of memories. And such things make the past seem but yesterday, for the past still lives when one can feel its very life and watch its pulsing heart-throbs.
But Boston never really liked Hancock. That, as a rich merchant, he was placed in great public positions of a kind usually given to lawyers, roused the jealousy of lawyers, and every effort was made to ignore or belittle him. And he was an aristocrat; and revolutions always dislike aristocrats. He was the one conspicuous aristocrat of Boston who sided against the King, the others refugeeing to Halifax, and when the war was over, and families came in from Salem and Quincy (Braintree) and other places to become the leading families of Boston and make themselves Boston ancestors, Hancock was the only prominent representative of the ancien regime. IIe was himself born in what is now Quincy, but had come into Boston long before the Revolution to be associated with his wealthy uncle there. His position, his wealth, his fine mansion that stood so proudly on the hilltop, his lavish hospitality, with gayety and wines and dinners and music and dancing, made for jealousy among those who were invited, and for heartburnings and backbiting among those who were not invited at all or not so often as they thought they ought to be. On the whole, he could not but make enemies, and the Boston of even to-day is still moved by their enmities.
It was not until 1915 that this, his own city, would even put up a memorial to him—yet this belated memorial, which is set just within the entrance of the State House, shows by a brief enumeration how great a man lie was, for, beginning with the admirable phrasing, "John Hancock, a Patriot of the Revolution," it goes on to enumerate, with dignified brevity, that he was President of the Provincial Congress of 1774, that he was President of the Continental Congress of 1775-1777, that he was the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, that he was the first Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and was again, afterwards, made governor, and that he was president of the Convention that adopted the Federal Constitution. An amazing list ! A man who could occupy positions so dignified, so responsible, so honorable, not only among his own people but as a chosen leader of strong men gathered from all parts of America, must have possessed remarkable qualities of! leadership.
More than anything else, Hancock's clothes and his ideas of personal consequence made him enemies 1 He bought costly material. He wore his clothes with an air. He was a Beau Brunmmel of public life; he was more than that, for he also lived in state and with stateliness. All this was more noticeable in New England than it would have been farther south, and his colleagues either hated or disparaged him for it.
In the old State House, now maintained as a museum, not this new State House, there are preserved some of his clothes, and I noticed in particular a superb coat of crimson velvet and a splendid gold-embroidered waistcoat of blue silk: there are, too, some dainty slippers of white satin and blue kid, with roses of silk brocade, that his wife had worn. These things were, from their somewhat sober coloring, belongings of advancing years, but I remember a description of Hancock as a leader of fashion when a young man, and even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed more splendidly, for there was a coat of scarlet, lined with silk and embroidered with gold, and there was a waistcoat embroidered on white satin, and there were white satin smallclothes and white silk stockings and silver-buckled shoes and three-cornered gold-laced hat! He was often called
King Hancock" from the ostentation of his appearance and equipage, and a contemporary description declared that he appeared in public with gall the pageantry and state of an oriental prince," attended by servants in superb livery and escorted by half a hundred horsemen. And another account tells of his loving to drive in a great coach drawn by six blooded bays. Hancock's gorgeous clothes and-gorgeous ostentation were too much for Boston, and many years after his death even the genial Holmes took a humorous fling at him:
The Governor came, with his light-horse troop, And his mounted truckmen, all cock-a-hoop Halberds glittered and colors flew. French horns whinnied and trumpets blew, The yellow fifes whistled between their teeth And the bumble-hee bass-drums boomed beneath."
From all that one reads of Hancock's manner and appearance, and from the size of the signature that he so conspicuously and bravely set down, first of the signers of the Declaration of Independence as he was, one would gather the impression of a big consequential man, overbearing and pompous; but fortunately there is Copley's portrait to be seen, and Copley did not thus picture him.
Mrs. Hancock, "Dorothy Q.," Copley pictures as a slender lady in a pink silk gown with tight sleeves, and a tambour muslin apron, and a tiny black velvet band around the neck, and if her forehead is a trifle too high and bare and her lips a little too suggestive of selfishness, why, on the whole it is an attractive face; and John Hancock himself is shown as a slight and slender man, without pomposity of expression or bearing: just a quiet, agreeable-looking man, hand-some and intelligent, dressed without ostentation and with extreme neatness, in a plain gold-braided coat, with simple white ruffles at the wrists, and white silk stockings, sitting at a desk, pen in hand, turning the pages of a ledger. There is no better way of coming to a judgment regarding the character of the old-time leaders than by studying their portraits, when they were painted by such masters as Copley, Trumbull and Stuart, and such paintings give at the same time a feeling of intimate personal acquaintance with the men portrayed.
Hancock must have been a most unusual man, to win leadership as he did in the face of depreciation and criticism. His great conspicuous signature alone would mark him as unusual; and when he signed, it was with full knowledge that lie was taking greater risks than most of the other signers, not only because of his prominence as the first of the list but because he knew from personal observation the strength of England, having been one of the few who in those early days had crossed the Atlantic. It is curious to know that Hancock, the First Signer, was present at the coronation of George the Third! At the time of the Declaration, he had been proscribed for more than a year, on account of Revolutionary activities, and when he set down his bold signature he exclaimed : "There, John Bull can read that without spectacles ! Now let him double his reward!"
That he risked so great a stake as he did, that he risked great wealth and high social position as well as life—few in the North or the South risked so much —ought to have gone far toward endearing him to his contemporaries; and, indeed, it was all this, combined with qualities of leadership, that gave him such successive posts of importance. But doubtless there was something in his personality to arouse dislike, more than can now be seen. That he was, in present-day phrase, his own press-agent, quite capable of writing ahead to announce the time of his intended arrival at some place, and deprecating the idea of popular enthusiasm being shown by taking the horses out of his carriage—his own idea, thus put into the heads of others!—gives some intimation of how he won disfavor.
The tablet set into the fence in front of the house that has replaced his, seems in itself to bring his figure to mind, with all his picturesqueness of dressing and dining and living and driving and posing; for he was certainly much of a poseur. But he was romantic, too. He married Dorothy Quincy early in the war, at Fairfield, Connecticut, while he was still a proscribed man, unable to return to Massachusetts under forfeiture of his life; and, the house being afterwards wantonly burned in one of the barbarous burning coast-wise raids of the British, he sent down material for a new house from Boston, when the war was over, for its rebuilding, with the understanding that it should be rebuilt as a copy of his own house in Boston. It is worth while adding to this romance in house-building, that the Fairfield house, rebuilt so largely at Hancock's expense in memory of the happy event there, was completely altered in appearance, by a new owner who did not care for beauty, about the same time that Hancock's house on Beacon Hill was torn down by an owner similarly iconoclastic. But the story of the romantic marriage at Thaddeus Burr's house in-Fairfield is still remembered in the old Connecticut village, and the little Fairfield girls are still named Dorothy in a sort of romantic memory.
One thing is hard to forgive him, and that is his flight from Lexington, though that is something that Boston itself seems not to question. He had left Boston with Samuel Adams, as the first clash of the Revolution approached, they two being specifically cut off from mercy by the English Governor's proclamation which was at the same time offering mercy to any others who should seek it. The two men had taken shelter at Lexington; they had been wakened by Paul Revere at two o'clock in the morning of the great 19th of April; they thought that the British would like to capture them even more than to destroy the military supplies in Concord; and they deemed discretion better than valor, and fled. It is true that they were proscribed, and it is possible that they did not expect actual deadly shooting to take place that morning, but they also knew that British soldiers were out from Boston on grim duty and that the minute-men were gathering. As they fled they heard the bells of village after village solemnly sounding across the dark countryside. But they did not turn back and stand with the farmers whom their own leadership had taken into rebellion. What an opportunity they had! What an opportunity they missed! How gallantly they would forever have figured in history had they even, after running away from Lexington, joined the minute-men at Concord or on the glorious running fight to Boston! It was an opportunity such as comes to few—and instead of accepting it Hancock was sending word to his fiancee, Dorothy Quincy, who was at the home in Lexington where he had found shelter, telling her to what house he was fleeing and asking her to follow and to take the salmon!—a particularly fine specimen that he had hoped to eat at breakfast. And Dorothy Quincy followed and actually took it, and it was cooked—and then came poetic justice, in the shape of a man wild with the this-time-mistaken news that the British again were near, whereupon Hancock and Adams once more fled, salmonless, and when breakfast was at length eaten there was only cold pork. No wonder, years afterward, Mrs. Hancock wrote, "The Governor's hobby is his dinner-table, and I suppose it is mine."
Neither Hancock nor Samuel Adams had the two o'clock in the morning courage that makes a man brave when confronted with swift physical emergency : but they both possessed in a high degree the courage that makes well-dressed. men, when combined with other well-dressed men, risk resolutely their lives and property and honor. But the lack of physical courage did not prevent either Hancock or Samuel Adams from being given lofty positions of trust and from being, in turn, governors of Massachusetts.
In general, the site of a vanished building is not particularly interesting, but the simple tablet on the iron fence, showing where stood the picturesque house of the picturesque Hancock, and the belated memorial in the State House, which was built upon his own grounds—he had intended presenting the land to the State for the purpose, and the memorandum for the deed of gift was under his pillow when he died—summon up, as of the moment, the remembrance of this man of the past. The land, the hill—the Bostonian disparagement !—all are still here, and here is the very Common across which he loved to look and along the side of which, in front of his mansion, he loved to pace, with stately dignity and in stately clothes !
But it was against the sternness of Puritan law for any one to stroll, no matter how sedately, on the Common on Sundays, and the story is told that even Han-cock, at the height of his power, when taking the air one pleasant Sunday afternoon in front of his house on the Common, which he doubtless looked upon al-most as his own front yard, was incontinently pounced upon by a constable and, in spite of his choleric protestations, triumphantly led away ! The story may be apocryphal, but it bears all the marks of truth, in the desire to humble Hancock, and at the same time to stand for the sanctity of the Sabbath.