The Hancocks’ Long Courtship, Wartime Wedding, Deaths of Children


John Hancock, remembered today as a leader in the American Revolution and for his prominent signature on the Declaration of Independence, was the most eligible bachelor in New England back in 1770. He was handsome, the richest man in Boston, and single. He lived in his Beacon Hill mansion with his Aunt Lydia.

Aunt Lydia had raised John since he was seven and, with John now over 30, she took matters in hand. She took a liking to Dorothy “Dolly” Quincy, a single woman in her early 20s whose mother had recently died. Lydia gave Dolly motherly attention and made sure John had ample opportunities to recognize Dolly’s pleasing qualities.

Related to Abigail Adams

Next to stout and formidable Aunt Lydia, slender Dolly appeared frail. Dolly came from an old and respectable American family. Her relatives included Abigail Adams. But the Quincy family was not rich. Indeed, it was drifting into poverty. Dolly’s father, Edmund Quincy, didn’t protest when her youngest child spent more and more time in the Hancock mansion under Aunt Lydia’s supervision. John promised Lydia that he would ask Dolly to marry him. But months, then years passed and no date was set.

To be fair to Hancock, he had plenty on his mind. He had business to attend to and he was in the middle of the building political crisis that would explode in the American Revolution. Also, as the war approached he worried that any day British soldiers might come to his door and ship him to England for trial and certain execution.

Amid his many responsibilities, Hancock kept Dolly on his mind. In nearby Concord just days before war broke out, Hancock wrote a note to Dolly in Boston telling her that his work “prevents me the pleasure of seeing you so early as I expected. . .” He closed the letter with: “. . . no Person on Earth can be possess’d of greater affection & regard for anyone, than I have for the Lady to whom I address this, & be fully convinc’d that no Distance of Time or place can ever Erase the Impression made & the determination I have formed being forever yours, in that Confidence & Expectation I close with the addition, of, My Dear Dolly, Yours, for ever in every respect.” It finished with Hancock’s distinctive bold signature.

John Hancock, Lydia Hancock, Dolly Quincy and Sam Adams at Lexington

Dolly and Lydia were at the same house in Lexington with Hancock and Sam Adams on the April morning when war broke out on Lexington Green. Amid the anxiety and confusion, with British troops approaching Lexington from Boston, Dolly and John had a famous tiff. Dolly pondered aloud about the possibility of returning to Boston to fetch her father. Hancock snapped: “No, madam, you shall not return as long as there is a British bayonet left in Boston.” Dolly snapped back; “Recollect, Mr. Hancock, I am not under your control yet.”

After the start of the war, John finally asked Dolly to marry him. They were married in late August that year, 1775, in a friend’s house in Connecticut. Hancock then took Dolly with him to Philadelphia, where he was president of the Continental Congress. By the time Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Aunt Lydia was dead and Dolly was pregnant. The girl baby, born that fall, was of course named Lydia.

Off to Baltimore with Continental Congress

Only about a month after the birth, and with Philadelphia threatened by the British, Dolly, with daughter Lydia and Dolly’s sister Kate, packed up and went with John and the Continental Congress to Baltimore. When John and the Congress returned to Philadelphia in March 1777, Dolly, baby Lydia, and Kate stayed behind for a time.

When they did return to Philadelphia, it was only briefly. Dolly wanted to go back to Boston, now abandoend by the British and in American hands. After she left, John became restless, bored, and lonely. He also was stricken with grief. He received word from home that little Lydia had sickened and died. Hancock abruptly declared he needed to leave the Congress and go home.

John George Washington Hancock

He lingered in Boston long enough to be with Dolly for the birth of another child, John George Washington Hancock, in May 1778. The baby’s father returned to the Continental Congress that same year only to soon quit and return to Massachusetts.

Hancock leveraged his huge popularity to become of the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1780, winning ninety percent of the vote, and easily won re-election in each of the next four years. Then, faced with difficult economic problems in the state and suffering from bad health, he suddenly quit as governor in January 1785.

Two years later, his nine-year-old son, trying out new skates on some icy sidewalks, fell, hit his head, and died. Hancock’s grief and chronically poor health did not stop him the next year from running for governor again and even promoting himself for the vice-presidency of the United States. He easily won election as governor. His efforts to become vice president, however, were less successful. He toured from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Boston to bolster support, but finished a distant fifth out of eleven candidates.

Hancock was still governor when he died in 1793. Three years after her husband’s death, Dolly Hancock married James Scott, a widower and a ship’s captain who had been a friend of John Hancock. The couple lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, until after his death in 1809 when she moved back to the Hancock Mansion on Beacon Hill. She sold the mansion in 1816 and moved to a smaller house in Boston. She died in 1830, age 83.