In the Woody Allen movie Zelig, the running joke is that the main character pops up in the background of every major event of his time. John Hancock (1737–93) was the Zelig of American independence. From the first signs of resistance to imperial rule in the Royal Province of Massachusetts in the 1760s to the foundation of that state’s government in the 1780s, Hancock was everywhere. But, unlike the fictional Zelig, Hancock played a key role at every turn, through hard work, bonhomie, and judicious disposition of his considerable wealth. It was Hancock whose behind-the-scenes maneuvering was critical to the opposition to the Stamp Act; it was his ships that both carried the contraband that sparked protests against the British trade duties and subsequently brought news of their repeal; it was he who served as the president of the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly and...


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