Most of us know at least one fact about John Hancock – not the company that manages pensions and investments, though it’s named for him, but the actual guy – and that’s probably his enormous handwriting. It was Hancock after all, who signed the Declaration of Independence with a Texas-sized signature, forcing the remaining signers to the fringes of the page.
Ok, that’s not strictly true, but if you’ve seen the Declaration, his signature is certainly the most prominent.
What you may not know is that John Hancock suffered from gout. If you’re not familiar with it, gout is a particularly painful foot disorder generally caused by too much uric acid in the blood. John Hancock, born in the mid-1730s, began suffering from it before his 40th birthday, about the time the push for independence was getting ramped up in the Colonies.
But some said that Hancock suffered from “political gout” as well. This was the gout that always seemed to trouble the Declaration’s biggest signer whenever there were difficult political issues to solve. Just such an instance may have been the time when Massachusetts was discussing ratification of the Constitution in January of 1788.
The delegates that met to discuss this most-important of issues numbered 355. John Hancock was not among them, despite being the governor of Massachusetts. His malady?…gout. Many were suspicious. In her book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Bowen writes, “Notoriously avid of popularity, the Governor wished to time his appearance to that moment when the vote would be sure and the issue certain.” Hancock had placed himself squarely against ratification, but knew the fight would be a close one among the delegates. And apparently, the governor didn’t like being on the wrong side of a vote. So the gout flared up.
Clearly John Hancock was correct in his assessment of the debate. It was well-attended, out-growing the State House and finding its way into one of Boston’s larger churches. And it was contentious. Initially, those against ratification outnumbered those in favor, and they carried the loudest voices. Rhetoric was much sharper than had been heard the previous summer in Philadelphia.
They spoke of their fear of standing armies. They decried the weak position the Constitution took on banning slavery. They worried about excessive taxation. There was debate over the lack of religion in the document. One detractor said he “shuddered at the idea that Roman Catholics, papists and pagans might be introduced into office, and that popery and the Inquisition may be established in America.”
And at the heart of it, they painted the Constitution as a rich-man’s document. Amos Singletary, a simple farmer, spoke for most of the Antifederalists when he said, “These lawyers and men of learning, and moneyed men that talk so finely, and gloss over matters so smoothly, to make us poor illiterate people swallow down the pill, expect to get in Cogress themselves. They expect to be managers of this Constitution, and get all the power and all the money into their own hands.”
But while those against ratification spoke the loudest, those in favor were better prepared, offered a more cogent defense, and worked to sway opposition. In repsonse to Singletary there was Jonathan Smith, another farmer. “Suppose you had a farm of fifty acres, and your title was disputed, and there was a farm of five thousand acres joined to you, that belonged to man of learning, and his title was involved in the same difficulty. Would you not be glad to have him for your friend, rather than stand alone in your dispute? Well, the case is the same. These lawyers, these moneyed men, these men of learning, are all embarked in the same cause with us, and we must all swim or sink together.”
As January came to a close, it was clear that the Antifederalist cause was cracking. And it fully cracked when Federalists offered up a “bill of rights”, addressing numerous Antifederalist concerns, to be recommended to Congress. Even Samuel Adams, once against ratification and a voice as powerful as Hancock’s in Massachusetts, joined those in favor of adoption.
It was time to get John Hancock on board. There was much bargaining with the Governor. He was asked to present the bill of rights, called the “Conciliatory Proposition”, to the convention. He was all but guaranteed victory in the next governor’s election. He was told that if Virginia (Washington’s home state) refused to ratify, he would be the state’s nominee for President of the United States. Madison wrote to Jefferson that Hancock was “weak, ambitious, a courtier of popularity, given to low intrigue…”. But right now, Madison needed Hancock…or rather, he needed Hancock’s support.
On January 30, 1788, John Hancock arrived at the convention in Boston. He sported heavily bandaged feet and was carried to his chair, but the governor was present. There would be another week’s worth of debate and more amendments to recommend to Congress. But Federalists were now hopeful of carrying the day.
Recommended Reading: Miracle at Philadelphia