Words That Men Live By
John Hancock (1774)
BOSTON, Mass., March 5, 1774 - John Hancock, as fearless in his patriotism as he is eloquent in arguing the fine points of law, today told a cheering crowd on the Commons here that Americans stand as ready to die for liberty today as were the gallant victims of the Massacre of 1770.
In the midst of rising tensions between England and the American Colonies, Mr. Hancock memorialized the Massacre, as chief speaker on the fourth anniversary of the despicable event, when British troops fired point-blank into massed demonstrators who themselves were unarmed.
Far from frightening patriots into submission to oppression, Mr. Hancock said, the martyrdom of the victims of 1770 stands as a signal warning to the British crown that, come what may, "We fear not death."
Excerpts from the speaker's eulogy of the dead and lesson for the living follow:
It was easy to foresee the consequences which so naturally followed upon sending troops into America, to enforce obedience to acts of the British Parliament which neither God nor man ever empowered them to make. It was reasonable to expect that troops, who knew the errand they were sent upon, would treat the people whom they were to subjugate with a cruelty and haughtiness, which too often buried the honorable character of the soldier in the disgraceful name of an unfeeling ruffian.
The troops, upon their first arrival, took possession of our senate house, and pointed their cannon against the judgment hall, and even continued them there whilst the supreme court of juridicature for this province was actually sitting to decide upon the lives and fortunes of the king's subjects. Our streets nightly resounded with the noise of riot and debauchery; our peaceful citizens were hourly exposed to shameful insults, and often felt the effects of their violence and outrage. But this was not all; as though they thought it not enough to violate our civil rights, they endeavored to deprive us of the enjoyment of our religious privileges, to vitiate our morals, and thereby render us deserving of destruction.
I come reluctantly to the transactions of that dismal night, when in such quick succession we felt the extremes of grief, astonishment, and rage; when Heaven in anger, for a dreadful moment, suffered hell to take the reins; when Satan with his chosen band opened the sluices of New England's blood, and sacrilegiously polluted our land with the dead bodies of her guiltless sons.
Let this sad tale of death never be told without a tear; let not the heaving bosom cease to bum with a manly indignation at the barbarous story through the long tracts of future time; let every parent tell the shameful story to his listening children until tears of pity glisten in their eyes, and boiling passion shake their tender frames; and whilst the anniversary of that ill-fated night is kept a jubilee in the grim court of pandemonium let all America join in one common prayer to Heaven, that the inhuman, unprovoked murders of the fifth of March, 1770, planned by Hillsborough, and a knot of treacherous knaves in Boston, and executed by the cruel hand of Preston and his sanguinary coadjutors, may ever stand in history without parallel.
But what, my countrymen, withheld the ready arm of vengeance from executing instant justice on the vile assassins? May that magnificence of spirit which scorns the low pursuits of malice, may that generous compassion which often preserves from ruin, even a guilty villain, forever actuate the noble bosoms of Americans. But let not the miscreant host vainly imagine that we feared their arms. No, them we despised; we dread nothing but slavery. Death is the creature of a poltroon's brain; 'tis immortality to sacrifice ourselves for the salvation of our countryvWe fear not death. That gloomy night, the pale-faced moon, and the affrighted stars that hurried through the sky, can witness that we fear not death. Our hearts which, at the recollection, glow with rage that four revolving years have scarcely taught us to restrain, can witness that we fear not death; and happy it is for those who dared to insult us, that their naked bones are not now piled up an everlasting monument of Massachusetts' bravery.
~ Postlogue ~
Like many of his southern compatriots, John Hancock's leadership in the fight against suppressive measures involved hazarding far more than his liberty; he was a wealthy man by virtue of inheritance of the leading trading firm in Boston. Already, in 1768, his ship the Liberty had been confiscated by the British on charges of smuggling. In a subsequent riot it was burned.
In 1769, Massachusetts patriots had elected Hancock a member of the General Court. A year after this speech reported here, Hancock was elected a member of the Continental Congress, and in turn chosen as its president.
When the Declaration of Independence was written, he signed it first with a bold flourish and so prominently that ever since signatures have been referred to colloquially as "John Hancocks."
Hancock died in 1793, while holding office as Governor of Massachusetts.Printable version