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John Hancock 7th President of the United States in Congress Assembled - Author Stanley L. KLos President Who? Forgotten Christian Founders


by: Stanley L. Klos   Published by Corporation

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John Hancock

7th President of the United States
in Congress Assembled
November 23, 1785 - June 13, 1786

By: Stanley L. Klos

John Hancock who resigned as President of the Continental Congress in 1778 (see Chapter four) went home to Boston and recuperated over a two-year period. In 1780 he re-entered public office due to the re­drafting of the Massachusetts Constitution. He was a member of that State's constitutional convention of 1780, and was governor of the state from 1780 until 1785. On January 29, 1785 John Hancock resigned as Governor of Massachusetts. As in 1778, Hancock assigned ill health as the cause for retirement. On June 16th, 1785 he was elected as delegate to the United States in Congress Assembled. Young John Quincy Adams wrote his father on August 3rd "It is generally supposed here that Mr. Hancock will next year be seated in the Chair of Congress." John Hancock wrote his sister on July 17th:

Mr. Hancock, being too infirm to act as Governor of Massachusetts, is chosen a mem­ber of Congress … and will probably take his rest in the President's seat next November. This is escaping Scylla to fall into Charybdis.

On June 16th, 1785 Hancock was elected to the United States in Congress Assembled, but could not attend the session of Congress in November 1785 due to his illness. Despite this he was elected President of the United States in Congress Assembled on the 23rd of November 1785. His presidential duties were performed by the two chairmen - David Ramsay (23 November, 1785 ­12 May, 1786) and Nathaniel Gorham (15 May - 5 June, 1786).

Address leaf panel free franked "John Hancock" by him at lower left and addressed in his hand "To The Honorable General Ward & General Thomas at Cambridge & Roxbury." The panel measures approximately 4 ¾ by 3 ¼ inches oblong. Undated, but certainly 1775 or 1776 because Ward and Thomas were both commissioned in the spring of 1775; General Thomas left Roxbury on March 22, 1776 and died that June in Canada. This is an unusual John Hancock signature as it lacks the flourish of other letters and documents signed at this crucial time in his presidency of the Congress. -- Courtesy of the Author

This peculiar turn of events, a President of the United States not reporting for duty for over six months, gives testament to the power of the executive departments and congressional committees that now controlled many of the presiding presidential office former duties. This turn of executive events dashed the hopes of many delegates who had hoped John Hancock would report to New York and re-establish the presidency as an position of national leadership and substantial federal influence. This following letter of Delegate John Bayard to James Hutchinson provides an account of the election of John Hancock and the work that followed immediately thereafter with a spotlight on the States' inability to fill their respective seats in the federal government to form the necessary nine States quorum to conduct “business of the utmost consequence.”. President Hancock's failure to report for duty had a rippling effect on the United States in Congress Assembled whose ability to form a governing quorum sank to all time national lows in1786.

Col. Pettit and myself arrived here on Monday evening; and on Wednesday we made a Congress, by Seven States appearing on the Floor. We proceeded to the choice of a President, when after seven times balloting we made choice of Mr. Hancock, but He not being present, Dr. Ramsay was chosen as chairman.

This day has been taken up in reading Dispatches from various parts of the United States, chiefly those that relate to Indian Affairs; tomorrow We expect thro the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, to have the communications from our Ministers in Europe laid before us. Little Business can be done in Congress till more States are repre­sented. At present we have but Seven which you know barely constitutes a Congress; and a Single person can negative whatever is proposed. We are told there is Business of the utmost Consequence to be laid before us that requires immediate attention, but cannot safely be taken up unless We have Nine or Eleven States.

I find the Members of Congress from the different States exceedingly attentive to the Debates of our Assembly as contained in Careys Paper. The Expressions & Arguments made use of by some Gentlemen in the debate respecting the Theatre, Vizt, that it would be an inducement to the Young Fellows in Congress &c whilst it excited a Laugh, evidently gave offence to a Number, the Answers made by Smiley, Whitehill, Finley, &c were much approved. If Gentlemen wish Congress to return to Philada., they at least ought to be guarded in their Expressions respecting them. The Puff in Mr. Careys Paper on the Election of Dr. Franklin as President 'that it would induce Congress to remove to Philada. to avail themselves of His superior Wisdom,' was very injudicious & offensive. I Just hint those things to you as I have frequently had them cast up to me by Members of Congress and others.

It fell on fellow Massachusetts Delegate, Rufus King, to persuade John Hancock to take his chair in Congress. Recalling that Hancock's York quarters as President in the old Continental Congress were quite humble King wrote the new President on December 7th 1785:

It was with very sincere pleasure I this day received yours of the 30th ult. which declares your acceptance of the chair of congress and I entreat you to be assured, that this pleasure was not a little encreased, by the expectation you have given me leave to entertain, that Mrs Hancock will be with you during your residence here.

In consequence of some Doubts expressed in your Letter, I have this Evening made enquiry, concerning the Situation of the House, and furniture, of the President's family; the House is good, and although the Furniture is not such as it should be, it will be within your direction at the public charge, to make such dispositions and amendments as may be convenient. The Servants, carriage, Horses &ca. of the late president are retained, and wait your coming; the Carriage is very ordinary, but every arrangement relative to the Household may be effected on your arrival here, and without any inconvenience. In great haste, but with perfect consideration & respect, I have the honor to be, Dear Sir, Your very humbl. servt., Rufus King

P.S. I believe that it was after you left Congress, that the present plan of supporting the Household of the president was adopted. A Steward is appointed by Congress, who conducts the whole business of the house-hold, under direction of the President; and the President draws on the Treasury for the necessary monies to defray the Stewards demands.

John Hancock to Rufus King November 30, 1785 in a PS writes: "I have Scarcely yet recovered from a late very severe fit of the Gout ... I must make the best of it and hope a January may be of some advantage tho' I cannot say much in favor of the season for traveling" Hancock would never arrive in New York to assume his Presidential Office due to health concerns. -- Courtesy of the Library of Congress

All throughout December the United States in Congress Assembled failed to achieve a quorum and virtually no business was conducted. On January 2nd, Dr. Ramsay convened Congress with a British complaint on treatment of loyalists. On the 4th they took up the very important matter on the States' response to Federal appeals to grant Congress authority to raise revenue and regulate trade. The uneventful month concluded with Congressional appeals to six unrepresented states to send delegates.

On January 18th, David Ramsay wrote to John Eliot from his office in Congress summing up his month as Chairman:

We have only seven States represented in Congress & of course we proceed very lan­guidly in business. We hope for two or three more in the course of a few days. When will President Hancock come on? I long to see him & shall with great pleasure resign to him that chair which I now occupy in his absence. I am sincerely sorry for the many restrictions under which your trade languishes. Though the Southern States suffer less than the Eastern yet they all have a great interest in vesting Congress with [com]petent powers to regulate commerce.

February and March were also uneventful months for the United States in Congress Assembled. Quorums were impossible to maintain, the States' responses to congressional fiscal appeals were contemptible. The United States in Congress Assembled did attempt to gain from the States the authority to regulate trade but measures failed in garnishing enough Delegate support. On March 12th Congress turned their efforts to the standardization of oaths required for Federal officeholders. The Oath of Fidelity adopted by United States was as follows:

I. A. B. appointed to the office of ______ do acknowledge that I do owe faith and true allegiance to the United States of America, and I do swear (or affirm) that I will, to the utmost of my power, support, maintain and defend the said United States in their freedom, sovereignty and independence, against all opposition whatsoever. And the Oath of Office shall be in the words following: 'I, A. B. appointed to the office of ______ do swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully, truly, and impartially execute the office of _________ to which I am so appointed, according to the best of my skill and judgment; and that I will not disclose or reveal any thing, that shall come to my knowledge in the execution of the said office, or from the confidence I may thereby acquire, which, in my own judgment, or by the injunction of my superiors, ought to be kept secret.

On March the 24th, in an effort to streamline the federal government's finances, Congress appointed a single commissioner to consolidate settlement of accounts of the five great departments; clothier, commissary, hospital, marine, and quartermaster. Delegate attendance still hampered the Congress from conducting any sweeping reforms to the ailing federal government. Once again an appeal was made in March to President Hancock to assume his office in New York by fellow Massachusetts Delegate Rufus King:

New York 30 March 1786: Mr. Ramsay the chairman of congress told me a few days since that he had written to you informing that he should soon leave congress, & that he wished to know whether your Health would allow you to come on. This letter was not written in consequence of any order or direction of congress, but can be consid­ered only as a volunteer Affair in the writer.

Not knowing the impressions that this Letter might produce in your mind, I have thought it might be agreeable to receive this information; indeed I have another motive in writing at this time, which is to express my hopes that your Health is so far restored, that you will soon be able to commence your Journey for this City; you may be assured that your Reception will be entirely respectful & affectionate.

I shall be happy to learn that Mrs. Hancock possesses her usual good health, and cannot but flatter myself with the idea of soon offering both to you, & her, my sincere respects in this City.

April passed with no appearance by President Hancock or resignation by Dr. Ramsay. Early in April Chairman Ramsay wrote to Nicholas Van Dyke of New York expressing the urgency to establish a continental impost to raise revenue for the federal government:

Congress have since their late acts of 15th of last February relative to revenue, received Official accounts that Rhode Island has acceded to the Impost. Newspapers and private Letters inform that Georgia and Maryland have done the same. There are good reasons to believe that the Legislature of New York will in their present session in like manner adopt it; Should these hopes be realized there will be no obstruction to the immediate operation of the Continental Impost, but the non Compliance of Several States with the recommendations of Congress of the 18th of April 1783 to establish supplementary funds in addition to the Imposts; or the provisos in the Pennsylvania and Delaware grants of the five Per Cent, restraining their operation till all the States had complied with both parts of the revenue System of that date. From this statement of facts it follows that the impost must be unproductive, though acced­ed to by all the States, till either all have established supplementary funds; or till Pennsylvania and Delaware revise the provisos of their grants restraining their opera­tion till that event takes place. It is submitted to the good sense of Delaware whether it would not be adventives of the Common Interest of the Union to give immediate efficiency to the general impost, as soon as it shall be agreed to by all the States, with­out waiting for the establishment of the supplementary funds in aid thereof, should New York as is expected adopt it, and the Collection thereof be delayed till all the States pass the Supplementary funds; a large sum of money much wanted for feder­al purposes will be prevented from coming into the Treasury of the United States. As many of the Legislatures of these States which have not fully complied with the whole Revenue System are not in session, much time must Necessarily be consumed before the supplementary funds can be Universally established, even though all the States were well disposed to their adoption, it is much to be wished the supplementary funds and the Impost had gone hand in hand; Congress in every Act of theirs have associ­ated them as essential parts of one System, and it is their determination to urge the adoption of both, but as the present Necessities of the Union are great, they conceive it to be their duty to attempt the removal of every obstruction to the immediate pro­ductiveness of that part of the system which promises to bring the speediest and amplest supplies into the Federal Treasury. The states which have not adopted the supplementary funds have now under reference from Congress a very pressing Recommendation in their favor. The States of Pennsylvania and Delaware are also requested to revise the Provisos in their respective grants, so as to give immediate operation to the Impost when it shall be acceded to by all the States.

Anxious for the restoration of public Credit, Congress wish to give Instant efficiency to every plan that favors that desirable purpose. It is with regret that Congress requests any alteration, even in the provisoes of a Law which is acknowledged to be conformable to their own Recommendations, but such is the nature of our govern­ment that any efficiency it possesses must arise from a disposition of accommodation in the States to each other, and of Congress to all.

In obedience to the orders of Congress in the Chair of which I have the Honor to sit in the absence of Mr. President Hancock I request the favor of you to bring this matter under the consideration of the Legislature of your State as soon as Circumstances will permit.

Connecticut, also in April, offered its resolution for the secession of their claims to the Northwest Territory. Debate continued on the resolution's acceptance with nothing finalized well into May.

The month of May marked the ½ point of John Hancock's U.S. Presidency. John Jay, the U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, wrote John Adams on the 4th:

Mr. Hancock is still at Boston, and it is not certain when he may be expected; this is not a pleasant circumstance, for though the chair is well filled by a chairman, yet the President of Congress should be absent as little and seldom as possible.

On the 12th of May, the United States in Congress Assembled declared intra-continental navigable waters in the territories forever free to their inhabitants and to the citizens of the United States. This was the boldest move of the Hancock Congress and no one even knew where he stood on the edict. On May the 15th Ramsay was forced to resigned as Chairman of Congress because his term as a South Carolina delegate had expired. Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the United States in Congress Assembled, wrote to John Hancock:

Sir, Office of Secretary of Congress, May 17. 1786 In Obedience to the Order of Congress I have the honor to transmit to your Excellency herewith enclosed an Act of the United States in Congress assembled passed the 15 instant and their proceedings thereon.

Secretary Thomson enclosed the proceedings related to the election of Nathaniel Gorham as chairman of Congress, "to serve until the first Monday in June next," succeeding David Ramsay. On May 29th, 1786 Hancock, who was reported so ill that he was unable to write, had his letter of resignation drafted for his signature. It was presented to the Congress on June 5th, 1786 and the resignation was accepted. This ended the unprecedented six month tenure of John Hancock, a U.S. President, who never took his seat in the Federal Capitol of New York City. On June 6th Charles Thomson transmitted this letter to the thirteen States::

I have the honor to inform your Excellency that His Excellency J. Hancock being pre­vented by sickness from Attending Congress & executing the duties of president has requested their acceptance of his resignation of that Office; and that thereupon the United States in Congress Assembled proceeded to another election & have this day appointed his Excellency Nathl Gorham to preside."

The Chronology of John Hancock's Congress is as follows:

1785 - November 23 Achieves quorum, seven states represented; elects John Hancock president (in absentia), David Ramsay, chairman. November 24 Elects two congressional chaplains. November 25 Receives report on British Consul John Temple. November 28-29 Fails to achieve quorum.

December 2 Recognizes John Temple as British Consul. December 5-26 Fails to achieve quorum. December 27 Receives Secretary at War reports.

1786 -- January 2 Receives British complaint on treatment of loyalists. January 4 Receives reports on states' response to appeals to grant Congress authority to raise revenue and regulate trade. January 5 Receives report on Algerian capture of American seamen. January 12 Receives report on settlement of Continental accounts. January 18 Refers Connecticut cession to committee. January 19 Orders report on 1786 fiscal estimates. January 27 Elects Samuel Shaw consul to Canton, China. January 30 Appeals to six un-represented states to send delegates.

February 1 Removes injunction of secrecy on correspondence concerning "the appointment of Commissioners to treat with the Barbary powers." February 3 Debates states' response to congressional fiscal appeals. February 8 Receives report on French loan interest requirements. February 9 Justifies abolishing salaries of court of appeals judges. February 16-24 Fails to achieve quorum. February 25 Receives reports on Franco-American postal plan and on 1786 fiscal estimates.

March 3 Repeats call to the states for authority to regulate trade. March 7 Appoints committee to confer with New Jersey Assembly on its refusal to comply with 1786 Continental Requisition. March 10 Rejects New York appeal for an extension of time for receiving Continental claims from citizens of the state. March 14 Clarifies form of oaths required for Continental officeholders. March 17-18 Fails to achieve quorum. March 21 Receives report on capital punishment in military courts martial. March 22 Receives report of New Jersey's reversal of opposition to 1786 Continental Requisition. March 24 Appoints single commissioner to consolidate settlement of accounts of the five great departments (clothier, commissary, hospital, marine and quartermaster). March 27 Orders arrest of Major John Wylles for execution of army deserters. March 29 Directs secretary for foreign affairs to report on negotiations for British evacuation of frontier posts.

April 5 Receives report on "negotiations, and other measures to be taken with the Barbary powers." April 10 Receives report on Connecticut land cession. April 12 Receives board of treasury report on coinage. April 19 Rejects Massachusetts request for Continental ordnance April 27 Receives translations of French decree on fisheries bounties.

May 2 Holds audience with Cornplanter and other Seneca chiefs. May 5 Holds audience with Cornplanter and other Seneca chiefs. May 6 Fails to achieve quorum. May 8 Appoints second commissioner for settlement of accounts of the five great departments. May 9 Directs Continental Geographer to proceed with survey of western territory. May 11 Debates Connecticut cession. May 12 Declares navigable waters in the territories forever free to their inhabitants and to the citizens of the United States. May 15 Elects Nathaniel Gorham chairman of Congress to succeed David Ransay. May 17 Ratifies Prussian-American Treaty of Commerce. May 18 Postpones until September meeting of agents for Georgia-South Carolina boundary dispute. May 22-25 Debates Connecticut cession. May 26 Declares conditional acceptance of Connecticut cession. May 29 Fails to achieve quorum. May 31 Amends Rules to War; receives John Jay request for a committee to confer with him on negotiations with Diego de Gardoqui.

June 5 Receives resignation of President John Hancock; receives report on military establishment.

John Hancock recovered and was elected Governor again in 1787. He was a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution and its ratification process. In the presidential election of 1789, Governor Hancock received four electoral votes for U.S. President under the new United States Constitution against George Washington and John Adams. He was re-elected annually as Governor of Massachusetts and served in that capacity until his death in 1793.

John Hancock was described by his supporters as:

"a man of strong common sense and decision of character, of polished manners, easy address, affable, liberal, and charitable. In his public speeches he displayed a high degree of eloquence. As a presiding officer he was dignified, impartial, quick of appre­hension, and always commanded the respect of congress."

Hancock employed his large fortune for useful and benevolent purposes, and was a liberal donor to Harvard College. A great patriot, John Hancock was also the fledgling nation's most notable grandstander when acting in a public forum, no matter how small the arena. When the best method of driving the British from Boston was under discussion at a patriotic club he declared, "Burn Boston, and make John Hancock a beggar, if the public good requires it."

Hancock received the degrees from both Yale and Princeton in 1769. He was awarded the degree of L.L.D. from Brown in 1788 and from Harvard in 1792. John Hancock is buried in Boston and is the only man to hold the titles of President of the Continental Congress of the United Colonies of America, President of the Continental Congress of the United States of America, and President of the United States of America in Congress Assembled.

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