On this day in 1737, the man most-known for his large and stylish signature on the Declaration of Independence was born. Hancock was a leader in events leading up to the revolution – and in ratifying the Constitution.
JANUARY 1788 – The fate of the proposed new Constitution was in question.
There were many opponents who had misgivings about the Constitution’s lack of a bill of rights and what many in the opposition considered a shift of power from the states to a new central government.
John Hancock, who was governor of Massachusetts at that time, had those same concerns. But he was very popular among people on both sides of the ratification debate. A favorite son who helped lead the resistance to the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, Hancock was also popular for diffusing the aftermath of Shays rebellion by pardoning all of the insurgents.
This popularity led to him being elected president of the Massachusetts ratifying convention despite being so ill he was unable to attend most of it in person.
Due to strong opposition in Massachusetts, the fate of the Constitution “as it now stands” (how many opponents of unqualified ratification referred to it), and thus as a whole, was in doubt. Without recommended amendments, ratification would almost certainly fail in Massachusetts, with likely rejections to follow in New York, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
In short, ratification in Massachusetts was do-or-die.
Due to his popularity on both sides, Federalist supporters felt that Hancock was the ideal person to propose recommendatory amendments.
Hancock rarely spoke once he started attending the convention, but as it drew to a close, he gave a speech in favor of ratification on January 31, 1788. Eager to hear one of the Revolution’s favorite sons, the galleries were filled with the general public.
Hancock called for the Constitution to be unconditionally ratified with nine recommendatory amendments. According to Hancock’s proposition, the Convention was to ratify the Constitution unconditionally, while recommending that the form of ratification include amendments that would be considered by the first federal Congress. The Convention, acting in the name of the people of Massachusetts, would instruct the state’s delegation to the first federal Congress to pursue these recommendatory amendments.
The first of those recommendations was a precursor to what became the 10th Amendment:
First, That it be explicitly declared that all Powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several States to be by them exercised.
So, although many modern historians credit other founders – like Thomas Tudor Tucker, Roger Sherman, and James Madison – with development and ratification of the 10th Amendment, one could just as rightly give the honor to John Hancock.
Without his speech, the Constitution was unlikely to have been adopted. And although the first amendment proposal he included in that speech was a popular recommendation from so-called “antifederalists,” he was the first prominent figure to present the idea as a strategic move to secure ratification.
Today, we thank John Hancock for his “eternal enmity to tryanny.” We also give him credit for his efforts in the Massachusetts convention which led to both ratification of the Constitution and the 10th Amendment.
Happy birthday, John Hancock!
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