John Hancock's Books

Essay by 2015 Arcadia Fellow Alicia DeMaio

John Hancock (AB 1754) is best known in American history for his oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence. In Harvard history, he is most remembered for his ill-fated time as the university’s treasurer. In 1775, halfway through his term, Hancock left Cambridge for the Continental Congress and stopped providing the annual financial report required of his office, yet remained unwilling to give up his post. When the Corporation suggested that he might be a bit too busy serving his country as President of Congress to also be Harvard’s Treasurer, Hancock reacted indignantly. This prompted the corporation to reply with a twenty-five page letter explaining in detail exactly how Hancock repeatedly failed to meet his job’s responsibilities. He was replaced as Treasurer by Ebenezer Storer in 1777; Storer spent the next seven years trying to restore order to the accounts that Hancock left in chaos.

Hancock was not always on such bitter terms with his alma mater. Ten years before, in 1765, he fulfilled a request of his uncle Thomas Hancock, whose business John inherited upon Thomas’s death the year before. Thomas Hancock wanted to donate £500 sterling to help replenish the College’s library, most of which had been lost in a fire the year of his death. John fulfilled that request.

The library promptly drew up a list of books it wished to buy with the donation. How many books could one buy with £500 in the 1760s? A lot—482, to be exact. The books are academically diverse, covering subjects including theology, politics, history, geography, mathematics, science, and medicine. It appears that Hancock took the library’s list and sent it to one of his merchant connections in London. This is one of the less colorful letters in his business correspondence—Hancock’s irascible personality emerges in these letters as well.

All of the books were stored in a special Hancock alcove of the library, and the students, faculty, and overseers immediately enjoyed the new additions. The most popular volume in the year 1766 was Francis Hutchinson’s essay on witchcraft. The person who most frequently visited the Hancock alcove was Nathaniel Ward, who graduated with his AB in 1765 and spent the next three years earning his AM degree. He was fond of math and repeatedly checked out volumes of the Philosophical Transactions, the scientific journal of London’s Royal Society. Ward was offered the position of Librarian in 1768, which he accepted. Tragically, he never had the opportunity to fill his post, as he died from a fever one week after his appointment.