University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Role of John Hancock in the Massachusetts Convention

On Wednesday, 9 January 1788, delegates elected Governor John Hancock president of the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention. It was widely known that his gout (a conveniently recurring ailment) would prevent his attendance. Hancock accepted the presidency but did not attend the debates until 30 January.

After three weeks of debate, the most sanguine Federalists believed that ratification of the Constitution was questionable unless some provision was made for amendments. Federalists concluded that John Hancock was the ideal person to propose recommendatory amendments since he was acceptable to both Federalists and Antifederalists. Hancock enjoyed the confidence of the general public and he had not yet taken a public position on the Constitution. In fact, when Governor Hancock forwarded the Constitution to the state legislature on 18 October 1787, he had refused to state his position on the Constitution, declaring that it was not within the duties of his office “to decide upon this momentous affair.” Federalists also believed that the politically astute, fence-straddling Hancock would follow the will of the majority, as soon as he determined who was in the majority.

Some Federalists predicted that once Hancock determined the winning side, his health would improve. Rufus King, who visited Hancock at home several times, wrote on 20 January that “Hancock is still confined, or rather he has not yet taken his Seat; as soon as the majority is exhibited on either side I think his Health will suffer him to be abroad.”

Hancock became amenable to the Federalist plan after speaking with friends and, in all likelihood, striking a political deal, explicit or implicit with Federalists. Hancock’s political bargain with Federalists was described by Rufus King: “Hancock will hereafter receive the universal support [for the governorship] of Bowdoins Friends, and we tell him that if Virginia does not unite, which is problematical that he is considered as the only fair candidate for President.”

Late on the morning of Wednesday, 30 January, Hancock attended the debates for the first time. Wrapped in flannels, Hancock was carried into the Convention, where his appearance delighted the spectators attending the debates. Henry Van Schaack speculated that the still-unwell Hancock would not have attended at this time had it not been for the rumors “industriously” spread by Antifederalists that Hancock opposed the Constitution.

On the evening of 30 January, several Federalists caucused. Nathaniel Gorham reported that they were preparing amendments, without which ratification was not possible. Tristam Dalton informed a correspondent that Hancock and Samuel Adams supported the Constitution and that their support would gain them the majority. The stage was set for Hancock to propose recommendatory amendments.

Eager to hear Hancock, the galleries were filled on 31 January 1788. Reading from a speech prepared by the Federalist caucus, Hancock advocated that the Constitution be unconditionally ratified with nine recommendatory amendments. According to Hancock’s conciliatory proposition, designed to obtain ratification of the Constitution, 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.

Hancock told the delegates that the new system established by the Constitution was “indispensably necessary to save our country from ruin.… I give my assent to the Constitution in full confidence that the amendments proposed will soon become a part of the system.” The enlightened and intelligent people of Massachusetts, Hancock reasoned, would accept ratification with recommendatory amendments. At 4:00 p.m. the delegates began to cast their ballots, and, when the voting ended around 5:00 p.m., they had accepted the report by a vote of 187 to 168, thereby ratifying the Constitution. The idea of recommendatory amendments had worked and would be followed in six of the last states.