THE BARON OF BEACON HILL: A Biography of John Hancock by William M. Fowler

THE BARON OF BEACON HILL: A Biography of John Hancock

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Like previous Hancock biographers (Sears, 1912; Allan, 1948), historian Fowler (Northeastern) decries attention to the impressive signature and neglect of the prominent Signer; but he sheers off from confronting--or even recognizing--the perennial question of rich, vainglorious Hancock's real worth: was Sam Adams' co-conspirator and Massachusetts' popular first governor an ""Empty Barrel"" as John Adams once alleged? Fowler is content to conclude lamely that Hancock sought Fame--which conveys as little to the general reader (interested in Hancock's character) or to the scholar (concerned with his historical contribution) as most of the rest of the book. In the first place, Fowler provides a much sketchier account of Hancock's business activities, his political efforts (including the bread-and-circus outlays), and his personal affairs than 1948 biographer Allan (the apparent heft is misleading--there are 70 pp. of notes for 280 pp. of text). His accounts of celebrated episodes in Hancock's life differ significantly, moreover, from standard accounts--and these differences are not only unexplained, they are generally ignored (except, sometimes, for vague references in the endnotes). A notable instance is Hancock's run-in with British customs officials apropos of the sloops Lydia and Liberty--elsewhere interpreted as evidence either of his temerity or of his hounding by the British, here murkily not quite either. We are also not told enough about the circumstances of his crucial support for Massachusetts' ratification of the Constitution to determine whether his performance was a quest for glory (Fowler's construction) or far-sighted statesmanship--or, more reasonably, a bit of both. The book, in short, is both crudely conceived and something of a blur--careless in its scholarship, devoid of vital evidence, short on concrete detail, fine distinctions, and any but the grossest characterization. Much of it, indeed, is merely an uninteresting recap of events narrated with far greater skill in other histories of the Revolutionary period.

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 1980
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin