History knows well the story of John Hancock, the patriot from the American Revolution whose name is featured prominently on the Declaration of Independence. But there is another John Hancock who had his own adventures in war and politics. This John Hancock would travel to Texas, serve as a judge and attorney, and later become a member of Congress.
John Hancock was not related to his famous namesake. This one was born in October 1824 in Jackson County, Alabama, a lightly populated area in the northeast corner of Alabama. He was the seventh of 10 children born to John and Sarah Hancock.
Hancock’s oldest brother, George, was 17 years his senior. In 1835, he had left Alabama for Texas where he served in the Texas Revolution, fighting at the famed Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. He later became a respected and prosperous merchant in the Austin area. Tales of his adventures in far-off Texas inspired the younger Hancock, who began planning for his own successful career.
After spending his childhood on the family farm, he went to nearby Knoxville, where he studied at the University of East Tennessee. After graduation, he began an apprenticeship with an attorney in Winchester, Tennessee, not far from his childhood home. He studied the law and procedures carefully before going to an Alabama judge to show his competency in the law. As a result, in 1846, not yet 22, he was admitted to the bar in Alabama.
The next year, Hancock moved to Austin and started his own law firm. It proved very successful, and his reputation grew. In 1851, at the age of 27, he was elected as a district judge. On the bench, he was well-regarded by court observers and attorneys. His proceedings were respected as efficient and fair and his rulings were sound. Though elected to a six-year term, he apparently grew bored with serving as a judge and became enticed by other opportunities. He resigned in 1855, began ranching and resumed his law practice.
As tensions between North and South flared, he was drawn back into politics. He was elected to the state legislature in fall 1859 as a Unionist Democrat determined to keep Texas in the Union. The Texas Hill Country and the Red River Valley were known for their strong Unionist stands. After the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in fall 1860, secessionists began driving southern states from the Union.
Gov. Sam Houston was also a devout Unionist, at one point declaring that Texas had shed its blood to get into the Union. Hancock stood with Houston against the forces of secession, but it soon became clear that Texas Unionists were far outnumbered among voters and legislators. Houston reluctantly called for a secession convention and a later vote. Texans voted overwhelmingly for secession, and the secession convention demanded that all officeholders swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy or their elected offices would be declared vacant.
For Hancock, political expediency did not matter. Principle was what as stake. He refused to take the oath supporting the Confederacy. Like Houston, Hancock was expelled from his office by March 1861.
He remained a conscientious objector throughout the Civil War, often moving from one place to another. He still worked as an attorney, practicing only in Texas courts and refusing to try cases in Confederate courts. After the Confederate draft was enacted, officials began looking for him to press him into the army. Hancock fled to Mexico in 1864 rather than serve, still determined to support the Union. By the spring of 1865, he was in New Orleans when he learned of the Confederate surrender and returned home.
Hancock returned to politics, serving in the 1866 State Constitutional Convention, working to make Texas part of the United States again. In 1870, he was elected to Congress, representing most of Central Texas. Much of his work in Congress dealt with policies relating to the treatment of Native Americans. Settlers on the frontier had long been enraged with the fights between settlers seeking new lands and the tribes determined to defend their own lands. Hancock’s stances toward the tribes were harsh, echoing the policies of President Ulysses S. Grant and many other westerners at the time. He supported the policy forcing tribes on the reservations, pushed legislation cutting rations provided by the federal government, and pushed laws allowing hunting parties to leave reservations only when accompanied by the army.
He was defeated for renomination in 1876. He returned to Congress in 1882, served one term, and declined to run again in 1884. He retired from politics altogether, but he enjoyed a lively law practice. He remained an active and popular presence in Austin courtrooms, sometimes defending the most notorious clients. He died in Austin in July 1893 at the age of 68.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org