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John Hancock, Absentee Treasurer

This 1773 letter was written by John Hancock accepting the appointment as Harvard’s treasurer. Two years later, Hancock left Cambridge for Philadelphia to serve as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, taking the College’s bonds and papers with him. His prolonged absence due to his role in the Revolutionary War—and continued possession of vital documents—led to tensions captured in letters in the Harvard University Archives' John Hancock Collection.

Harvard’s leaders repeatedly wrote to Hancock requesting the return of the materials, and received no response. From President Langdon in 1776:

“That it is a great unhappiness to the College that the Treasurer’s good services are interrupted by the important business of his present high station; that we feel the necessity of having the Treasury open, and do not object to the proposal of Mr. Wm. Winthrop, but that we must refer it to himself to judge whether it will be necessary for him to resign his office.”

The College finally received the documents from Hancock in July of 1777, after sending someone through war zones “to Baltimore or any other place where Mr. Hancock, the college Treasurer, may be.” Materials in hand, another treasurer, Ebeneezer Storer, was promptly elected.

Hancock was a prominent Boston merchant and statesman during the American Revolutionary War. He graduated from Harvard College in 1754 and served as its treasurer from 1773 until 1777. He was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1780 and served until his death in 1793. Learn more about Harvard's John Hancock Collection.