The Man Behind the Signature
The Baron of Beacon Hill By William Fowler Houghton Mifflin Co., $15.00
WHEN THE Beautiful People flocked around Radcliffe graduate Gertrude Stein, Class of 1897, in the Paris of the Twenties, they probably didn't realize that their trendy Parisian salon continued a tradition started by another Harvard graduate on Beacon Hill 150 years earlier. The Great, the Undiscovered and the Unkown gathered in the "Beacon Manse" of John Hancock, Class of 1754, during the years of colonial revolt.
William Fowler's The Baron of Beacon Hill enters the world of the "In" and "Out" of revolutionary Boston. His narrative biography examines the man behind the signature, interjecting vitality into a historical figure who dominated the American political scene for more than three decades.
Sitting in his office overlooking an expansive parking lot at Northeastern University, Fowler explains his interest in John Hancock. In the man who, for most, means life insurance. the skyscraper, or the hazy and not-too-interesting personage who endorsed the Constitution, Fowler sees a paradoxical politico. The dichotomous Hancock, generally acknowledged in his day as Boston's wealthiest citizen, became its most outspoken revolutionary. Fowler's examination demythifies the man.
Fowler spent nearly three years niggling back through the records of Hancock's life to prepare this scholarly work. Hancock's official record at Harvard, stored in the basement of Houghton Library, shed some light on his character. Although he entered Harvard at the precocious age of 13, he was an undistinguished student. He complained about the "rotten" food and usually ate at local alehouses, where he picked up a taste for rum. Fowler includes in the text some of the drinking songs Hancock composed while at school.
Demoted several places in his class rank for disorderly drinking shortly after he moved into Massachusetts Hall, Hancock was among the rowdiest at the College. Fowler's theory that the "intellectual crosswinds" Hancock encountered at Harvard engendered his later liberalism is questionable. Those same crosswinds haven't deterred many others from the allure of financial security and conservatism.
While Fowler's reasoning may leave some readers skeptical, his attention to Harvard's and Boston's past adds a dimension that should appeal to those interested in local history. He teaches a course on the city, and his bulletin board, covered with Red Sox bumper stickers and posters of Boston, reflects his love for the city. The Baron of Beacon Hill traces Boston's development from a network of cowpaths into a matrix of cobblestone streets leading to the suburbs just beginning to spring up. Fowler also describes a visit, not unlike one last fall, by John Carroll, the first American Roman Catholic bishop, who celebrated mass in Boston in 1792.
The city's development as an urban entity, Fowler shows, corresponded to the undoing of America as a Crown Colony. He necessarily includes in his work many pages of U.S. history. In fact, the narrative so often digresses from Hancock's life, it takes on the form of a multi-faceted history of the period, using Hancock's life as a departure point.
BUT FOWLER insists his book is a biography, "part of the new philosophical context in which historians are attempting to analyze history." Fowler's contribution to the field--the first definitive biography of Hancock, fully annotated, indexed, and even illustrated--is valuable less as a philosophical work than for its interdisciplinary and objective treatment of history. A thoroughly analytical history might have contributed more significantly to the field.
Fowler's efforts at demythifying Hancock succeed, however. Caught up in rum smuggling and the lucrative, although shady business of administering British government contracts, which John inherited from his Uncle Thomas, Hancock was not beyond criticism. At the same time, though, "John Hancock was not the king of all colonial smugglers," the book asserts. Fowler becomes visibly disturbed by such assaults on Hancock's character. "All the charges that Hancock fomented the war against Britain because she cracked down on his smuggling activities are absurd, and completely groundless," he insists.
Fowler's examination of the state of Hancock's personal finances at the time of his death shows that he was not nearly so wealthy as most believe. Nor was he exceptionally bright among the stars of his day who frequented his home. Fowler explains,
For someone of his station, with the future secure, it was enough (at Harvard) simply to acquire a socially acceptable patina of intellectualism, nor is there anything to indicate that his learning ever went much beyond this level.
Therefore, Fowler concludes, Hancock was neither so wealthy, so radical, nor so distinguished as many around him. "He lacked the eloquence of Jefferson, the intellect of John Adams, and the character of Washington," Fowler admits.
Instead--and, he suggests, more importantly--
He provided a symbol of moderation and decency at a time when the centrifugal forces of revolution threatened to tear the nation apart.... In Congress and in the state, he was 'the centre of union' around which a majority always seemed able to coalesce.... He deserves to be enshrined as America's first modern politician. He could win a following with rum on the Common, or jobs at the wharf.... He seems really to have cared about the people he served.
Although he prefers to emphasize historical accuracy over personal analysis, Fowler produces a well-researched biography that is highly readable. Deeply caught up in Hancock's political life, he remains curiously non-political himself, declining to draw any parallels to modern trends or current poltics. But despite Fowler's reluctance to relate past to present, he leaves the impression that the Baron would have a thing or two to say today.