Thomas Hancock had two nephews: John, whose outsized signature on the Declaration of Independence is knowna round the world, and Ebenezer – John’s younger brother.
While they were just boys in Braintree, John and Ebenezer’s father died. Four years Ebenezer’s senior, John was adopted by uncle Thomas to ease the financial burden on his mother.
Thomas Hancock was, of course, the money in the family. An experienced trader and wholesaler with connections around the world, he took John under his wing, sent him to Harvard and trained him for business.
With John launched into business, Thomas turned some attention toward Ebenezer, who was planning to enter the ministry. Thomas invited 18-year-old Ebenezer to Boston and gave the young man a taste of working in his firm.
“I am glad to find that my brother’s conduct is so pleasing to my Uncle . . . clergymen have not the deference paid to them nor are they supported as they deserve, which is but poor encouragement to a young fellow” John would write in a letter. He would well know the fortunes of ministers as his father was one and his mother would remarry another Braintree minister.
Ebenezer did please Thomas Hancock. The elder Hancock was in the process of determining what to do with his fortune. In 1760 primogeniture was still practiced. This was legal tradition under which the bulk of a family estate was passed to the first born son of each generation.
The practice would soon be extinguished in the United States after the American Revolution. But Thomas Hancock leaned toward giving John Hancock his estate. Nevertheless, he staked young Ebenezer to a start in business. The results were less than stellar.
London School of Economics Professor W.T. Baxter took a dive into Hancock’s papers to explore the less-than-successful career of Ebenezer Hancock in his 1951 research paper, A Colonial Bankrupt: Ebenezer Hancock, 1741-1819.
In 1764, Thomas Hancock died. The vast bulk of his fortune was passed on to John – his warehouses and properties in Massachusetts, as well as his cash. Thomas bequeathed a small cash payment and several thousand acres of land in Maine to Ebenezer.
Ebenezer soon launched himself on his own, leaving the firm that now belonged to his brother, and attempted to set himself up as an importer and wholesaler to smaller stores around New England – the same business John was in. John supported his brother, sending letters to his suppliers urging them to transact business with Ebenezer and his new partner Edward Blanchard.
The backdrop to their business venture was the ongoing friction with England. The Stamp Act had infuriated the colonies, and Massachusetts had adopted a non-importation agreement. They would import no goods to which the English could apply their stamps. That didn’t mean nothing was imported. A lively smuggling trade was carried on.
The new firm of Blanchard and Hancock also decided to underwrite a shipping venture. Thomas Hancock made a good deal of his fortune by launching ships abroad carrying New England wares. They would make their way north to Canada, unload goods there and then proceed to Europe or the Caribbean, buying and selling to bring back the most profit.
Blanchard and Hancock bought a half-share of the ship Neptune and sent it on its way, laden with New England livestock, meat and farm goods. In Newfoundland it offloaded its contents in return for Cod. It crossed to England and sold off the Cod. With this money, Blanchard and Hancock were able to pay one of their English suppliers and the Neptune went on to Portugal to take on a load of salt and return to Boston.
This first voyage produced a modest profit and the Neptune was launched on the ocean once more. This journey proved disastrous. The market in Canada was weak, the ports full of New England vessels with the same plan as Hancock’s and the cargo was sold for slim profits.
Ill winds, storms and poor prospects kept the vessel at sea far longer than planned. At one point in February of 1768 the captain nearly had to abandon the ship when it became locked in ice. Finally the Neptune headed to the Caribbean, stuffed with fish.
For weeks the poor captain tried to unload his cargo. In one instance he thought he had it sold only to find the harbor suddenly swollen with competing ships offering better fish at lower prices. In the end, the fish as unloaded at a loss.
Three years after launch, English creditors were sending dunning letters to Blanchard and Hancock. Soon some of Ebenezer’s trading partners were shipping his orders of goods to John Hancock’s warehouses. The theory of these wholesalers was that if John Hancock accepted delivery, he would have to pay for the goods if his brother Ebenezer would not.
By 1768 John Hancock was warning his suppliers not to send Ebenezer’s orders to his warehouse; he would not pay for them. Meanwhile, John had his own problems as his British officials had accused him of smuggling wine into Boston without paying duties.
With his brother being pressed by the British, Ebenezer’s firm folded. While John paid some of his debts (those to suppliers that John relied on), many of Ebenezer’s creditors lost out.
For the next several years Ebenezer would struggle a s small time shopkeeper, importing household goods from England as well as buying imports from John and selling them retail, with John keeping a tight leash on his brother.
During the American Revolution, John helped his brother again by having him made deputy paymaster and his store in Boston was where soldiers would queue to get their pay.
If he was jealous of John, Ebenezer would get some satisfaction. He outlived his sometimes imperious brother by more than 25 years. When John died without a will in 1783, Ebenezer inherited one third of his estate. And while John’s mansion on Beacon Hill was sold to the state and demolished, Ebenezer’s storefront and home still stands. The house was bought and restored by a law firm in 1976.