In the fall of 1789, President George Washington spent 10 days in Massachusetts, greeted by large crowds of people — with the notable exception of Gov. John Hancock.
Washington had been president six months, and he knew well the fragility of the union. He decided to knit the 13 colonies together with his personal popularity, and announced he would visit each of the states during his first year in office.
His first stop in Massachusetts was in Springfield, where he inspected the federal armory. Then he rode on to Palmer, West Brookfield, Brookfield, Spencer, Leicester and Worcester, where he received a 13-gun salute. He rode through Marlborough, Shrewsbury, Sudbury and Weston.
Everywhere he went, cheering crowds crowds greeted him. People treasured everything he touched: dishes, chairs, beds. Many towns renamed streets “Washington Street” after he rode on them.
Where’s John Hancock?
Washington arrived in Cambridge on October 24, where he had maintained headquartered during the Siege of Boston. He was then escorted to Boston by high-ranking officials led by Lt. Gov. Samuel Adams. John Hancock was not among them.
Hancock believed he outranked Washington, who was only president of a confederation. Hancock was governor of a commonwealth.
While Hancock holed up, the rest of Boston went wild celebrating Washington’s arrival. Despite Washington’s request that there be no ceremony, he was met with a grand procession from one end of the Common to the Statehouse. Lining the route were citizens grouped by trade, each flying a white silk flag with its insignia. Washington passed through a temporary arch designed by Charles Bulfinch as a chorus of young men serenaded him with a song, Washington, the hero is come.
Washington stayed in a private home, where official plans called for Hancock to pay him a visit and then host a dinner for him. A few minutes before the scheduled meeting, Hancock sent word that he couldn’t make it because of his health. Washington responded by excusing himself from the dinner.
Hancock’s treatment of Washington may have had deeper causes than his commitment to the sovereignty of Massachusetts. Years earlier, Hancock had wanted the Continental Congress to appoint him rather than Washington commander in chief of the Continental Army.
Three years after that, however, Hancock named his son John George Washington Hancock.
Mercy Otis Warren offers an explanation for John Hancock’s behavior toward Washington: He was vain and fickle.
Mr. Hancock was a young gentleman of fortune, of more external accomplishments than real ability. He was polite in manners, easy in address, affable, civil and liberal. With these accomplishments, he was capricious sanguine and implacable; naturally generous, he was profuse in expense; he scattered largesse without discretion, and purchased favors by the waste of wealth, until he reached the ultimatum of his wishes, which centered in the focus of popular applause.
Blame the Gout
The people of Boston noticed that John Hancock snubbed George Washington, and they didn’t like it one bit. Hancock finally realized his behavior hurt his popularity. So the next day he sent emissaries to Washington with his humble apologies and a question: What time would it be good for Washington to see him?
Washington replied between 1 pm and 2 pm, and John Hancock showed up almost immediately – his legs swathed in bandages. His gout, he explained, prevented him from welcoming the president.
Washington gracefully accepted Hancock’s explanation.
This story was updated in 2021.