In 1793, John Hancock, first president of the United States of America, celebrated his fifty-seventh birthday.
President John Hancock
written by Eric LippsHancock had been an unlikely choice for that position. It had been all but universally agreed at the Philadelphia constitutional convention that George Washington would be the first president under the new system. Unfortunately for that plan, the strongest dissent came from Washington himself, who disliked politics and preferred to remain in private life. Efforts to persuade him to accept the office were finally answered by direct reference to the apparent fix in his favor: "I have made clear my disinterest in the office of Chief Magistrate, being inclined to retire to private life after having served my country in peace and war. And I emphatically do not wish to receive the office as a gift, making at its very inception a mockery of the new democracy we have fought so hard to create".
With the heroic general out of the picture, the Electoral College found itself unable to agree on a replacement. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Rutledge of South Carolina, Samuel Huntington of Connecticut, New Yorker New Yorkers George Clinton and Alexander Hamilton, and Hancock's fellow Bay Stater Benjamin Lincoln were all touted as candidates.
In the end, it was Hancock's prestige as president of the Second Continental Congress, at which he had overseen the debate over the Declaration of Independence, which carried the day for him. Hancock had established himself as a man of absolute fairness and integrity at that time, and had done nothing since to sully his reputation. "If we cannot have Washington", one elector is reported to have said, "there is no better choice than Mr. Hancock if we wish to establish the presidency as a seat of utter personal and political probity".
But Hancock's presidency was a troubled one. The new United States was continually harassed by Great Britain at sea and through Native American proxies on land, and struggled to make ends meet financially. Nor did it help that Hancock's health was failing, often limiting his ability to respond promptly to political difficulties. In October of 1791, only the personal intervention of Washington prevented a military coup on the part of officers demanding payment of their salaries in gold rather than rapidly inflating paper currency, a repetition of a similar crisis in 1782 during the Revolution: at the crucial moment, Hancock was too ill to act.
By 1791 Hancock had made it clear that he would not seek or accept a second presidential term, opening the door to the fiercely contested election of 1792 which would place Alexander Hamilton in the presidency - the only individual born outside the United States ever to hold the office. (The Constitution's requirement that presidents be native-born contained an exemption for those who were U.S. citizens at its adoption).
President Hancock's decision not to seek reelection proved prescient, for he would live only five more months after leaving office on March 4, 1793. Had he died while president, there might have been a national crisis, for while the Constitution provided that the vice-president - John Adams, in this case - would act as president, there was disagreement over whether he should remain in that position until the next scheduled election year or only until a new, emergency election could be called, and Adams had more than his share of detractors. The issue would not be clarified until the passage of the Eleventh Amendment in 1801, following the bitterly contested 1800 election, which specified explicitly in one of its several clauses that in the event of "presidential death or disability" the vice-president "shall become president, with all powers, privileges and responsibilities pertaining to that office, and shall serve until the next scheduled election as provided by law, at which he shall be eligible" to seek another term.