Romney and Hancock

To understand the presidential bid of the 70th governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it's useful to remember the career of the first.


To understand the presidential bid of the 70th governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it's useful to remember the career of the first.

John Hancock, like Mitt Romney, was one of the richest men of his time. Hancock had a three-story, 56-foot-wide granite mansion atop Boston's Beacon Hill, complete with a ballroom and stables. Mr. Romney reportedly has a $12 million beachfront house in La Jolla, Calif., and a $10 million lakefront house in New Hampshire, as well as a Massachusetts townhouse. In 2009 the Romneys sold their 9,500-square-foot Utah ski house for $5 million and their Belmont, Mass., home for $3.5 million.

Hancock is a graduate of Harvard College, class of 1754; Mr. Romney graduated from Harvard Law School and Business School in 1975.

Hancock was governor of Massachusetts from 1780 to 1785 and then again from 1787 to 1793; Mr. Romney, from 2003 to 2007.

Both men were self-made, but wealthy in part because of their family backgrounds. John Hancock's uncle Thomas Hancock was one of the wealthiest merchants in Boston and left his business to his nephew; Mr. Romney's father was the CEO of American Motors.

But the most illuminating similarity is the way in which, for Hancock as for Romney, wealth was a kind of two-edged sword, inspiring both admiration from voters and resentment from competing politicians. The person who thought about it perhaps most deeply was Hancock's fellow founding father, Samuel Adams, who was both an ally of Hancock in the Revolutionary cause and a sometimes rival in Massachusetts politics.

"I hope our country will never see the time, when either riches or the want of them will be the leading considerations in the choice of public officers," Adams wrote to another Massachusetts political figure, Elbridge Gerry, on January 2, 1776. Adams was at Philadelphia then, serving in the Continental Congress with Hancock, who had been elected president of that body. The letter went on: "The giving of such a preference to riches is both dishonourable and dangerous to government. It is indeed equally dangerous to promote a man to a place of public trust only because he wants bread, but I think it is not so dishonorable for men may be influenced to the latter from the feelings of humanity, but the other argues from a base, degenerate, servile temper of the mind."

Later, in 1783, when Hancock was governor, Adams wrote again to Gerry, this time from Boston, and with a tone of regret and concern: "So fascinating are riches in the eyes of mankind!"

In more modern times, some rich politicians, such as Michael Bloomberg, Nelson and Jay Rockefeller, and John Heinz, have found electoral success, while others, such as Al Checchi and Michael Huffington, have been rebuffed by voters. The mixed results suggest that perhaps the electorate, wittingly or not, has heeded Samuel Adams' admonition to avoid making the candidates' "riches or the want of them" their leading consideration.

That has not stopped Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich—the Samuel Adamses of today?—from grumbling about how Mr. Romney achieved his riches, attacks that Mr. Romney chalked up, in his New Hampshire victory speech, to "the bitter politics of envy" and "resentment of success."

If there's a happy ending to this story of intraparty rivalry, it's that Hancock and Adams eventually reconciled as Hancock's health and fortune declined. The two worked together to get Massachusetts to ratify the United States Constitution. Adams became Hancock's lieutenant governor, and a French traveler in America in 1788 found Adams "the best supporter of the party of Governor Hancock." When Hancock died in 1793, Adams succeeded him as governor of Massachusetts and served until 1797.

So if concern about rich politicians has a long history in American politics, so too do these resentments have a way of ebbing and flowing along with the political exigencies of the moment. Time will tell whether it will require a Hancock-style decline in Mr. Romney's health or wealth to unite Republicans behind him, or whether it will just take the end of the primary election season.