19. John Hancock dealt with a scandal over funds from Harvard University
Although John Hancock is frequently identified as a smuggler in the pre-Revolution era, little evidence supports the accusation. He received one charge of smuggling, during the Liberty affair in the 1760s, though the case was trumped up by British authorities for political purposes. Nearly all of his business affairs have been identified as legitimate. While it is probably safe to say he did what he could to reduce taxes on imported goods, that does not qualify him as a smuggler. During the Revolution he faced accusations of smuggling from British Loyalists and from his political nemesis in Boston, James Bowdoin. In 1773 Hancock received the appointment as treasurer for Harvard College. By 1775 he held over Â£16,000 in cash and securities belonging to the college. While serving as President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Hancock received an agent from the College, demanding the return of the funds and supporting records.
The demand, which originated with Bowdoin, implied Hancock had deliberately held onto the funds when departing Boston for Philadelphia. Bowdoin further implied such behavior was that expected of a smuggler and tax cheat. Hancock took offense, though he did not react with a challenge to a duel. Instead, he explained the action which created a minor scandal in the Congress as an oversight caused by the hasty convening of the Continental Congress. He released the funds, though he retained most of the records, initiating a controversy which lasted between Bowdoin and Hancock for many years. Not until Hancock’s death did his estate settle the matter of the interest earned on the school’s money during the period it was held by Hancock. Hancock used the scandal to direct attention to the mismanagement of Harvard’s accounts under Bowdoin for several years, comparing it unfavorably to his own successful term as treasurer.