Liberty Affair

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Liberty Affair

LIBERTY AFFAIR. 10 June 1768. The customs officials in Boston had a long-standing grudge against John Hancock, a prosperous merchant who displayed an open contempt toward them but whose careful observance of the laws gave them no opportunity to prosecute him. In one incident two minor customs officers went below decks on one of his ships, where they had no right to be, and he ejected them by force; the attorney general of the province ruled that he was within his rights. Later, his sloop Liberty reached Boston from Madeira with twenty-five casks of wine on 9 May 1768, paid the duty, and started taking on a cargo of tar and whale oil. The law required that Hancock give bond for the new cargo before loading it, but the customs commissioners had sanctioned the practice of delaying the bond until a ship cleared the port. The commissioners then initiated several actions, which, though legally justifiable and within their authority, seem to have been motivated by a desire to get even with Hancock. In addition to attempting to secure condemnation of the tar and whale oil for early loading, the commissioners learned from an informant that Hancock had landed more wine than the amount for which he had paid duty, and was thus guilty of smuggling. The commissioners ordered Joseph Harrison, the collector of the port of Boston, to seize the sloop as a preliminary to suing for her condemnation in the local vice-admiralty court. Harrison and Benjamin Hallowell, the comptroller of the port, boarded the Liberty on 10 June and seized her by inscribing the broad arrow, the mark of the king's property, on the mainmast.

Thus far, the proceeding was legal and not opposed. But then Hallowell had the sloop, with a wharf official held prisoner in her cabin, towed a quarter-mile to rest under the guns of the fifty-gun frigate Romney, whose captain, John Corner, had made himself odious in Boston by his vigorous enforcement of impressment. Moving the sloop from the wharf prompted the Boston mob to gather. Members of the mob assaulted customs officials on the wharf and in the town, and demonstrated around their homes in such a manner that the officials fled for safety to Castle William, from where the commissioners reported to London that the province was in a state of insurrection. The incident led the British authorities to order British troops to Boston, a step they had tried to avoid. On 1 October 1768, two regiments of regulars arrived, inevitably increasing friction with the local inhabitants and setting the stage for the escalation of violence on 5 March 1770 called the Boston Massacre.

SEE ALSO Boston Garrison; Boston Massacre; Customs Commissioners; Hancock, John.


Knollenberg, Bernard. Growth of the American Revolution, 1766–1775. Edited by Bernard W. Sheehan. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2002.

Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. Rev. and exp. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic, 1763–1789. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

                            revised by Harold E. Selesky