The Liberty affair


Was John Hancock a smuggler?

A common joke of the time was “Sam Adams writes the letters and John Hancock pays the postage”. Great part of Hancock’s fortune came from smuggling but also a great part of it went to finance the independence war.

In the eighteenth century Boston was the trading hub of British trade in the Americas worth £20million, a huge amount at the time. Boston was also important for its shipping industry as more than 30% of British ships were built in the American colonies, but most importantly because 40% of all British exports to the northern colonies entered through the Port of Boston. The British protected their trade through a series of trade taxes known as the Navigation Acts.

For years merchants avoided paying duties by smuggling or bribing customs officials. It was a common practice for these officials to record part of their cargo and allow the rest to enter the country as contraband. In order to protect British commercial interests and pay for an increasing debt, Governor Francis Bernard requested soldiers in Boston. Additionally the American Board of Customs Commission was created in Boston to put a stop on smuggling. The practice had become so widespread that bringing an end to it was regarded as an unfair action. The general population supported smuggling as it allowed the merchant to sell their products cheaper than if imported legally.

Hancock was a well known smuggler of molasses, Dutch tea, tobacco, rum and wine among other products; he was the richest man in Massachusetts and had shown radical political views which made him a target of the new Board of Customs. On April 1768 customs officials boarded his vessel the Lydia but because they lacked writs of assistance, a search warrant, they were removed from the vessel avoiding criminal charges.

The next incident occurred on June 10, 1768 when his sloop Liberty was seized by customs officials. One month earlier on May 9, the Liberty arrived in Boston with a cargo of Madeira wine, as usual it was received by customs officials who would make sure all documentation was legal and duties were paid. As the ship was inspected the following day only 25 caskets of wine were found, they were suspected of having unloaded the cargo overnight as the capacity of the sloop was four times greater. Customs officials testified that none of that occurred during their stay at the vessel. One month later on June 9 one of the men changed his story stating that they were bribed to remain quite. The following day, on June 10 as the Liberty was about to leave with new cargo, it was seized by customs officials and towed by the warship Romney.

The Sons of Liberty incited a crowd that had gathered to watch the turmoil protesting in favor of the owner of the Liberty, John Hancock. The situation was initially peaceful but turned violent when the Liberty was impounded. The mob attacked the customs house and its officials, one of whom had his boat dragged to Boston Common and burnt. Duty collectors were unharmed and escaped further violence by fleeing to Castle Williams. The Sons of Liberty seized the moment by calling to a public meeting and using the momentum to call for a boycott of British goods.

Hancock was charged for smuggling Madeira wine and for having reloaded the Liberty with oil and tar without giving bond therefore violating Britain’s Acts of Trade. In mid August the Liberty was declared forfeit and repossessed by customs. It was determined that Hancock had to pay a fine of £9,000 for smuggling. Hancock retained John Adams as his counsel. Four months after charges were filed the case was dropped due to insufficient evidence.


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