This Day in History: The Liberty Affair throws John Hancock into the spotlight
On this day in 1768, John Hancock’s merchant sloop, the Liberty, enters the Port of Boston. Little did the people of Boston know that “the Liberty Affair” was about to begin—and it would catapult Hancock to nationwide prominence.
At the time, Boston was a busy port and one of the main entryways into American commerce. Yes, American merchants sometimes smuggled goods into the city, but it was a long-standing custom accepted by all. British officials turned a blind eye to it and/or accepted bribes to ignore it. The smuggling was seen as a way to counterbalance the harshness of some British customs.
During these days, Hancock did not care too much about politics (believe it or not!). He was busy running his very successful business. In July 1765, he did not even seem to have an opinion about the controversial Stamp Act! He wrote the Governor: “I seldom meddle with Politicks, & indeed have not Time now to Say anything on that head.” He would soon change his mind. By October of that year, Hancock supported repeal of the Act. He wrote: “I never will carry on Business under such great disadvantages & Burthen. I will not be a slave. I have a Right to the Libertys & Privileges of the English Constitution, & I as an Englishman will enjoy them.”
Hmm. That sounds more like the John Hancock that we know and love, doesn’t it?!
A few years later, these issues would rise again when Parliament enacted the Townshend Acts. The colony’s Royal Governor asked for assistance in enforcing the Act. British officers and ships arrived to help.
Let’s just say that Bostonians were not exactly pleased with the situation.
In the midst of this controversy, two of Hancock’s vessels entered the Boston harbor. In April, his sloop, the Lydia, arrived in the harbor. Customs officials attempted to inspect it, but they lacked the proper paperwork and had to leave. On May 9, the customs officials got a second chance when the sloop Liberty came to port. Allegedly, Hancock arranged for some cases of madeira wine to be unloaded during the middle of the night. Thus, when officials agents boarded the ship the next day, the entire cargo was not there. (And, thus, Hancock would not have to pay taxes on all of it.)
The British were suspicious, but they couldn’t prove anything. Well, they couldn’t prove anything for a few weeks. In June, a customs official suddenly changed his account. Before, he’d said that nothing was amiss that evening. Now, he claimed that he was locked in steerage for 3 hours that night. During that time, he stated that he “heard a Noise as of many people upon deck at Work hoisting out Goods.” His account was uncorroborated, but it gave British officials an excuse to seize the Liberty and take her out into the harbor. Once there, it was anchored next to a British war ship.
Bostonians were furious. The Liberty floated out in the harbor for months, constantly reminding people of the situation. Its presence contributed to the colonial desire to protest the Townshend Acts by organizing a boycott of British goods.
The postscript to the story is that Hancock was arrested for smuggling in November of that year. And John Adams was his defense lawyer! The charges against Hancock were eventually dropped, but not until the spring of 1769. In the meantime, the year in the spotlight had turned Hancock into a nationally respected Patriot.
Abram English Brown, John Hancock: His Book (1898)
Editorial Note (Legal Papers of John Adams) (Vol. 2)
Harlow Giles Unger, John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot (2000)
Thomas Patrick Chorlton, The First American Republic 1774-1789: The First Fourteen American Presidents Before Washington (2011)