The seizure of Liberty


seizure of liberty
John Hancock, the wealthy Boston merchant who owned the Liberty

In June 1768 an explosive incident occurred, involving a sloop (a small ship) called Liberty, owned by John Hancock (see picture). Having just arrived with a cargo of Madeira wine, the Liberty laid anchor at Boston and was visited by a customs inspector. Prior to the tightening of policy in the Townshend acts, the usual practice had been that inspectors asked the captain how much cargo was liable for a customs duty; the captain would declare only a part of the cargo and unload the rest free from any duty. It was a blind-eye arrangement that suited everyone: the cargo owner paid much less duty than his goods were worth and the customs inspectors avoided conflict; they often received a bribe, usually a free sample of the cargo, as part of the bargain. The customs official who boarded Liberty was having none of this, however, and demanded that duty be paid on the entire cargo.


Incensed by this attitude, Liberty’s captain seized the official and locked him in the ship’s brig while the entire cargo was unloaded. The following morning the captain logged in a small amount of the wine at the customs house, but word was out about what happened onboard and the Liberty was ordered to be seized. An armed British ship was sent to accompany the Liberty from Boston Harbour. Shortly afterwards an angry mob appeared on the docks, incensed at what had occurred to Hancock’s ship. Two customs officials were beaten senseless; the crowd then moved on to the homes of other officials, who had windows broken and property destroyed. These men took flight to government ships moored offshore, perhaps the only place they were truly safe.

“Owing mainly to the lack of enforcement of the Navigation Acts and of the impossible Molasses Act, smuggling was no longer looked upon as reprehensible. Everyone, even leading merchants like John Hancock, smuggled regularly. Owing to the lightness of his character, excessive vanity and his love of popularity, unballasted by either moral depth or intellectual ability, John Hancock’s motives for joining the patriot party are difficult to appraise correctly or even perhaps fairly. But there was no question of patriotism in much of his smuggling. That was for profit.”
Stephan Thernstrom, historian

Following the Liberty incident, a meeting of the Sons of Liberty was held, chaired by James Otis. It was decided that the Massachusetts governor, Francis Bernard, be approached with a request to withdraw the British armed ship which had secured the Liberty. Bernard himself had been ordered to appear before the Massachusetts assembly to make certain demands, a meeting which led him to suspend the assembly in July. Hancock, who for several months had been targeted by the British for his suspected smuggling, received several writs for costs and unpaid customs duties. The Liberty incident hardened his anti-British stance and raised his profile amongst the Sons of Liberty.


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