Sunday, January 28, 2018

Episode 029: The Liberty Riot

Last week we discussed some of the letters and non-importation agreements that met the Townshend Acts.  This week, the fighting gets a little more street level as Britain attempts to enforce its laws on the colonies.

American Board of Customs Arrives in Boston

On November 5, 1767, three members of the new American Board of Customs arrived in Boston.  This was about two weeks before the new Townshend duties would go into effect.  It was also the annual Pope’s Day in Boston, meaning crowds of thousands celebrated in the streets.  Some of the new British customs officials laughed off the lapel tags reading “Liberty & Property & No Commissioners.”

The creation of the new Board had been the result of the Commissioner of Customs Act that I described back in Episode 26.  It was the Townshend Act that was designed to enforce trade and tariff laws in the North American colonies.  Before this Board existed, most customs offices did their work in London.  Top customs officials did not visit the colonies.  Revenue from the colonies, even if enforced would only have been a small fraction of overall revenues.  So officials in London did not really care if they squeezed another few thousand pounds out of the colonies through more strict enforcement.  They were focused on the much larger duties collected in London and other towns in Britain.

The new Board would have its sole focus on the American colonies.  As intended, their job performance would be graded solely on revenue and enforcement in the colonies.  The necessary part of this change also meant that Commissioners would have to be in the colonies dealing with the colonists face to face.

Charles Paxton
(from Boston 1775 blog)
One of the new Commissioners arriving that day, Boston native Charles Paxton, took the Pope’s Day threats seriously.  The Stamp Act Mobs had targeted his home two years earlier.  Paxton had worked as a low level customs official beginning back in the 1730s.   Having been  Surveyor of Customs in Boston beginning in 1752, Paxton was a target for tariff protesters throughout this whole era.
Paxton had moved to London in 1766, though it is not clear why.  He was there in time to lobby for a position for himself on the new Customs Board.  Many  historians also believe he may have encouraged London to place the new customs board in Boston, rather than a more centrally located port such as Philadelphia.  Bostonians seemed to take the decision to locate in Boston as a deliberate challenge to control of the city and its trade.

John Robinson from Newport also sat on the new Board.  Recall, John Robinson also had considerable experience in the colonies as a customs official.  His attempts to impound the Polly two and a half years earlier for evading tariffs had landed him in jail for a few days and left him with threat of physical violence.  Like Paxton, Robinson understood that this was not an easy assignment.
Two of the other three Commissioners, Henry Hulton and William Burch were both officials from the London Board of customs who had no experience in America. The fifth member, John Temple, had been Lt. Governor of New Hampshire and also a Surveyor of Customs.  He apparently had a hostile relationship with Gov. Bernard even long before this appointment.  But other than that, I’ve found little about his life in the colonies.  He seemed to keep a low profile.

In general the Board consisted of men who were either very low aristocracy or prominent commoners who needed a good government office to support themselves, and all had already served lengthy careers in customs enforcement.  Although Commissioner pay was only half that of the £1000 per year that London Customs Commissioner received, it was a good income with the potential of being promoted back to London if they did well in this assignment.  The Commissioners also had authority to hire staff and agents to do the actual work of customs enforcement.  Many of these hires came from the old customs agents already working for existing authorities who were now turning over authority to the new Commission.

Within two weeks, the Board had set up its headquarters, organized its staff and began collecting customs duties on November 20th.  Four of the five members were present.  John Robinson would not return to Boston until the end of January.

The Customs Board enforced both old and new customs laws with an unprecedented level of diligence.  But the townspeople did not make enforcement easy.

At first, Bostonians simply gave commissioners the cold shoulder.  The Boston Town Meeting voted that the Governor he could not use Faneuil Hall for an annual election day dinner if he invited the Commissioners.  John Hancock, a prominent merchant also objected.  As head of the Company of Cadets, he refused to attend a dinner if the Commissioners were invited.  The Company of Cadets was an honorary group of prominent members of the Boston establishment.  They served as an honor guard for the Governor.  When Gov. Bernard told him his attendance was mandatory, Hancock and most of the rest of the Company immediately resigned.

Locals threatened customs officials. Ship’s crews regularly manhandled, detained, or otherwise prevented customs agents from searching ships and enforcing the law.  On March 19, the anniversary of the Stamp Tax repeal, Bostonians hanged effigies of Paxton and the new Inspector General John Williams on the Liberty Tree.  Officials heard rumors that protesters intended to destroy the homes of Board members.  A few houses were surrounded by ruffians screaming like Indians and throwing rocks through windows, but that is as far as it went.  The harassment mostly seemed to be in the form of threats and social isolation, without resorting to physical attack.  More importantly though, low level officials were physically prevented from boarding ships and doing their jobs.  Remember, Boston had no police force at this time, and relied on the citizenry to form posses when necessary to enforce the law.  There was no way a citizen posse would back up the customs officials.

By February 1768, the Customs Board was already writing letters requesting military backup to enforce the trade laws.  The naval commander in Halifax deployed three ships.  The largest, a 50 gun Man-of-War named the HMS Romney, arrived in Boston in May.

John Hancock

Despite the naval presence, Bostonians were determined to resist enforcement.  One of the more prominent leaders of the resistance was a merchant named John Hancock, one of the wealthiest men in Boston.  John Hancock is another one of those famous names that everyone knows, primarily for singing his name in large letters on the Declaration of Independence, while President of  the Continental Congress.  Now is probably a good time to talk about how he got there.

John Hancock by J.S. Copley
(from Wikipedia)
Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1737 to the local minister and his wife. A minister’s income was well above the wages of a common laborer, but still quite low by other standards.  No one would have considered the Hancock family rich.  But as a young adult, John quickly became one of the richest men in the colony the old fashioned way, inheriting money from other relatives.
John’s father died when he was only seven years old.  His mother was unable to support the family.  A year later in 1745, it was decided that John would go to live with his Uncle Thomas Hancock in Boston.  Thomas was a highly successful merchant.  Living there allowed John to attend Boston Latin School and then Harvard.  John also learned the trade of merchant, starting out as a clerk in his uncle’s office.

In 1760, he went to London for a year a representative of his uncle’s firm. A couple of years after returning to Boston his uncle made him became a partner in the business. A year after that, in 1764, Hancock’s uncle suddenly died, leaving him sole owner of one of the largest trading companies in America at the age of 27.

His new wealth brought him to prominence in Massachusetts.  We was involved in numerous community societies and meetings.  He had joined the Freemasons as well.  The same year Hancock took over his uncle’s business, Parliament passed the Sugar Act.  The following year, it passed the Stamp Act.  Hancock took a prominent role in the protests of these new laws.  He started hanging out with other Boston radicals like James Otis, Samuel Adams, and Joseph Warren.
In 1765, Hancock won a seat a Boston selectman.  A year later in 1766, Hancock was elected to the Massachusetts General Court, which was the colonial legislature.

But while he had developed relationships with Boston radicals, and shared their opposition to the Stamp Act, Hancock did not support the Stamp Act Riots.  As one of the largest landowners in Boston, he had good reason to avoid advocating mobs which could destroy the property of those with home they disagreed.  He even supported the arrest of Ebenezer Macintosh, the alleged leader of the riots, though officials had to release Macintosh after it became clear a mob would release him by force if they did not.

Despite concerns over the riots, Hancock used his London contacts to protest the Stamp Act, and supported the non-importation agreements.  Although it appears that Hancock stocked up on items before the agreements went into effect, and profited handsomely from the sale of those stocks during the time no one could import new goods.

Hancock also provided funds to Samuel Adams to help finance the protest movements.  It probably made sense that he would want to remain on the good side of the man who could possibly direct future riots.  But it appears Hancock generally shared Adams’ opposition to British policies as well.

The Liberty Riot

Hancock also made a fortune through smuggling.  All successful merchants evaded tariffs and often traded with other countries in violation of trade laws.  That was a good reason why Hancock opposed those laws and their strict enforcement.

Like many other merchants, he also refused to allow any customs agents to search his ships, using force when necessary.  Hancock had become one of the most prominent merchants resisting the authorities, as well as a well known political opponent of British policies.  As a result, he was the biggest target when the new Customs Board wanted to make an example of someone.
Hancock’s ship Liberty, arrived in harbor at dusk in May 1768, about a week before the Navy arrived with the Romney.  The evening arrival probably was not by chance.  By arriving then, the Captain knew that his ship would not be inspected until the following morning.  Until then, the ship would be under the watch of only a few tidesmen, low level customs officials who worked in the harbor enforcing the customs laws.

That evening, the captain of the Liberty asked Thomas Kirk, one of the tidesmen on duty, to look the other way while they unloaded the ship.  The other Tidesman on duty that night was either asleep or drunk depending on whose account you believe.  When Kirk refused to take a bribe and look the other way, the ship’s crew locked him below decks.  He remained locked up for hours while he heard people above apparently removing freight from the ship.  The Captain then released Kirk after threatening him not to talk about the incident. The Captain declared a small amount of wine, but the everyone knew the ship was capable of carrying a far larger cargo than what was declared.
For about a month, Kirk said nothing.  Eventually though, he informed Customs Collector Joseph Harrison about what had happened.  Harrison, eager to make an example of Hancock, instructed Kirk to sign an affidavit regarding his treatment aboard the Liberty.  Kirk did so on June 9th.

The next day, June 10th, Harrison, along with his son who worked as a customs clerk, and Benjamin Hallowell, Comptroller of the Port of Boston, seized the Liberty for failing to declare all of its cargo.  The men personally walked down to the dock and had a crew from the Romney take possession of the ship.  As often happened in such cases, a mob quickly began to gather to protest the seizure. They threw rocks as a boarding crew from the Romney then cut the mooring ropes of the Liberty and towed the ship out into the harbor, where the mob could not retake her.

Benjamin Hallowell
(from Colby Comm. College)
At the ship’s removal, the mob grew incensed.  They attacked and assaulted Hallowell and the Harrisons.  They bloodied the men with clubs and stones, ripped off most of their clothes and beat them savagely.  The mob also attacked another customs inspector, Thomas Irwin, who had nothing to do with the seizure, but happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  The officials, after some time, were able to escape to the protection of the Romney.  Some accounts say mob of two or three thousand took part, others say it was more like five hundred.  Whatever the actual number, the mob went unopposed.  The sheriff could not raise a posse and the guns of the Romney could not pacify a mob on land.

The crowd then attacked the homes of Harrison, Hallowell, and Inspector General John Williams, not a complete ransacking like we saw during the Stamp Acts, but rocks through the windows, that sort of thing.  They attacked the homes, but once assured that the men were not there, they moved on to other targets.  The crowd also found a boat owned by Harrison which they carried up to the Commons and burned.  The mobs raged all day and into the evening before finally retiring for the night.


Seeking to reduce tensions, the Commissioners offered to return Hancock’s ship on the promise that he would make it available when the matter came to trial.  That meant he could continue to use it for the many months it might take for a hearing.  Initially, Hancock agreed.  However, Samuel Adams and others convinced him not to take back his ship.  It would look like he was willing to work with the Commission.  In the end, the ship remained with the navy until trial.

The Colony’s Attorney General prosecuted Hancock for smuggling many months later, in October. The Admiralty Court heard the case.  Hancock hired John Adams to defend him.  The only evidence was the single informant, Kirk, who had been the basis for the seizure.   Kirk, had been locked below deck and never saw the ship’s cargo, who removed anything from the ship, or what was removed.  The case lingered for another five months as the prosecution tried to make an indictment that could go to trial.  Given the limited evidence though, the prosecution eventually dropped its case.

Hancock never got back his ship though.  The Customs Board had it condemned and completed a forfeiture of the Liberty.  They could not prove the Hancock had smuggled in undeclared wine.  However, when they seized the ship, it was full of barrels of oil and tar, for which Hancock had not posted a bond, nor obtained a permit to load.  This was really a technical violation since even merchants who intended to post bond and get permits often loaded their ships before doing so.  But a technical violation is still a violation.  The Admiralty Court found the ship in violation of trade laws.  The ship and its cargo were forfeited.

Following normal practice, the Court ordered the Liberty sold at auction.  No one, however, would buy it at auction for fear of incurring the wrath of the mob. The Customs Board turned over the ship to the Royal Navy, put to work searching out more smugglers as the HMS Liberty.  A couple of years later, in July 1769, after bringing two seized ships into Newport, a local mob boarded the Liberty, forced off the crew, then scuttled and burned the ship.

Prosecutors also attempted to indict rioters who participated in the Liberty Riots.  That went nowhere though, as those cases would be tried in civilian courts.  Massachusetts elected grand jurors at town meetings.  So the grand jury was made up of people who were at least sympathetic to the rioters.  Some may have been rioters themselves.  To give you some idea, one of the grand jurors was Daniel Malcom, the same guy who threatened to kill customs officials who wanted to look in his basement, back in Episode 25.

Given how biased the grand jury was, no one wanted to come forward as a witness for the prosecution.  Even customs officials or victims of the riots saw no point in making themselves bigger targets for the Sons of Liberty by testifying before a grand jury that would never indict anyone anyway.  To Gov. Bernard’s great frustration, the prosecution attempts came to nothing.

The Sons of Liberty used the incident to strengthen colonial resolves to enforce non-importation agreements.  Given the fact that there was no prosecutable evidence of illegal activity at the time officials seized the Liberty, the patriots published stories focusing on royal officials persecuting a merchant mostly because they disagreed with his political views.  They had seized his property without justification and kept it on a technicality that could have been used against just about every merchant in the colonies.

Boston Harbor, (with Boston and Castle Island circled)
(from Wikimedia)
Adams drafted a petition approved by the legislature, calling on Gov. Bernard to expel the Customs Board from Boston permanently.  For the time being at least, the Commissioners were not able to do much of anything.  They dared not return to Boston for fear of attack.  The riot also effectively prevented the Customs Board from operating at all until the arrival of soldiers several months later.   They remained aboard the Romney for some time.  Later, they and their families would stay at Castle William.  They would remain on that island out in the harbor for months under the protection of the British Navy.

Finally, seizure of the Liberty helped solidify John Hancock’s position as a leader of Boston’s opposition movement.  Hancock’s reputation as a hero of colonial resistance to the unfair trade laws only grew as a result of the trial.  In the next election, his constituents returned him to office with even more vote than Samuel Adams.

Next week: London officials, sick of letting Boston mobs control the colony, send British regulars to occupy Boston and subdue the rebellious colonists.

Next Episode 30: The Occupation of Boston

Previous Episode 28: Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer

Visit the American Revolution Podcast (

Further Reading:

Web Sites

Charles Paxton, Customs Commissioner:  /11/charles-paxton-customs-commissioner.html

Henry Hulton and the American Revolution:

Clark, Dora Mae, "The American Board of Customs, 1767-1783" The American Historical Review July, 1940, pp. 777-806 (free to read online with registration):

Frese, Joseph R. “Some Observations on the American Board of Customs Commissioners” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1969, pp. 3-30 (free to read online with registration):

HMS Romney

HMS Liberty

New England Historical Society: John Hancock Loses a Ship and Starts a Riot:

Watson, D.H. “Joseph Harrison and the Liberty Incident” The William and Mary Quarterly,
1963, pp. 585-595 (free to read online with registration):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Castle Island 350, 1980 (a short pamphlet describing Castle Island).

Bernard, Sir Francis & Thomas Gage & Samuel Hood (Viscount) Letters to the Ministry from Governor Bernard, General Gage, and Commodore Hood: And Also Memorials to the Lords of the Treasury, from the Commissioners of the Customs. With Sundry Letters and Papers Annexed to the Said Memorials, London: Edes & Gill, 1769 (Google Play Books)

Cushing, Harry (ed) The Writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 1, New York GP Putnam's Sons 1904).

Hosmer, James Samuel Adams, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1913.

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, John (ed) The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774,  London: John Murray 1828 (This book was edited and published using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, Peter Orlando (ed) The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1884 (Editor is Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Miller, Marion Mills (ed) Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, New York: Current Literature Publishing Co. 1913.

Ridpath, John Clark James Otis, the Pre-revolutionist, Chicago: The University Assn. 1898.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Archer, Richard As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, Oxford: Oxford  Univserity Press 2010.

Carp, Benjamin L. Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Dickerson, Oliver M. The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951.

Fowler, William The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1980.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Reid, John P. In a Rebellious Spirit: The Argument of Facts, the Liberty Riot, and the Coming of the American Revolution, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979.

Reid, William Castle Island and Fort Independence, Boston: Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston (1995)

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: WW Norton & Co. 1970.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

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