The stage for the Liberty Affair was set in the spring of 1768. Boston smuggler Daniel Malcolm approached the British customs officials overseeing the port of Boston and asked how much they would charge to let him land a load of wine in the city without paying the mandatory taxes.
He was rebuffed. There would be no bribes accepted. Thus educated about the tactics the officials intended to employ, Malcolm did what came naturally to him. He moored his vessel five miles off shore, unloaded the wine into smaller ships that went ashore in remote spots and sailed into Boston to declare the remaining portion of his cargo.
His ship teetering high on the water and loaded lightly, the customs officials doubted that he had really bothered to import such a small cargo. But lacking evidence, they let the matter drop and assessed him tax on only the declared cargo.
Malcolm had dodged the law in 1765 when the sheriff had accompanied customs officials to his house to search it for illegally imported wine. In that case, Malcolm had employed an angry crowd of his friends to drive way the officials.
Now, however, the word was out. The lax days of accepting a bribe and letting cargo come ashore untaxed were over.
John Hancock, one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, next came into the sight of the new customs agents. Hancock’s vessel the Lydia came in to port in April and, the customs officers tried to board it and search it.
Hancock demanded to see warrants authorizing the men to search his vessel. When they couldn’t produce them, the customs officials were asked to leave. If John Hancock was not being deliberately harassed by the British customs collectors before the Lydia incident, he almost certainly was on their radar following it.
The British had established the American Board of Commissioners in fall of 1767 to step up the collection of customs mandated under the Townshend Acts, and the new board was eager to show the government would no longer turn a blind eye to smuggling. The wealthy and popular John Hancock was just the person to use to send the message.
On May 9, 1768 the board got another chance. Hancock’s ship the Liberty came in to port loaded with Madeira wine. Again, customs officers visited the ship – this time with the proper papers. The ship was off loaded and Hancock paid his customs. But the commissioners thought, as in the Malcolm case, the shipment seemed small – 25 casks of wine – about a quarter of the ship’s capacity.
Nevertheless, Hancock began loading the vessel for its next voyage. On May 17, however, the HMS Romney sailed in to port and the dynamics in the city began to change. Armed with 50 guns, the Romney was a formidable presence and it marked a change in the way Britain dealt with the colonies.
This Romney wasn’t there to defend the colonials; it was there to police them. The Romney’s captain, John Corner, had been ordered to do nothing to inflame the colonists and to make sure his sailors behaved.
Corner, however, had requirements of his own. His ship needed men, and he began pressing (essentially kidnapping) sailors on in-bound ships into service. As word spread, even honest vessels, let along smugglers, stayed away from the port of Boston, fearful of losing seamen.
Now the British were angering honest merchants as well as the smugglers. On June 9, matters came to a head. Thomas Kirk, the customs officer who boarded the Liberty, changed his story.
While on the Liberty, he said, he had been offered a bribe. He could have several casks of wine if he would support the story that the ship contained only 25 casks. He insisted that he took no bribe, but that John Marshall, Hancock’s captain, had him locked in a hold and, while he listened, a great portion of the ship’s cargo was offloaded. When he was released, he said, he had been threatened if he told the truth.
Historians have tended to credit Kirk’s revised story, supposing that it was the British military presence, as well as the unexpected death of the ship’s captain, Marshall, that emboldened him to talk.
Joseph Harrison, the official collector of the port, brought Kirk’s new statement to commissioners, who ordered him to take action. Harrison’s initial reaction was to place the king’s mark on the Liberty’s mast and wait for the legal proceedings.
Comptroller Benjamin Hallowell urged him to seize the Liberty, instead, and Harrison enlisted the crew of the Romney for assistance. With his son and Hallowell for support, Harrison walked to the wharf. The smuggler Malcolm and a handful of men were startled to see Harrison boarding the vessel and making preparations to seize it. Malcolm argued that Harrison should at least wait for Hancock to arrive before taking action.
A scuffle broke out, but the men from the Romney cleared the Liberty and it was towed from the wharf to the side of the Romney, where it rested under the protective guns of the ship. Hallowell, Harrison and his son fled the wharf with scrapes and bruises, but an angry crowd began to assemble as word of the Liberty’s seizure spread.
An outraged crowd of up to 3,000 people began searching the city for Harrison and Hallowell. When they couldn’t find the men, they satisfied themselves with shattering the windows on his house. When they returned to the harbor, the mob decided to respond to Harrison’s actions in kind.
Harrison maintained a pleasure boat in the harbor, and the angry crowd dragged it from the water and hauled it up the street to the Liberty Tree. There it was reduced to ashes.
Harrison, Hallowell and the Board of Commissioners fled the city, spending the night of June 10 aboard the Romney and relocating later to Castle William.
Unable to negotiate the return of his vessel, Hancock, defended by John Adams, was later cleared of smuggling charges as the evidence against him was so flimsy. The event, however, would set the tone for the greater unrest to come.