In the spring of 1768, Boston smuggler Daniel Malcolm approached the British customs officials overseeing the port of Boston. And so he set the stage for the Liberty Affair.
Malcolm asked how much they would charge to let him land a load of wine in the city without paying the mandatory taxes.
The British officials rebuffed Daniel Malcolm because they would no longer accept bribes.
Thus educated about the officials’ new tactics, 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 lightly loaded ship teetered high on the water, and the customs officials doubted 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 eight years earlier 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 away the officials.
Now, however, the word was out. The lax days of accepting a bribe and letting cargo come ashore untaxed were over. The Liberty Affair was about to begin.
Seeds of The Liberty Affair
John Hancock, one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, next came into the sight of the new customs agents. Hancock’s vessel the Lydia sailed into 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 British customs officials weren’t deliberately harassing John Hancock before the Lydia incident, they almost certainly put him on their radar following it.
The British had established the American Board of Commissioners in the fall of 1767 to step up the collection of customs mandated under the Townshend Acts. The new board wanted 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.
The Liberty Affair Begins
On May 9, 1768 the board got another chance. Hancock’s ship the Liberty came into port loaded with Madeira wine. Again, customs officers visited the ship – this time with the proper papers. The ship was offloaded 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 into port and the dynamics in the city began to change. Armed with 50 guns, the Romney had 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 alone smugglers, stayed away from the port of Boston, fearful of losing seamen.
Now the British angered 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. Kirk said he listened as a great portion of the ship’s cargo was offloaded. When Hancock’s men released him, he said, they threatened him 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, John Marshall, that emboldened him to talk.
The King’s Mark
Joseph Harrison, the official collector of the port, brought Kirk’s new statement to commissioners. They 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 Daniel 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. There 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 affair 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 they reduced it to ashes in the final actions of the Liberty Affair.
Harrison, Hallowell and the Board of Commissioners fled the city. They spent the night of June 10 aboard the Romney, then relocated to Castle William.
Unable to negotiate the return of his vessel, Hancock, defended by John Adams, was later cleared of smuggling charges. The evidence against him in the Liberty Affair was simply too flimsy.
The Liberty Affair, however, set the stage for the greater unrest to come.
The British kept the Liberty and refitted her to serve as a Royal Navy ship in Rhode Island. The British used Liberty to patrol for customs violations along the Rhode Island Coast. In July of 1769, the summer after the Liberty Affair, the crew of Liberty seized two Connecticut ships. In retribution, a Rhode Island mob boarded the Liberty and later burned it.
This story about the Liberty Affair was updated in 2022.