The search and seizure of John Hancock’s “Liberty” on June 10, 1768 ranks up there with the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party as far as incitement of rebellion is concerned. Customs officers took the ship under suspicion that the cargo on board had been smuggled into Boston without proper duty being paid for it. They were correct. However, their handling of the situation angered many Bostonians and a riot ensued.
John Hancock is best known for his prominent signature on the Declaration of Independence. However, John Hancock was much more than his signature. He was the wealthiest merchant in Boston during the years leading up to the American Revolution. His wealth afforded him the luxury of being able to remain loyal or even remain neutral for all intents and purposes. Nonetheless, he risked everything, including his life, for the cause of liberty. He openly opposed British tax law. Therefore, the events of June 10, 1768 aboard the Liberty are hardly surprising. Sure, John Hancock did not technically have anything to do with it, but it is easy to see his hand in it, if one looks closely.
The Liberty was coming into Boston Harbor with a cargo of wine when they were boarded by a tidewaiter, which was not unusual. At around 9 pm, the captain and crew of the Liberty, who were as opposed to paying British taxes as John Hancock, imprisoned the tidewaiter on the sloop. They then landed the liberty at John Hancock’s wharf in Boston. They did not abide by the customs laws in any way.
Because of the Liberty captain and crew’s blatant disregard for the law, the sloop was boarded by customs officials. A large group of citizens gathered to watch the commotion. A portion of this crowd began to protest the behavior of the customs officers. The customs officers were planning to take the ship out of the wharf. The protestors argued that they should wait for John Hancock to arrive, as he may be able to diffuse the situation. Furthermore, the owner of a ship should be able to speak for the behavior of his men before his ship is taken. The customs officers refused. At this time, the protestors became formed an angry mob.
A few customs officers were attacked by the mob, though none were injured. It may have been more of a demonstration than an attack, to be fair. Nonetheless, they ran to Castle William in fear. Some allege that their fear was feigned in an attempt to portray Bostonians as violent and dangerous. One collector did suffer property damage when members of the mob grabbed his boat and dragged it to Boston Common where they set it on fire. This incident was played a role in the events that were to come, to be sure. Opposition to British tax law was at the heart of the American Revolution, as was John Hancock.
Lossing, Brian J., John Hancock and his Liberty Ship, retrieved 5/26/10, publicbookshelf.com/public_html/Our_Country_vol_2/johnhanco_bd.html
John Hancock, retrieved 5/26/10, ushistory.org/declaration/signers/hancock.htm