Liberty Affair

June 10, 1768

The Liberty Affair was an incident that took place in Boston after British customs officials seized a ship owned by John Hancock, the wealthy merchant and prominent member of the Sons of Liberty. A violent riot followed, and British officials responded by sending troops to occupy Boston, setting the stage for the Boston Massacre.

Liberty Affair, 1768, John Hancock, Illustration

This illustration depicts men removing illegal casks of Madeira Wine from the Liberty. Image Source: Pictorial Encyclopedia of American History, Children’s Press, Inc. (1962).

Liberty Affair Facts

  • Also Known As — The Liberty Riot.
  • Date — June 10, 1768.
  • Location — Boston, Massachusetts.
  • People InvolvedJohn Hancock, Thomas Kirk, Joseph Harrison, Benjamin Hallowell, and David Lisle.
  • Historical Context — The Liberty Affair took place during the Townshend Crisis. The Massachusetts Circular Letter was issued in February 1768, four months before the Liberty Affair, and around the same time John Dickinson finished publishing his Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania

Key Moments

  • On May 9, 1768, the merchant ship, Liberty, arrived at Boston. The ship was owned by John Hancock and carried casks of Madeira Wine. British customs officials suspected the ship was carrying more casks than what was listed on the manifest, which meant Hancock was smuggling them, hoping to avoid paying the taxes.
  • After the arrival of the man-of-war HMS Romney, Kirk decided to tell customs officials what really happened. The presence of the Romney likely made Kirk believe he would be protected from reprisal.
  • Joseph Harrison (Collector of the Port of Boston) and Benjamin Hallowell (Comptroller of the Port of Boston) seized the Liberty on June 10 and had it towed out into Boston Harbor, where it was anchored near the Romney.
  • Moving the Liberty away from the wharf outraged Bostonians, who responded by rioting and destroying the homes of Harrison and Hallowell. Fearing for their safety, they fled to Castle Island in Boston Harbor.
  • British officials responded to the Liberty Affair by sending British troops to occupy Boston. They entered the city on October 1, 1768.
John Hancock, Portrait, Copley, MHS
John Hancock by John Singleton Copley, c. 1770–1772. Image Source: Massachusetts Historical Society.

Liberty Affair Significance

The Liberty Affair was important to American History because was the first open act of resistance to British authority and led to the occupation of Boston and the establishment of the Boston Garrison. Over the next two years, minor incidents took place that saw Bostonians clash with British soldiers. However, tensions built to a climax on March 5, 1770, when an argument between a British soldier and a teenage boy ignited the Boston Massacre, the first bloodshed of the American Revolution

First Act of Violence During the American Revolution

According to The History of North America, Vol. 6: The Revolution (1903), the Liberty Affair was the “first act of violence” of the American Revolution.

“In Boston, the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act was celebrated with noisy demonstrations; the popular ill will expressing itself especially against the customs officials and the governor. The first act of violence was the seizure of John Hancock’s sloop Liberty, which was freighted with a cargo of Madeira wine. This occurred on June 10, 1768. Upon the customs officer in charge refusing a bribe offered to secure the unopposed surrender of the cargo he was locked in his cabin and the greater part of the lading of the ship was removed, the remainder being entered at the custom house as the entire cargo. This overt act led to the seizure of the vessel by the royal commissioners, and she was anchored under the guns of a man-of-war which lay in the harbor. A mob of citizens thereupon roughly handled the revenue officers and burned their boat. These proceedings led to the despatch of additional military forces to Boston.”

Although there had been violence during the Stamp Act Crisis, Hancock deliberately — and publicly — refused to allow customs officials to carry out their duties. The riot that resulted from the seizure of the Liberty was also in direct defiance of British troops who were carrying out their orders. While the incident may not have been the first true act of violence, it certainly escalated tension in Boston and set a series of events in motion that culminated in the Boston Massacre.

Liberty Affair History

To help enforce the Townshend Acts, Parliament passed the Commissioners of Customs Act. It created a five-person American Board of Customs Commissioners, which was located in Boston and responsible for enforcing shipping laws and the collection of customs duties, as defined in the Sugar Act, the Townshend Revenue Act, and other Navigation Acts

Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, NYPL
Charles Townshend, architect of the Townshend Acts. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

John Hancock Defies the Customs Commissioners

John Hancock, one of the wealthiest men in America, refused to acknowledge the board members, and many of the elite members of society in Boston followed his lead. The board members blamed Hancock for the harassment they received from merchants and townspeople.

The Lydia Incident

On April 8, 1768, one of Hancock’s ships, the Lydia, was docked at Hancock Wharf. The next morning, April 9, two customs officials boarded the ship and demanded access to the cargo hold. They suspected the ship was carrying smuggled goods.

Hancock saw the men from his office at the wharf gathered a small group of men and went to the Lydia, where he blocked them from going into the hold. Later that night, one of the officials, Owen Richards, went back to the Lydia and snuck on board the ship, determined to search the hold.

Hancock had anticipated the move and had his men waiting for Richards. When he climbed down into the hold, Hancock’s men surprised and seized him. Hancock asked for his orders and his Writ of Assistance. The orders were expired and he had no Writ, so Hancock had him forcibly removed and carried back to the shore.

The official reported the incident to the Customs Commissioners, who asked Jonathan Sewall, the Massachusetts Attorney General, to bring charges against Hancock. However, the lack of valid documentation, although a technicality, kept Hancock free of further legal troubles regarding the Lydia.

Word of Hancock’s act of resistance spread quickly, which helped increase his reputation among Bostonians, including members of the Sons of Liberty. On May 4, Hancock was reelected to the Massachusetts General Assembly. The Assembly then elected him to the Governor’s Council, along with James Otis and Samuel Adams. These appointments to the Council were rejected by Governor Francis Bernard, due to the controversy over the Massachusetts Circular Letter, adding to the tension between British officials and Patriot leaders.

The Liberty Arrives in Boston

On May 9, 1768, another ship owned by Hancock, the Liberty, arrived at the Port of Boston. It had come from Madeira, so customs officials expected it to be carrying a significant amount of wine. When the Liberty docked, the customs officials said they could not inspect the cargo right away, because it was too dark. They told the master of the Liberty, Nathaniel Barnard, they would return the next day.

When the cargo of Liberty was inspected on the morning of May 10, customs officials found 25 casks of wine — far less than the 125 they expected. They informed the Customs Commissioners and said could not explain where the rest of the casks went, explaining they watched the Liberty all through the night of the 9th but did not see any cargo removed.

Arrival of the HMS Romney

On May 17, the HMS Romney, a British Man-of-War, arrived in Boston Harbor. The ship was under the command of Captain John Corner. Corner sent press gangs onshore to impress — or force — sailors into service on the Romney. Merchants and smugglers avoided Boston Harbor, for fear of losing crew members, and the mere presence of the Romney and Corner’s press gangs increased tension between the colonists and the British in Boston.

HMS Romney, British Man of War, American Revolution
This illustration depicts the HMS Romney during a naval battle in 1794. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Thomas Kirk Changes His Story

On June 9, the situation in Boston escalated when Thomas Kirk told Joseph Harrison, the Collector of the Port of Boston, that he had been forcibly held in the hold of the Liberty while cargo was removed. Kirk believed the cargo was illegal, and had been offered a bribe by the ship’s captain, John Marshall, to keep quiet, which was refused. Harrison took the information to the Customs Commissioners. 

Threats from the Sons of Liberty

When members of the Boston Sons of Liberty found out Kirk had accused Hancock of smuggling, they warned Harrison, Comptroller Benjamin Hallowell, and other British officials to leave the Liberty alone. However, the warning was ignored.

The Liberty Affair Begins

On June 10, David Lisle, the Solicitor General to the Board of Customs, ordered the Liberty to be seized. Sailors from the Romney were sent to carry out the orders, and they sailed from the Romney to the wharf. Harrison and Hallowell met them at the wharf, where a large red arrow was painted on the Liberty, indicating it had been seized.

Meanwhile, a crowd gathered and a message was sent to Hancock, alerting him that his ship was in danger. Some of the people tried to convince Harrison and Hallowell to wait for Hancock to arrive, but they refused. As the argument intensified, the Liberty was towed away from the wharf and moored near the Romney. The argument continued and the crowd grew to an estimated 3,000 people. 

Bostonians Riot

A fight started, forcing Harrison and Hallowell to flee. The crowd chased after them, but the two men disappeared. The crowd responded by going to their homes and smashing in the windows. Then the crowd returned to the dock and dragged Harrison’s boat out of the water, dragged it to Boston Common, and set it on fire, burning it to the ground.

The seizure of the Liberty caused unrest in Boston because many people believed the action to be illegal. Rumors started to circulate that people from all around Boston were planning to go into the city and start an uprising.

Accusations from Boston

The people of Boston sent a letter to the colony’s agent — or representative — in London, Dennys De Berndt. The letter placed the blame for the “Liberty Affair” on what people believed were unconstitutional laws that imposed taxes to raise revenue. It also compared the Customs Officers and Commissioners to thieves who stole from the people of Massachusetts.

Customs Commissioners Hint at Rebellion

The Customs Board of Commissioners also expressed concerns that an uprising was imminent in a letter it sent to London. The Commissioners accused the local assemblies of coordinating efforts to resist British policies and suggested if there was an uprising in Boston it would spread to other colonies. The only way to stop that from happening was to send troops to Boston to occupy the city.

Bernard Warns Hillsborough

Governor Francis Bernard also sent a detailed narrative of the Liberty Affair, to Wills Hill (Lord Hillsborough), the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Bernard had already asked General Thomas Gage to send troops to Boston in 1766, but the request was denied. This time, Bernard urged Hillsborough to do something to help prevent an uprising because he, like the Customs Commissioners, believed the Americans were capable of insurrection.

Francis Bernard, Governor, Massachusetts, NYPL
Governor Francis Bernard. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

British Garrison in Boston

In late August, Gage was notified that two regiments — the 64th and 65th — were on their way from Ireland to Boston. Troops were also transferred from Halifax to Boston. The ships carrying the troops arrived in Boston Harbor on September 28, 1768. On October 1, they disembarked, establishing the “Boston Garrison.” Troops secured quarters at various locations in Boston, including Castle Island, Faneuil Hall, and warehouses at Wheelwright’s Wharf.

Boston Garrison, 1768, Arrival of British Troops
This illustration depicts British troops entering Boston. Image Source: Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, 1865.

Sewall v. Hancock

Ultimately, John Hancock was sued by Jonathan Sewall and taken to court in November 1768. The case was heard before the Vice-Admiralty Court because the charges against Hancock dealt with violations of the Navigation Acts. Hancock hired John Adams to be his lawyer. After a key witness for the prosecution was removed from the proceedings, the charges against Hancock were withdrawn and Sewall v. Hancock ended. However, as part of the proceedings, the Liberty was confiscated, purchased by the Customs Commissioners, and placed into service to apprehend smugglers.

Fate of the Liberty

The Liberty was placed under the command of Captain William Reid, who patrolled the waters off the coast of Rhode Island. Reid was known to stop and search American merchant ships frequently, which upset the townspeople of Newport, Rhode Island.

In June 1769, the Liberty seized a ship from Connecticut, under Captain Joseph Packwood, and took it to Newport, even though Reid could not prove it was carrying illegal goods or had broken any laws. The crew of the ship remained on board, refusing to leave it to the British.

Captain Packwood tried to visit the Liberty to negotiate the return of his ship, but the British fired at him. A crowd gathered at the docks, attacked the Liberty, and cut it loose from its moorings. It drifted into Newport Harbor to Goat Island, where it was set on fire and burned to the water.

With the Liberty out of commission, British officials still needed to enforce the Navigation Acts off the coast of Rhode Island. A new vessel was sent to patrol the waters, the HMS Gaspee. This eventually led to the Gaspee Affair, which triggered the establishment of the permanent Colonial Committees of Correspondence.

Bibliography and Suggested Reading

  • Blanco, Richard L. The American Revolution 1775–1783, An Encyclopedia.
  • Boatner, Mark. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution.
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory and Ryerson, Richard. The Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Lee, Guy Carleton. The History of North America, Vol. 6: The Revolution.
  • Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789.
  • Reid, John Philip. In a Rebellious Spirit: The Argument of Facts, the Liberty Riot, and the Coming of the American Revolution.
  • Sears, Lorenzo. John Hancock, the Picturesque Patriot.

Learn More About the Liberty Affair

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Liberty Affair
  • Date June 10, 1768
  • Author
  • Keywords Liberty Affair, Liberty Riot, Townshend Acts Crisis, American Board of Customs Commissioners
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 1, 2024