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John Hancock’s story is a bit unique in that he was one of the richest, if not the richest, man in colonial America. He was an unlikely revolutionary because of his wealth and deep ties with merchants and those in power in Great Britain. The rising tide of revolutionary fervor in the American colonies during the 1760s pushed Hancock from being a loyal British subject to joining the patriot circles. Mentored by the original rebel, Samuel Adams, Hancock would go on to become an important leader in America’s fight for independence from Great Britain.
John Hancock was caught up in a heated event with British customs officials when his ship full of wine was confiscated and he was subjected to a shame trial for smuggling. The episode became known as the Liberty Affair and would set the stage for the Boston Massacre. This was an important precursor to the American Revolutionary War.
John Hancock was born in Braintree, Massachusetts—the same coastal town as the second president of the United States, John Adams—on January 23, 1737. Young John’s father, also named John, was the pastor of the North Church in Braintree; his mother, Mary, was from the nearby town of Hingham. John was the middle child with a younger brother and older sister.
Young John’s world changed abruptly with the death of his father when he was just seven years old. Luckily for the boy, his very rich and childless uncle, Thomas Hancock, stepped in to raise him. Thomas had taken a different path in life from that of his minister brother, building a lucrative shipping, import, export, and wholesale business in New England. Thomas and his wife had built one of the finest homes on Beacon Hill overlooking the city of Boston. The childless couple took John into their home and sent him to the Boston Latin School and then on to Harvard. When John graduated from Harvard in 1754, he decided not to go into the ministry as his father and grandfather had done; rather, he went to work for his uncle.
Thomas Hancock had won lucrative shipping contracts with Great Britain to support their troops in North America during the French and Indian War. With his close ties to the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas became a supplier of muskets, shot, powder, uniforms, and other military supplies to the British troops and the local militia. John learned much about business during these years. In 1760, his uncle sent him to England to build trading relationships between their customers and suppliers.
A Very Rich Young Man
When he returned from England a year later, he found his uncle’s health was failing. As his uncle’s health continued to decline, he handed over much of the business responsibilities to John, making him a full partner in 1763. Young Hancock embraced his position as a very wealthy man and dressed in the finest European fashions. His social circles expanded, allowing him to rub elbows with the richest men in the colonies. He joined the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew, which brought him in contact with two men unhappy with the way Britain treated her American colonies, Paul Revere and Dr. Joseph Warren.
When John’s uncle died in 1764, he inherited the business, the manor house on Beacon Hill, household slaves, and thousands of acres of land. Inheriting the House of Hancock and the business ventures that spread across two continents made John Hancock one the richest men in North America. The future looked very bright for this wealthy and powerful young man, but this would soon change as seeds of revolution had been sown across the land.
New Taxes on the Colonies
Starting in 1765, the American colonies were barraged with a series of new taxes required by the British. The defense of the colonies from the alliance of the French and the North American Indian tribes in a conflict known as the French and Indian War had cost the British Crown dearly. The British Parliament thought it only fair that the colonists pay their fair share of the war debt; the colonists thought otherwise.
A method of taxation appeared in the American colonies starting in 1765 and was called the Stamp Act. This required that a small tax be levied on all forms of paper documentation used in the colonies. To signify the tax had been paid, a small stamp had to be purchased from a British sponsored stamp dealer and affixed to everything from deeds of sale, newspaper, bills of lading, and even playing cards. Hancock didn’t agree with the stamp tax, but at first he played the part of a loyal British citizen and submitted to the act. He wrote, “I am heartily sorry for the great burden laid upon us, we are not able to bear all things, but must submit to higher powers, these taxes will greatly affect us, our trade will be ruined, and as it is, it’s very dull.” By the times the stamps arrived from Great Britain, Hancock, like most of the colonials, had grown to despise the implication of taxation without proper representation in the British Parliament. People took to the streets and those who had been assigned to issue the stamps where relentlessly harassed. The British Loyalist lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, had his house trashed by the rioters. Subversive groups such as the Loyal Nine and the Sons of Liberty pursued freedom from British rule.
Growing in American patriotism, Hancock joined the Boston merchants in boycotting British goods, which made him popular with the people but cost him dearly in a loss of business. As the boycott started to significantly impact British merchants and protests continued, the British Parliament rescinded the Stamp Act. The popularity Hancock had gained during the crisis of the Stamp Act propelled him to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in May 1766.
Tensions Between the Colonists and the British Build
Hancock’s entrance into politics would bring him in contact with the rebel leader Samuel Adams. Hancock and Adams couldn’t be more different men: Hancock, rich and worldly, while Adams was a failure at business, very idealistic, and a zealous American patriot. Adams took Hancock under his political wing and mentored him in the ways of Massachusetts politics.
The repeal of the Stamp Act didn’t end the Parliament’s quest for additional tax revenue from the colonists; next would come the Townshend Acts and the Tea Act, both of which were met with staunch resistance from the colonists. Along with the new taxes came stricter enforcement of the laws from customs officials. As the largest importer and exporter in Boston, Hancock was always under scrutiny from the customs officials. Hancock showed open contempt for the officials but followed the law to the letter to avoid prosecution.
On April 8, 1768, Hancock’s brig, the Lydia, tied up at Hancock Wharf loaded with goods for the colonists straight from London. As was the norm, two customs agents, called tidesmen, boarded the ship and began to snoop around. A tidesman was a customs official who boarded a ship to make sure goods were not smuggled ashore before clearance was issued and duties were paid. The tidesman had a large financial incentive to catch smugglers as he would receive one-third of the value of the smuggled goods.
Once Hancock learned of the agents on the Lydia, he rushed from his office with a group of men and blocked the agents from going into the ship’s hold. Since the two tidesmen didn’t have the proper paperwork to inspect the ship, they were only allowed to stay on the main deck and observe the movement of the cargo.
The next evening the two tidesmen went below deck into steerage. Once the captain realized the men were below deck, he ordered them to return to the upper deck. The men complied but later that evening the men snuck below to inspect the cargo. Hancock and “eight or ten people, all unarmed,” boarded the Lydia and confronted the tidesmen. When the men refused to leave steerage, Hancock demanded to see their Writ of Assistance (a search warrant). The two tidesmen could not produce the proper paperwork so Hancock had them forcibly removed from the ship’s hold.
The commissioners of customs were furious at the events on the Lydia and the rough treatment the tidesmen had received. The officials petition the province’s attorney general, Jonathan Sewall, to prosecute. Sewall, an old friend of Hancock and John Adams, refused to pursue the matter as there was insufficient grounds for prosecution. The assault on the British customs agent was the first physical assault on a British official in the American colonies. As word spread of the incident throughout Boston, Hancock was raised to hero status with the citizens. British officials took a much dimmer view of Hancock; however, and they would now be watching him very closely while secretly seeking revenge.
9th April 1767: John Hancock forcibly removes British customs officials from Lydia
The Liberty Affair
On May 9, one of Hancock’s small sloops named the Liberty arrived at dusk in the port of Boston. The ship was loaded with a shipment of wine from the north African island of Madeira. Due to the lateness of the hour, the customs inspection would take place the next morning. To ensure the cargo was safe from smuggling, two tidesmen boarded the Liberty. The next morning, Joseph Harrison, a customs collector, and Benjamin Hallowell, comptroller of customs, boarded the Liberty to commence the inspection. After consulting with the tidesmen, they certified the ship to be unloaded. Though the customs officials suspected smuggling due to the unusually light cargo load for the ship, the tidesmen confirmed that none of the cargo had been unloaded during the night.
A week later the mood of Boston changed drastically as the 50-gun British man-of-war, the Romney, docked in the harbor. The ship had been dispatched from New York to bring calm to the city and aid customs officials in collecting the monies owed the Crown. To add fear to the city, the crew of the Romney began to forcibly impress young seamen into the Royal Navy. The harbor's trade was hurt as many merchant ships steered clear of Boston harbor to avoid losing their crews to the British navy. Even residents sailing their boats in the harbor for lawful business or pleasure felt the fury of the Romney and were subjected to gunfire and impressment.
Under duress from his superiors and feeling emboldened with the presence of the Romney and its contingence of troops, one of the tidesman, Thomas Kirk, recanted his original story on June 10 and reported his new story: “In the night a large number of people being collected together, they seized and then confined the tidesman that was on board, broke open the hatches, and took out the greatest part of the cargo of wines. When the business was finished, they released the tidesman but with such threats and denunciations of vengeance death and destruction in case he divulged the affair.” Kirk had come under pressure from the Royal Governor Bernard and the customs officers who wanted to make an example of Hancock for his rebellious political activities. The commissioners had the Liberty towed next to the Romney for safe keeping.
A Riot Breaks Out
Once the Liberty was securely under the control of the Royal Navy and marked as a ship of quarantine, customs officials Harrison and Hallowell, along with Harrison’s eighteen-year-old son, left the ship and began walking home. Soon they were accosted by an angry mob, as Harrison later testified: “The onset was begun by throwing dirt at me, which was presently succeeded by volleys of stones, brickbats, sticks or anything that came to hand: In this manner I run the gauntlet near 200 yards, my poor son…was knocked down and then laid hold of by the legs, arms and hair of his and in the manner dragged…” Though battered and bruised, the three men managed to break free from the angry crowd—hoping this would be the end of the episode and the mob had spent their fury.
Later that evening, a crowd reassembled and gathered and began searching for the customs official. When the object of their anger was not found at home, they began breaking windows. The crowd, estimated between two and three thousand, then pulled a pleasure boat owned by Harrison from the water, dragged it through the streets, condemned it in a mockery of the customs process used against smugglers, and then they burnt the boat. Harrison and his family, still in fear for their lives, were taken by the British to Castle William, a harbor fortress controlled by British troops. The stress of the incident aggravated Harrison’s nervous disorder and forced him to return to England.
The riots over the seizure of the Liberty, new taxes, and the treatment of Hancock prompted British officials to request more troops to be brought into Boston to occupy the city. On October 1, 1768, the Journal of the Times reported: “At about 1 o’clock, all the troops landed under cover of the cannon of the ships of war, and march into the common, with muskets charged, bayonets fixed, colors flying, drums beating and fifes, & c. playing, making with the train of military upwards of 700 men.” The British were sending a clear message to the colonists that rebellion would not be tolerated.
Throughout the summer of 1768, the Liberty, awaiting its fate, bobbed in the water next to the threatening Romney. James Otis and Samuel Adams did their best to keep the people of Boston stirred with anti-British rhetoric. Hancock was becoming a martyr for “the cause” of the patriots. In early August the trial began for John Hancock and the Liberty. Hancock’s trial attorney was John Adams, a thirty-three-year-old married attorney with two young children and a third one born shortly after the trial began. Adams would go on to be the second president of the United States. The two men had known each other since their childhood in Braintree. After two weeks, the court dropped the charges against Hancock but ordered the forfeiture of the Liberty, which was a major financial blow to Hancock. The officials put the ship up for sale but there were no buyers. They then decided to arm the ship and put her in service to the Crown, roaming the New England coast in search of smugglers. A year later, the searches and seizures accomplished by the Liberty had infuriated the merchants and shipowners of Newport, Rhode Island, to the point where they marched on the dock where she was moored and burnt the ship to the waterline.
John Hancock Is Arrested and Put on Trial a Second Time
The governor of Massachusetts Bay, Sir Francis Bernard, was not happy with just confiscating the Liberty; he wanted to crush Hancock and the Sons of Liberty. Governor Bernard, hoping to destroy the patriot movement by cutting off their source of funding, had Hancock arrested in early November 1768 on charges of smuggling wine without paying duties on the Liberty. To avoid imprisonment, Hancock posted the £3000 bond, which was the value of the goods the British claimed had been smuggled from the Liberty. The trial before the Admiralty Court was a sham based on little evidence and was primarily meant to send a message to Hancock and his fellow Sons of Liberty that dissent would not be tolerated. The case against Hancock for not paying customs duties rested on the testimony of a single questionable witness, who had changed his testimony a month later. The other tidesman who had accompanied Kirk on the night in question on the Liberty was drunk and left the ship early before the alleged smuggling occurred.
The attorney general drug the trial out for months, making the trial as costly as possible for Hancock and calling dozens of witnesses with seemingly endless testimonies. John Adams was growing fatigued of the trial and wrote, “I was thoroughly weary and disgusted with the Court, the officers of the Crown, the cause, and even with the tyrannical bell that dangled me out of my house every morning.” With only flimsy evidence to go on, the Admiralty Court dropped the case in late March 1769.
The British attempt to destroy the patriot movement had failed, thought they had cost the House of Hancock a pretty penny with the seizure of the Liberty and costs of the trials. John Hancock would go on to become an important leader in the struggle for independence of the thirteen colonies. The publicity of the extensive trial did much to boost the prestige of the attorney Adams. As president of the Second Continental Congress in 1776, Hancock would be the first and boldest signature on the Declaration of Independence, a document that would declare to the world that the thirteen British colonies in America had chosen freedom from the oppressive rule from their mother country and were willing to bear the cost with their lives and treasure.
Boatner, Mark M. III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. David McKay Company, Inc. 1969.
The Sons of Liberty: The Lives and Legacies of John Adams, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock. Charles River Editors. 2012.
Malone, Dumas. Dictionary of American Biography. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1932
Nusholtz, Neal. “How John Adams won the Hancock Trial.” Accessed July 29, 2019. https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/08/john-adams-won-hancock-trial/
Nye, Eric W. Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency. Accessed July 31, 2019. https://www.uwyo.edu/numimage/currency.htm.
Slaughter, Thomas P. Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution. Hill and Wang. 2014.
Unger, Giles H. John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2000.
© 2019 Doug West
Doug West (author) from Missouri on August 14, 2019:
I think Hancock is an unsung hero of the American revolution. His accomplishments are overshadowed by men like George Washington and John Adams.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 14, 2019:
What an interesting vignette on American history. I have not really read much about Hancock so was glad to read this article and know more about this great American leader.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on August 13, 2019:
Thanks. I didn't realize how important John Hancock was to the American revolution until I starting researching for this article. He was truly one of the fathers of our country.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on August 13, 2019:
Excellent enjoyable read, Doug. Hancock certainly had good reasons to dislike the British. This is a superb article, and I put my JOHN HANCOCK on it for the true storytelling abilities of my fellow American, Doug West.