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Browsing: Diary of John Adams, Volume 3


Docno: ADMS-01-03-02-0016-0021

Author: Adams, John
DateRange: 1768-06-10 - 1769-03-25

[Seizure of Hancock's Sloop, 1768–1769]

In the fall of the Year 1773, a great Uproar was raised in Boston, { 306 } on Account of the Unlading in the Night of a Cargo of Wines from the Sloop Liberty from Madeira, belonging to Mr. Hancock, without paying the Customs. Mr. Hancock was prosecuted upon a great Number of Libells for Penalties, upon Acts of Parliament, amounting to Ninety or an hundred thousand Pounds Sterling. He thought fit to engage me as his Counsell and Advocate; and a painfull Drudgery I had of his cause. There were few days through the whole Winter, when I was not summoned to attend the Court of Admiralty. It seemed as if the Officers of the Crown were determined to examine the whole Town as Witnesses. Almost every day a fresh Witness was to be examined upon Interrogatories. They interrogated many of his near Relations and most intimate Friends and threatened to summons his amiable and venerable Aunt, the Relict of his Uncle Thomas Hancock, who had left the greatest Part of his Fortune to him. I was thoroughly weary and disgusted with the Court, the Officers of the Crown, the Cause, and even with the tyrannical Bell that dongled me out of my House every Morning; and this odious Cause was suspended at last only by the Battle of Lexington, which put an End for ever to all such Prosecutions.1
1. Here JA 's memory seriously misled him. This protracted admiralty case, Advocate General Jonathan Sewall v. John Hancock, occurred in 1768–1769. It followed the seizure in Boston harbor of Hancock's sloop Liberty, 10 June 1768, by members of the crew of the Romney man-of-war at the instance of the new board of customs commissioners, not for smuggling but for failing to obtain a permit for a cargo it had loaded. The Liberty was condemned in August and sold in September. The following month, after British troops had garrisoned Boston (also at the behest of the customs commissioners), a suit was filed against Hancock, not by a grand jury indictment but by an “information” and an admiralty court order, for the enormous sum of £9,000. The charge was for smuggling wine that had been brought in earlier by the Liberty. JA 's notes on this case are in his “Admiralty Book” (Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 184) and are printed, with introductory commentary and valuable references, in Quincy, Reports , p. 456–463.
In his stubborn and eloquent defense before Judge Auchmuty, JA questioned the validity of the legislation under which the case was tried, because it denied his client the right of a jury trial and thus, by repealing “Magna Charta, as far as America is concerned,” “degraded [Hancock] below the Rank of an Englishman.” The defense was successful. At the end of the record appears this notation, dated 25 March 1769: “The Advocate General prays leave to Retract this Information and says our Sovereign Lord the King will prosecute no further hereon. Allow'd” (Suffolk co. Court House, Records, Court of Vice Admiralty, Province of Massachusetts Bay, 1765–1772).
See also George G. Wolkins, “The Seizure of John Hancock's Sloop ‘Liberty,'”MHS, Procs. , 55 (1921–1922) :239–284; Oliver M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution, Phila., 1951, p. 231–246, 260–265; and David S. Lovejoy, “Rights Imply Equality: The Case against Admiralty Jurisdiction in America, 1764–1776,” WMQ , 3d ser., 16: 459–484 (Oct. 1959), especially p. 478–482.