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Browsing: Diary of John Adams, Volume 3


This foot note contained in document ADMS-01-03-02-0016-0021
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.