Legal Papers of John Adams, volume 2

243 Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

On 25 March 1774, aroused at the presumption which Boston had earlier displayed in dumping the East India Company's tea into the harbor, Parliament passed the Boston Port Act. This was the first of a series of harsh measures known as the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts, which were designed to bring Massachusetts to heel. Instead they stirred an immediate storm of resistance, which produced that final colonial union necessary to make the fight for independence a reality.1 Adams' minutes of the arguments in a case arising in the first days of the Port Act's operation, which are printed below, are hardly prophetic of these later developments.

The Act, which was to remain in force until the Town had paid for the tea and made good other damage incurred through its rebelliousness, provided that after 1 June 1774 no goods other than food or fuel shipped coastwise could be loaded or unloaded in Boston Harbor, except by vessels which were there on or before that date. Even these ships were to depart by 14 June. Other vessels found moored or hovering in the Harbor, or within a league of it, could be seized as forfeit if they did not depart within six hours after being warned by a naval or customs officer. Violations of the Act were to be prosecuted in the same manner as offenses against the Acts of Trade, which meant at common law or in Admiralty at the option of the prosecutor.2

All that is known of the case which Adams minuted has been deduced from his notes. Some time in April 1774, one Ross, master of a vessel of unknown name, sailed from an unknown port bound for New York with a cargo which included indigo and wrought plate. When about 1500 miles from Boston, the vessel was seriously damaged, presumably through stress of weather. Finding his condition such that he could not make New York, Ross put into Boston although he had heard “in his Passage” that the port was closed. The date of his arrival cannot be calculated with any certainty; the best guess is that it was about the middle of June, but it could have been as late as mid-July.3 Apparently recognizing this as a genuine case of distress, Admiral Montagu and the customs officers allowed Ross to 244enter the port for repairs. But Ross overstayed his welcome. After an indeterminate period, probably two to three weeks, his ship was still not ready to sail, and he had begun to offer some of his cargo for sale, perhaps to raise necessary funds.

The Crown now acted, presumably by seizing the vessel and libeling her in the Admiralty Court. In view of the local reaction to the Port Act, it is unlikely that the customs officers would have entrusted any case under it to a jury, and there is no record of any proceeding at common law.4 Daniel Leonard argued the case for the Crown and William Tudor appeared for Ross, who had presumably filed a claim for the vessel. Adams' minutes show that he attended the argument. It thus could have taken place before he left for the eastern circuit on 20 June, but it was probably held between his return from the eastward on about 18 July and his departure on 10 August to attend the Continental Congress at Philadelphia.5 The question chiefly agitated at the hearing was whether Ross had been diligent in getting his ship ready to put to sea. No record has been found of the result, but it seems most probable that the vessel was acquitted, because no notice of her sale as forfeit appeared in the Boston newspapers.


For the Tea Party and the Coercive Acts, see p. 105–106 above.


14 Geo. 3, c. 19 (1774). As to the latter provision, see note 7 12 below.


One Ross entered at Boston from St. Croix early in May. Massachusetts Gazette, 5 May 1774, p. 2, col. 3. Since under 14 Geo. 3, c. 19, §4, a ship arriving before 1 June could have entered and would have had until 14 June to clear, it is unlikely that this was the Ross in question here. The dates in the text are consistent with the assumption that the hearing was held between 15 July and 10 August. See note 5 below. This would have been three to four weeks after the vessel's arrival, allowing her two or three weeks in port before seizure and a week to ten days between seizure and trial. A June arrival seems more likely because of Ross' “April” embarkation.


For accounts of several proceedings in Admiralty under the Act between 30 Sept. and 21 Nov. 1774, see “Letters of John Andrews,” 8 MHS, Procs. 371, 378, 386 (1864–1865).


See 2 JA, Diary and Autobiography 96–97. The hearing was probably three or four weeks after the vessel's arrival. Since she must have arrived after 1 June, there probably would not have been time for trial before 20 June. See note 3 above. JA's return from Maine can be estimated on the basis of the fact that the Superior Court at Falmouth adjourned on 13 July. SCJ Rec. 1774, fol. 225.

Adams’ Minutes of the Argument<a xmlns="" href="#LJA02d061n1" class="note" id="LJA02d061n1a">1</a>: Court of Vice Admiralty, Boston, June or July 1774 JA Adams’ Minutes of the Argument: Court of Vice Admiralty, Boston, June or July 1774 Adams, John
Adams' Minutes of the Argument1
Court of Vice Admiralty, Boston, June or July 1774

Leonard. Port Bill, Lex Talionis. Punishment of Boston the main Object.

There is an Exception where by the Act of God, there is an Impossibility of getting out.2 A Necessity.

She had no Right to Stay to repair and refit for a Voyage.

She might have gone out, if not in 6 Hours,3 yet in two or three days.

She was not in a worse situation than she had been.


She might have hired assistance.

The Part the Crown officers have acted is extreamly fair and legal.

The Admiral could not allow him to stay compleatly to refit. Tho he seemed to understand that he had leave to do so.

Mr. Gray4 tells us that the whole might have been had in a Week.

J. Hall thinks 7 or 8 days. Compasses were done in 4 days.

If she is not now fit for sea that is not an excuse.

He is shewing Specimens of his Indigo &c. and brings on shore some of his Wrought Plate. This comes within another Act.5

Plate—Goods, Wares or Merchandise.6

She was in the same Condition in which she came 500 Leagues.

Tudor. The Rules that govern other Acts, are to rule this.7

Ross Sail'd in April. Heard in his Passage that Boston Port was shut.8

Holrode describes their distress. Bound to N. York. Shut. And Middleton says, Distress. Mier, and Dodge.

John Hall. Mate of the Mercury9 describes her distress, no Masts, sails tattered.

James Hall. We have invalidated his Testimony.


Jack the Pilot. Distress enough.

It was Ross's Duty to come in here.

Q. Whether Ross used his utmost Endeavour to get out?

Hall says Ross did Use a reasonable Dilligence. Middleton &c. Mier says Ross hurried them.

In Town. Mr. Hutchinson. Very dilligent. Concernd about lying at Expence.

His Landlady. Anxious to get away.

Ruggles the Sail maker. Up at Gun firing hiring us.10 Worked on the Mast when the Weather would permit. Employd as Many Hands as could be employed.


In JA's hand. Adams Papers, Microfilms, Reel No. 185. For the dating, see notes 3, 5, above.


There is no such exception within the Port Act. 14 Geo. 3, c. 19 (1774). Leonard may here refer to a doctrine of statutory construction that excuses liability for actions forced by acts of God. See 4 Bacon, Abridgment 649. Or he may be incorporating by analogy an exception in cases of necessity to the provision of the Act of 1764 requiring foreign vessels to leave colonial waters on warning. 4 Geo. 3, c. 15, §33. See note 3 8 below.


Six hours was the grace period allowed to vessels after being warned to leave by naval or customs officers. 14 Geo. 3, c. 19, §3.


Perhaps John Gray, the proprietor of Gray's ropewalk.


Under 15 Car. 2, c. 7, §8 (1663), set out, No. 48, note 2 10 , unloading goods before entry was a cause of forfeiture. Ross had presumably made no entry, because the customs officers had moved to Plymouth with their records. Warren, “The Colonial Customs Service in Massachusetts in its relation to the American Revolution,” 46 MHS, Procs. 440, 471–472 (1913). In addition, if the goods were European in origin, they could be forfeited if they had not been shipped in Great Britain. See No. 52.


The Port Act forbade the loading of “any goods, wares, or merchandise whatsoever, to be transported or carried into any other country, province, or place whatsoever, or into any other part of the said province of the Massachuset's Bay, in New England,” or the unloading of goods, wares or merchandise “to be brought from any other country, province, or place, or any other part of the said province of Massachuset's Bay in New England,” under penalty of forfeiture of goods, vessel, and small craft used in the process. 14 Geo. 3, c. 19, §1.


The Act, 14 Geo. 3, c. 19, §6, provided that forfeitures were to be prosecuted “in like manner as other penalties and forfeitures inflicted by any act or acts of parliament relating to the trade or revenues of the British colonies or plantations in America, are directed to be prosecuted,” under 4 Geo. 3, c. 15, §§41–47 (1764) and 8 Geo. 3, c. 22 (1768). For authorities favoring strict construction of these Acts in favor of the claimant, see No. 51. In addition, there were provisions in some of the statutes for leniency toward unintentional violations. See, for example, 4 Geo. 3, c. 15, §22 (1764), excusing from liability goods improperly imported into England with no intent to defraud.


The Port Act was passed on 25 March 1774. News of it reached Boston on 11 May. Miller, Origins of the American Revolution 359–360.


One of the British warships on station off Boston to enforce the Act. See Rowe, Letters and Diary 273 (29 May 1774). Perhaps the Mercury had intercepted Ross' vessel and escorted her into port.


Illegible in MS. If the editors' reading is correct, the meaning may be “up at sunrise assembling a crew.”