John Hancock’s Two Admiralty Trials February 1769
Legal Decisions Smolder 395 days Before the Boston Massacre
In the early months of 1769, John Hancock was on trial for libel. His schooner, the Liberty pulled into Boston Harbor in May 1768, apparently with several hundred pipes of Madeira wine from Portugal. Immediately on arrival, the ship’s captain made his way to the Customs House and paid customs duties on approximately 25 pipes of wine.[i]
Hours later, a customs official boarded the ship intent on viewing the goods in the hull. Shortly after, an employee of John Hancock arrived to remove some of the wine. Apparently, John needed to do some entertainment at his mansion overlooking the Boston Common. Thomas Kirk, the customs tidesman, refused to allow the removal of wine. Consequently, Captain Marshall, residing on the Liberty, threw Kirk in the ship's brig. Upon release, hours later, Thomas Kirk ran for help.
On August 17, 1768, the Admiralty Judge Auchmuty, ordered confiscation of the Liberty. Within hours a mob attempted to board the Liberty and retake possession. The captain of the H.M.S. Romney (Britain’s largest man of war in the harbor) ordered his sailors to cable the Liberty and pull her to rest under Romney’s naval guns. The rioters came away empty-handed but had violated the “King’s peace” subjecting them to arrest. This could have led to an additional trial but the Admiralty court would not have jurisdiction.
British Sailors boarded the Liberty and found 200 barrels of oil and some tar. The barrels appeared to be on board simply for storage. Auchmuty personally visited the Liberty and concluded the same. He ordered the oil and tar released. Probably, the oil and tar were stored onboard the Liberty to make room for the actual contents of the Liberty. It may also be true that the characteristic odor of oil and tar eliminated any lingering whiff of wine in the hull. The oil and tar were subsequently released to its owner.[ii]
Boston was the largest city in the Colonies at this point in time, yet it would be very difficult to hide the movement of several hundred pipes of wine. Hancock’s counting house, on Long Wharf, is beautiful, even today, and appeared to have sufficient room to store the pipes of Madeira. See the images below. His mansion on Beacon Hill was made of quarry stone and would have been the best place to store wine. However, Parliament's intolerable Writ of Assistance Act permitted a custom’s official to randomly, without warning, enter any house, ship, or business and search for smuggled goods. John Hancock was very vocal in defiance of this act. As an experienced smuggler/merchant, he most certainly would have hidden the wine outside the jurisdiction of the now revengeful customs officials, Tory informers, and admiralty judges.
Unfortunately, if not convenient for the defense, Captain Marshall died before the Admiralty could assemble four judges for the libel trial. In the interim, perhaps persuaded by some very insistent locals, Thomas Kirk testified that nothing was amiss that night. Over the next few months, Kirk fell to Tory pressure and signed an affidavit incriminating the Liberty and John Hancock.
The libel trial seemed to have very lofty purposes. Unlike the hearing that confiscated the Liberty, the libel trial was not after property. The Admiralty needed to support the cuckold customs commissioners, punish those that instigated the mob riot and financially penalize flamboyant John Hancock[iii]. John Adams, now counsel to John Hancock, sought to bring the venue back to Boston’s superior court system and a trial by a jury of John’s peers. The Admiralty court never ever sat a jury for trial.
Equally important, Adams seized the opportunity to challenge the existence of the Admiralty Court suggesting the trial had little to do with seamanship. Should he have gained a change in the venue he could have insisted on a jury trial for John Hancock. Both sides clearly knew that a Boston jury would not convict John. At this point in time, Hancock probably was focused on the potential fine that might result. He did flaunt his “smuggling” activity a month before the Liberty arrived, setting himself up for retribution. It’s hard to say that he did this for the common good or his benefit as a merchant.
Both the property trial that seized the Liberty and now a libel trial that could result in treble damages against John Hancock continued to envelop the entire town. The two parallel legal systems and the personalities involved created empire wide intrigue. Many English merchants, particularly those in the carriage trade had a commercial interest in all things imported by John Hancock. Several hundred members of Parliament witnessed the corruption of the Star Chamber British courts and now the Admiralty courts. They hoped for a precedent-setting verdict that would remove the corruption from the court systems world-wide.
Did the events around the Liberty become personal? Quite so and this was the second attempt this year, by the commissioners to impound a Hancock ship. Even if egos and emotions played little on the events, the judges, magistrates, and customs officials in Boston worked on the incentive plan. The more they collected the more they took home. As well, the Admiralty system needed to support itself with hard currency; two reasons that suggested to the Colonists and minority members of Parliament that the profit incentive undermined the legal system throughout the British Empire. Capping it all, was a treasury in England, hard pressed for revenue, rushing one tax act after another on the Colonies, designed to solve the Empire's financial issues on the backs of others.
With those incentives in mind, a link seemed to exist between the first and second trial and the willingness of certain individuals to serve themselves. Though John Adams was masterful in defense, it appeared it would matter not the correctness of his legal arguments. Here is a clear example of the Admiralty’s misconduct. Adams argued that a specific witness’ testimony (Joseph Maysel) was not admissible. In Adams own words from court records, he claimed that Joseph Maysel was guilty of “heinous crime(s).” Adams and the Admiralty bantered back and forth if Maysel’s character was grounds to impeach him. Of course, the Admiralty made light of it. Maysel was not guilty of anything yet. Yet!!! Shortly after John Hancock’s trial, Maysel was indicted for perjury. In quick order, the Admiralty appeared to have rustled him out of town and out of the court's jurisdiction[iv].
The Maysel event may simply have been an embarrassment to the Admiralty. Additionally, in the middle of the trial, the chief prosecutor, Sewall, was removed from incentives and paid a fixed salary. Sewall seemed to have gained new light on the legal issues. After many witnesses, friendly to John Hancock, Sewall failed to connect John Hancock with the specific order or activity that led to the removal of the Madeira. The case was dropped.
Sewall seemed to prefer discretion over valor. Subsequently, upon the Boston Massacre, he ushered himself out of town for months, making himself unavailable as the chief prosecutor. We feel safe in adding that he left town less a Son of Liberty and more for self-preservation.
This is just the beginning of five major legal confrontations leading to the Boston Massacre, devaluing each adversaries respect for the law. While Colonial and English Common Law read nearly the same, gray matter and gray areas were exercised to support conflicting political positions. We will continue to discuss the legal, emotional and military confrontations that led to the Boston Massacre.
Additional backgrounders are available here;
The Massachusetts Historical Society’s online Editorial Note in their Legal Papers of John Adams, Volume 2, 1 October 1768 –31 March 1769, definitively analyzes the two Hancock trials and the dismissal. It does John Adams proud. We recommend reading it in a law library or at the Adams National Park, in Quincy Massachusetts just to be in the right mood.
[i] Wine from Portugal was measured in pipes that ran anywhere from 350-600 liters.
Courtesy of the Wine Spectator, http://www.winespectator.com/drvinny/show/id/5440
[ii] This would be the second clear attempt by John Hancock to zone out custom’s officials from inspecting cargo. One month earlier he had a customs official removed from the hull of his Brig the Lydia. Brig’s typically were the equivalent today of our box trucks. They were short hall vessels moving product between landed sources and rarely used for international voyages. They were the least likely of vessels to look for smuggling activity.
[iii] Often John Hancock was rated the richest man in North America. He inherited wealth and the business from his Uncle Tom. Both Hancocks made their fortune smuggling, though many merchants would parry this with the oligopolistic practices of Parliament.
[iv] According to “A Journal of the Times”