January 7, 1769, The Admiralty Court Case Against John Hancock Closed the Court Room from the Public. 422 Days before the Boston Massacre
The Boston Evening Post equated todays Admiralty Court session to the Star Chambers English courts. The Post declared it as the “first of the kind in America”. The name “Star Chamber” was defined by William Blackstone. He was an English judge, jurist and Tory politician in the 18th Century. Blackstone wrote four volumes on English Law known as the Blackstone Commentaries[i], designed to help the common man survive in the English common court system. He believed that the origin of Star Chamber was derived from “steoran” meaning to govern. Practically speaking the Star Chamber became a closed court governed for privileged politicians. If you were not of the privileged class a proceeding against you in the Star Chambers would certainly ruin your day if not your life.
The Post suggested that the Admiralty court, trying John Hancock for smuggling, was regressing 347 years to an intolerable standard previously cleansed from the common law system. Witnesses were not announced in advance, a jury trial was not an option and the public was not permitted to view the court in session.
This severely handicapped Sam Adams. He made a practice of voluntarily expressing his opinion from the gallery. Sam would not have lasted long if he was required to make every statement under oath. John Hancock and Sam Adams were good friends and political associates at this point in time. Since John had flaunted his smuggling activity, Sam’s presence may have been of little influence in this very public case.
To the Colonies, the British Admiralty court in Boston suddenly resembled the Star Chambers of England. The Admiralty was also active in South Carolina, New York and Philadelphia and in other Colonial ports. Unfortunately for John Hancock, his smuggling and political activity placed him on the wrong side of this star chamber. His ship, The Liberty , was confiscated months before trial and converted by the British Navy to a military schooner engaged in the battle against smugglers.
The court adjourned for two weeks without a verdict. We will keep you abreast of the continuing trial and the ruling by the Admiralty judges.
[i] More precisely called “Commentaries on the Laws of England”, that played an important role in enhancing England and Colonial common law.