J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Second Liberty Riot

I’ve been focused on events 250 years ago this week in Boston, but it’s time to look in on other events in New England.

You may recall how in June 1768 the Customs office in Boston confiscated John Hancock’s sloop Liberty on charges of smuggling wine. That produced a riot against Customs officials, which strengthened the royal government’s decision to station troops in Boston. Months later, the government’s Admiralty Court prosecution against Hancock collapsed.

That didn’t mean he got his sloop back, though. Following the law, Customs officials had put the Liberty up for auction. The winning bid came from…the Commissioners of Customs. Soon the sloop was armed and patrolling out of Narragansett Bay to catch smugglers.

On 10 July 1769 the Newport Mercury reported:
We hear the Liberty Sloop, which sail’d a few Days past on a Cruise, has taken a Prize; but of what Nation, or whither bound, we have not learn’d; but imagine her to belong to some of the North-American Colonies, as the whole N–v–l Force of h–s B—t——c M——y seems to be principally aim’d against those Colonies, notwithstanding they are inhabited by the best Subjects that ever serv’d a King; most remarkable for Loyalty and yielding Obedience to every just and constitutional ACT of Parliament.
The captured brig was out of New London, Connecticut, under the command of Joseph Packwood. According to the 24 July Boston Chronicle, it had just come “from Hispaniola with a cargo of molasses and sugar on board.” The 21 July New London Gazette claimed that Packwood was headed for New York and seized in Long Island Sound.

The same day, the Liberty also seized a sloop, “where belonging and from whence, unknown, having on board brandy, wine, &c.” The New London Gazette said the Customs men left “most of the crew adrift in a leaky old canoe” and sailed away with that sloop.

Two weeks later, the Newport Mercury had more to say:
LAST Monday Morning the 17th Instant [i.e., of this month], the armed Sloop Liberty, commanded by Capt. William Reid, arrived here and bro’t in a Brig and a Sloop belonging to Connecticut, taken in the Sound, without this Colony, on Suspicion of the Brig’s having done some illicit Act, & that the Sloop had contraband Goods on Board; but as no Proof appeared against the Brig, she reported her Cargo at the Custom House here;—

and on Wednesday, no Prosecution having been enter’d against either of them, Capt. Packwood went on Board his Brig in Order to get his Sword and some necessary Apparel, which the Commanding Officer on Board, (one of the Liberty’s Men) refused to let him bring away, and tis said, offer’d him Violence; which reduced Capt. Packwood to the necessity of drawing his Sword, to force his Way into his Boat, whereupon the Officer call’d to the Liberty’s People to fire on Capt. Packwood as he was going ashore, which they did, and a Brace of Balls, tis suppos’d, went very near but did not hurt him; they then attempted to fire several more Guns upon him, which happily all snapped or flashed and cou’d not be discharged.

This Attempt at Violence by the Liberty’s People, whose Commander had never condescended to exhibit his Commission to the Governor of this Colony, so enraged a Number of Persons, that, the ensuing Evening, having met Capt. Reid on the Long-Wharf, they obliged him to send for his Men on Shore, in Order to discover the Man who first fired at Capt. Packwood; upon which Capt. Reid sent for all his Hands except his Mate, afterwards a Number of Persons, unknown, went on Board the Liberty, sent the Mate away, cut her Cables and let her drive ashore at the Point, where they cut away her Mast, scuttled her, and carried both her Boats to the upper Part of this Town and burnt them.—

While this Affair was transacting, the Sloop suspected of having contraband Goods on Board made her Escape; and the Brig has since received her Papers and sail’d last Friday.
Arthur A. Ross’s A Discourse, Embracing the Civil and Religious History of Rhode-Island (1838) said that the crowd which took the Liberty’s boats dragged them
up the Long-wharf, thence up the Parade, through Broadstreet, at the head of which, on the Common, they were burned.— Tradition says, that, owing to the keel of the boats being shod with iron, such was the velocity of their locomotion, as they passed up the Parade, that a stream of fire was left in the rear, of several feet in length.
Meanwhile, the Liberty itself was sitting grounded out on a point in the harbor. 

COMING UP: Lightning strikes?

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