At sunset on May 9, 1768, the merchant ship Liberty sailed into Boston Harbor after a voyage from Portugal's Madeira Islands, with a cargo of the islands' fortified wine that the ship's owner, the thirty-one-year-old John Hancock, often drank: "I like rich wine" he had recently written to a friend. At the Hancock Wharf, the tidesman Thomas Kirk boarded the Liberty to ascertain the duty on the cargo. He was wary on several counts. Although among the wealthiest of Bostonians, Hancock was known for his radical sympathies, to the point that many other merchants considered him a traitor to his class. Also, as an experienced smuggler, he might dispute the relatively new import duty on Madeira not reshipped from Great Britain—previously he and a gang of seamen had blocked Kirk's fellow officers from access to the hold of his Lydia, suspected of containing dutiables, and when a lone officer sneaked aboard at night he was surprised below by men demanding to see his writ of assistance or search warrant. He had neither. Hancock had him seized, held over the side, and asked whether he really wanted to search the vessel. He said no, well aware of recent incidents in which customs officers were tarred and feathered, and Hancock advised that he was free to inspect but not to linger. He left the ship.
Regarding the Lydia, the colony's attorney general had ruled: "Though Mr. Hancock may not have conducted himself so prudently or courteously as might be wished...it is probable that his intention was to keep within the bounds of the law." On boarding the Liberty a month later, Kirk made sure to have proper papers. Hancock was not there, either attending to his duties for the town council or provincial congress, or at his palatial home atop Beacon Hill, or traveling in his gilded carriage. Aboard the Liberty Hancock's representative offered Kirk a bribe to report fewer casks of Madeira. When Kirk did not accept, he was locked in the steerage. During the night he "heard a noise as of many people upon deck at Work hoisting out goods." Released, he was warned not to say a word, and he didn't: He reported the Liberty as carrying just twenty-five pipes (casks of 125 gallons each), a quarter of its capacity; Hancock paid the duty and that seemed the end of it—business as usual. Collusion was rife: In an article Stephen Hopkins, former governor of Rhode Island, accused Massachusetts officials of "shutting their eyes or at least of opening them no further than their own private interest required."
A month later, as Hancock's Liberty was being readied for another voyage, the HMS Romney entered Boston Harbor, and everything changed. The fifty-gun warship had been sent "to over-awe and terrify the inhabitants of this town into base compliance and unlimited submission," according to a Boston newspaper. Its presence emboldened Kirk to recant his twenty-five-pipes report and to charge that Hancock had evaded import taxes. This gave the port commissioner reason to have a broad arrow painted on the Liberty's mast, a sign of imminent seizure. The Romney's marines approached in small boats and prepared to haul the 'Liberty' away.
Hancock was not there, but three hundred to five hundred other men gathered at the pier to protest the seizure.
Revolutions that produce lasting change, rather than just disruptions, cannot succeed without the participation of both the rich and the poor. The British seizing of the Liberty provided Americans with a specific object on which to act in unison, a rich man's ship that poor men decided to defend. They ripped up paving stones and threw them at the marines.
They did so in part because Hancock had proved himself to be on their side when few other wealthy merchants were, and in part because of fear for their livelihoods—half the jobs in Boston depended on the foreign trade being carried on by Hancock and other merchants. Critics then and since have dismissed the pavestone throwers on the Hancock Wharf as a mob. But they were not the same sort of unruly group as those that sprang up in Europe and in Great Britain, those masses of the unemployed and the destitute who regularly rioted to obtain food. The American port protests of the 1760s, as documented in letters, diaries, and newspaper reports, reveal the participants as overwhelmingly from the working classes. The protesters did include black slaves and white indentured servants, but many more of them had some money or property. In terms of income the lowest members were the occasionally employed—the sailors, dockworkers, and manual laborers. Above them in income were the regularly employed craftsmen such as shoemakers, tailors, coopers, and weavers. The protests also usually included some who were even higher in income—what passed then for the middle class—artisan makers of cabinets, instruments, silverwork, and houses, and small entrepreneurs such as bakers, distillers, and chandlers.