John Hancock Was a Smuggler Who Kept Getting Off on Technicalities
Some men are born to greatness, others have it thrust upon them. Still others, such as John Hancock, achieve greatness by outwitting authorities and running successful smuggling operations for several decades.
John Hancock had the good fortune to inherit a profitable shipping firm—and more than a few high-level connections—from his uncle just as the French and Indian War broke out in 1754. Using those connections, Hancock secured a number of lucrative government contracts to ship goods throughout the war years.
When the British imposed the Stamp Act of 1765, Hancock helped lead the opposition in Massachusetts by urging a boycott of British-made goods. For a smuggler of tea, rum, and wine, this boycott proved highly profitable. Eventually, smuggling goods past the American Board of Customs became so widespread that any attempt at curtailing the trade by the Crown came to be seen by the American public as a tyrannical overreach—especially to those who read broadsheets that the Sons of Liberty published with Hancock’s vast fortune.
Things got so bad that Hancock, then serving as an elected member of the state’s House of Representatives, refused even to attend a function where customs agents would be present.
All of this tension boiled over in 1768 when customs agents boarded Hancock’s ship, the Liberty, and impounded it on suspicion of smuggling wine. In a tragicomic echo of modern politics, Boston’s poor and working-class Sons of Liberty gathered at the harbor to protest the—totally justified—seizure of a ship that was owned by the wealthiest man in Massachusetts.
It was probably all a coincidence that the Sons of Liberty happened to have been organized and led by John Hancock’s friend and mentor Samuel Adams.
Charged with smuggling, Hancock disavowed any knowledge of the ship’s cargo and, in a move that should have, in itself, been interpreted as an admission of guilt, hired John Adams as his defense counsel. Four months after the case was brought, both the charges and the £9,000 fine were suddenly dropped, possibly because John Adams threatened to blow up Alderaan.