Seizing Men, Seizing Liberty

A Forgotten Revolutionary Debate at Old South Meeting House


“The largest Dissenting Meeting House in Town”
Old South Meeting House was the largest meeting hall in colonial Boston in the years leading up to the American Revolution. It was so often the scene of the patriots’ meetings that loyalist Andrew Oliver called it “the largest Dissenting Meeting House in Town.” Today, most people are aware that the meetings that led to the Boston Tea Party took place at Old South Meeting House. But, one of the most interesting protests held there is the lesser-known resistance against the seizure of John Hancock’s ship and the impressment of sailors.

Liberty seized!
In 1768, the British Sloop-of-War Romney, commanded by Captain John Corner, arrived in Boston to enforce custom laws under the new, and much hated, Townsend Acts. On June 10, this Majesty’s ship seized John Hancock’s sloop Liberty for a violation of customs law – the unloading of a case of Madeira wine without proper clearance. The wealthy Hancock was long suspected of smuggling, but Bostonians didn’t believe a British Sloop-of-War should be in the harbor, let alone seize a merchant vessel! When Hancock’s sloop was impounded under guard of the Romney’s guns, a massive riot ensued on the docks and a mob vandalized the homes of the customs officers and burned one of their boats.

Kidnapped “for the service of the King”
As if the seizure of the Liberty weren’t enough, just days later, Captain Corner, being short of men on the Romney, began to impress seamen right off the docks. Impressment was the government-sanctioned kidnapping of able-bodied men from docks, taverns and gathering places in town to fill the ranks aboard British naval ships depleted by deserters.

Affronts to fundamental rights
Shocked by what they called an “invasion of an armed force,” on June 14, 1768, Bostonians called a town meeting at Faneuil Hall to protest impressment. The turnout was so great the gathering was adjourned to Old South Meeting House, just a short walk from Faneuil Hall and past the Old State House, seat of colonial Government. At the meeting, outraged colonists called for a halt to the policy of seizing sailors to work “for the service of the King, in his ships of war.” They argued that both the impressment and the seizure of private property were an affront to their fundamental rights as subjects of England, and contrary to the Acts of Parliament.

Liberty challenged
Hearing their grievances, on the matter of impressment the governor did promise to use “the utmost endeavor to get it regulated so as to avoid all the inconveniences to this Town.” The Boston Chronicle later printed that Captain Corner said should he need more men, he “will not take any belonging to, or married in the province, nor any employed in the trade along shore, or to the neighboring colonies.”

The response to the riot at the docks in protest of the Liberty’s seizure was another matter. Concluding that they could not keep their customs officers safe from harm without protection of British troops, the British ministry took extreme action. Nearly 4,000 soldiers—“at least one red-coat for every five of the men, women, and children who made up the total of her seventeen thousand inhabitants” – arrived in Boston in September and October of 1768 to patrol the streets. This went against the long-standing political tradition regarding the rights of English citizens not to have a standing army quartered in a “free city” at a time of peace. The Patriots considered this action to be a military occupation, an infringement of English political law, and yet one more challenge to their liberty.

To learn more about the other revolutionary meetings at Old South Meeting House please call (617) 482-6439 or email info@osmh.org.