John Hancock, one of Boston’s wealthiest merchants and a leading figure in Boston politics, forcibly removed customs officials from his ship Lydia.

Despite emerging victorious from the Seven Years’ War that had ended in 1763, Britain was desperate to recoup the costs. Attempts to raise money by imposing the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act on its colonies had met significant opposition for both economic and constitutional reasons. Despite these tensions, the British government introduced the Townshead Acts in 1767 which sought to challenge the extensive smuggling that went on in the colonies, and thus generate tax revenue for Britain.

Lydia arrived in port on the afternoon of 8 April, and was closely watched by British customs officials known as tidesmen. They were under orders to ensure that the cargo was properly declared and landed, rather than smuggled away.

Despite only being there to observe, at least one of the tidesmen went below deck the next evening and entered the ship’s hold. Hancock himself challenged the officials and demanded to see the documents that gave them permission to search his ship. Having found that they did not have the necessary writ of assistance, Hancock ordered members of the ship’s crew to eject them.

The commissioners wanted to press charges but the Attorney General, Jonathan Sewall, ruled that no crime had been committed by the crew. However, the British customs commissioners continued to target Hancock. Their next opportunity came during the Liberty affair the following year, so it has since been argued that Hancock’s actions on board Lydia represented the first act of physical resistance to British authority that developed into the American Revolution.

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