On 25 March 1774, aroused at the presumption which Boston had earlier displayed in dumping the East India Company’s tea into the harbor, Parliament passed the Boston Port Act. This was the first of a series of harsh measures known as the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts, which were designed to bring Massachusetts to heel. Instead they stirred an immediate storm of resistance, which produced that final colonial union necessary to make the fight for independence a reality.1 Adams’ minutes of the arguments in a case arising in the first days of the Port Act’s operation, which are printed below, are hardly prophetic of these later developments.
The Act, which was to remain in force until the Town had paid for the tea and made good other damage incurred through its rebelliousness, provided that after 1 June 1774 no goods other than food or fuel shipped coastwise could be loaded or unloaded in Boston Harbor, except by vessels which were there on or before that date. Even these ships were to depart by 14 June. Other vessels found moored or hovering in the Harbor, or within a league of it, could be seized as forfeit if they did not depart within six hours after being warned by a naval or customs officer. Violations of the Act were to be prosecuted in the same manner as offenses against the Acts of Trade, which meant at common law or in Admiralty at the option of the prosecutor.2
All that is known of the case which Adams minuted has been deduced from his notes. Some time in April 1774, one Ross, master of a vessel of unknown name, sailed from an unknown port bound for New York with a cargo which included indigo and wrought plate. When about 1500 miles from Boston, the vessel was seriously damaged, presumably through stress of weather. Finding his condition such that he could not make New York, Ross put into Boston although he had heard “in his Passage” that the port was closed. The date of his arrival cannot be calculated with any certainty; the best guess is that it was about the middle of June, but it could have been as late as mid-July.3 Apparently recognizing this as a genuine case of distress, Admiral Montagu and the customs officers allowed Ross to enter the port for repairs. But Ross overstayed his welcome. After an indeterminate period, probably two to three weeks, his ship was still not ready to sail, and he had begun to offer some of his cargo for sale, perhaps to raise necessary funds.
The Crown now acted, presumably by seizing the vessel and libeling her in the Admiralty Court. In view of the local reaction to the Port Act, it is unlikely that the customs officers would have entrusted any case under it to a jury, and there is no record of any proceeding at common law.4 Daniel Leonard argued the case for the Crown and William Tudor appeared for Ross, who had presumably filed a claim for the vessel. Adams’ minutes show that he attended the argument. It thus could have taken place before he left for the eastern circuit on 20 June, but it was probably held between his return from the eastward on about 18 July and his departure on 10 August to attend the Continental Congress at Philadelphia.5 The question chiefly agitated at the hearing was whether Ross had been diligent in getting his ship ready to put to sea. No record has been found of the result, but it seems most probable that the vessel was acquitted, because no notice of her sale as forfeit appeared in the Boston newspapers.
1. For the Tea Party and the Coercive Acts, see p. 105–106 above.
3. One Ross entered at Boston from St. Croix early in May. Massachusetts Gazette, 5 May 1774, p. 2, col. 3. Since under 14 Geo. 3, c. 19, §4, a ship arriving before 1 June could have entered and would have had until 14 June to clear, it is unlikely that this was the Ross in question here. The dates in the text are consistent with the assumption that the hearing was held between 15 July and 10 August. See note 5 below. This would have been three to four weeks after the vessel’s arrival, allowing her two or three weeks in port before seizure and a week to ten days between seizure and trial. A June arrival seems more likely because of Ross’ “April” embarkation.
4. For accounts of several proceedings in Admiralty under the Act between 30 Sept. and 21 Nov. 1774, see “Letters of John Andrews,” 8 MHS, Procs. description begins Massachusetts Historical Society, Collections and Proceedings. description ends 371, 378, 386 (1864–1865).
5. See 2 JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, Mass., 1961; 4 vols. description ends 96–97. The hearing was probably three or four weeks after the vessel’s arrival. Since she must have arrived after 1 June, there probably would not have been time for trial before 20 June. See note 3 above. JA’s return from Maine can be estimated on the basis of the fact that the Superior Court at Falmouth adjourned on 13 July. SCJ Rec. 1774, fol. 225.