Causes > Malcom Affair

Malcom Affair

Background

On 24 September 1766, customs officials in Boston, with a deputy sheriff, searched merchant Daniel Malcom's home, which was also his place of business. They claimed the authority to do so by a writ of assistance issued to customs official Benjamin Hallowell, and the information of a confidential informant.[11] Malcom allowed them to search, but denied them access to a locked cellar, arguing that they did not have the legal authority to break it open. According to customs officials, Malcom threatened to use force to prevent them from opening the door; according to Malcom and his supporters, his threat specified resisting any unlawful forced entry.[12] The officials left and returned with a specific search warrant, only to find that Malcom had locked his house.[13] A crowd supportive of Malcom had gathered around the house; Tories claimed that this "mob" numbered 300 or more people and was hostile to the customs officers, while Whigs insisted that this was a peaceful gathering of about 50 curious onlookers, mostly boys.[14] No violence occurred, but reports written by Governor Francis Bernard and the customs officials created the impression in Britain that a riot had taken place.[15] The incident furthered Boston's reputation in Britain as a lawless town controlled by "mobs", a reputation that would contribute to the government's decision to send troops in 1768.[16] Although British officials, and some historians, described Malcom as acting in defiance of the law, John Phillip Reid argued that Malcom's actions were lawful—so precisely lawful, in fact, that Reid speculated that Malcom may have been acting under the advice of his lawyer, James Otis. According to Reid, Malcom and Otis may have been attempting to provoke a lawsuit so that they could once again "challenge the validity of writs of assistance" in court.[17] This was one of several incidents when a Boston merchant resisted a search with a seemingly exact knowledge of the law; John Hancock would act in a similar manner when customs officials attempted to search his ship Lydia in 1768.[18]

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