The name "Romney" has historical significance in Massachusetts, but the story goes back a lot further than just a recent ex-governor. In fact, a "Romney" played a significant part in the American Revolution -- on the British side. The name, however, does not refer to a man, but rather to a man-of-war, the H.M.S. Romney, a 50-gun British ship that sailed into Boston harbor in 1768.
The Romney was there for a specific reason -- to help the British government enforce the Townshend Acts. It was a show of force, for the benefit of those unruly Americans who were resisting Parliament's new decrees.
The presence of the Romney was irritating from the very start. Following the custom of the times, the sailors forcibly began rounding up men to serve on the ship -- a practice known as "impressment," back then. Today, it might be referred to as being "Shanghaied." An informal version of a military draft, the sailors would just grab any warm body they found dockside and drag them back to the ship where they would become members of the British navy, whether they liked it or not. The citizens of Boston didn't take too kindly to the press gangs from the Romney, and they began fighting back by attacking the sailors, to thwart these attempts at kidnapping people off the streets.
The real trouble began, though, when the Romney was instructed to help seize another ship, the Liberty, which was owned by John Hancock. Hancock was one of the richest men in Boston at the time, and part of his fortune was made through shipping. In the 1760s, the definition of "smuggling" was a little nebulous, to be polite. Americans had grown used to exceedingly lax enforcement of trade laws, which was partly due to British forces being tied up in a war with the French (what we call the "French and Indian War" and what the British called the "Seven Years' War"). The conclusion of this war led to two big changes: Parliament needed to pay off the war debts, and the British military was freed up for other duties. These two were conveniently tied together when Parliament came up with the bright idea of taxing the colonies' trade -- and, unlike in the recent past, actually being able to enforce their shipping regulations. The Boston Tea Party, which happened years later, was (at heart) the colonials fighting for their right to purchase smuggled goods. This is not how it is usually explained in children's history books, but it doesn't make it any less true.
Whether Hancock was smuggling a cargo of Madeira wine in the Liberty or not is open to interpretation (again, to put it politely). The ship had unloaded the wine and had loaded back up with a cargo bound for London. The Customs Board in Boston then decided that the ship hadn't gotten the proper permit to load, and directed the men of the Romney to seize it.
What happened next was the subject of much heated debate. Samuel Adams wrote about the occasion in a pamphlet titled (and this is the abbreviated version of the title, mind you): "An Appeal to the World; or a Vindication of the Town of Boston, from Many false and malicious Aspersions." In it, Adams quotes "his Majesty's Council after two Days Enquiry and Consideration":
With Regard to the said Disorders, it is to be observed that they were occasioned by the making a Seizure (in a Manner unprecedented) in the Town of Boston on the said 10th of June, a little before Sunset, when a Vessel was seized by several of the Officers of the Customs; and immediately after, on a Signal given by one of the said Officers, in Consequence of a preconceived Plan, several armed Boats from the Romney Man of War took Possession of her, cut her Fasts, and carried her from the Wharff where she lay, into the Harbour, along side the Romney; which occasioned a Number of People to be collected, some of whom, from the Violence and Unprecedentedness of the Procedure with Regard to the taking away of the said Vessel, and the Reflection thereby implied upon the Inhabitants of the Town as disposed to rescue any Seizure that might be made, took Occasion to insult and abuse the said Officers, and afterwards to break some of the Windows of their Dwelling-Houses, and to commit other Disorders. Now, tho' the Board have the utmost Abhorrence of all such disorderly Proceedings, and would by no Means attempt to justify them, they are obliged to mention the Occasion of them, in order to shew, that however culpable the said disorderly Persons were, the Officers who seized, or those by whose Orders such unusual and violent Measures as were pursued in seizing and taking away the said Vessel, were not faultless: It being highly probable that no such Disorders would have been committed, if the Vessel had not been with an armed Force, and with many Circumstances of Insult and Threats, carried away from the Wharff.
Adams blithely dismisses the actions of the crowd elsewhere in this pamphlet: "It was not a numerous Mob; nor was it of long Continuance, neither was there much Mischief done." But it was frightening enough that the Customs officials wound up fleeing to the military garrison in town, or back to the Romney herself for protection.
Later, the Admiralty Board (the tribunal for such maritime matters) upheld the seizure of Hancock's ship, but dismissed the charges of smuggling (because the evidence was found to be dubious). The whole affair likely happened because Hancock was no friend of the authorities and they were looking for a way to take him down a peg. This also was likely the reason the Customs officials were so belligerent in their method of seizing the ship, which is what enraged the dockside crowd so much.
The British navy tried to use the ship as a Customs enforcement vessel, and sent it to Rhode Island, where the fun-loving inhabitants welcomed it by promptly burning it to the waterline in protest. Three years later, the merry Rhode Islanders would likewise torch the H.M.S. Gaspée, an event still celebrated yearly in America's smallest state.
The entire incident of the seizure (and fiery end) of the Liberty was but a small footnote in the story of the American Revolution. I am unaware of any link between the H.M.S. Romney and the ex-governor of Massachusetts who is running for president. In other words, I have no larger point to make, here. It is merely a coincidence that one of the hated British war vessels in the center of revolutionary Boston bore the same name as Mitt Romney.
But it might help explain why, on the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock made sure nobody would miss his signature. For him, it was personal. The British had taken his Liberty, and with his signature he took his own "liberty" back.
Happy Independence Day, everyone!
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant