Writs of Assistance
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Pre-History
The Indians
The Great Black Swamp
Pre-French & Indian Wars
Shot Heard Round the World
Beaver Wars
French Indian War
Writs of Assistance
The Sugar Act 1764
The Stamp Act 1765
Pre-Revolutionary War
Fort Laurens Ohio
More to come
Mexico
Columbian Exchange

 

The Writs of Assistance
In order to impact the smuggling going on during the French & Indian War and to collect due taxes, the governor of Massachusetts issued Writs of Assistance. The writ was a general search warrant for buildings and ships. The Boston merchants who were doing the smuggling hired an attorney to argue the unconstitutionality of the Writs. In his arguments,  John Adams said, American Independence was born.

I mention on the Pre-Revolution page that trade, or smuggling as the English called it, was widespread during the French & Indian War period. Merchants from New England, Boston and Newport, RI, in particular, brought a lot of goods into the colonies. A key trading partner was the French West Indies.

So not only were these merchants trading with the enemy during a war, they were also smuggling goods and by-passing taxes and duties owed on the goods. The Molasses Act of 1733 imposed tariffs on molasses, rum and sugar. The tax was six pence on a gallon of molasses, nine pence on a gallon of rum and five shillings on 100 pounds of sugar. These taxes were not being paid at a time that England needed the revenue to pay for the war effort.

As a response to this blatant disregard, the English in the colonies called for a crackdown on the smuggling. The Governor of Massachusetts authorized what became known as writs of assistance. These documents allowed revenue officers and custom officials to enter and search any building or ship suspected of holding smuggled goods. Effective against the smuggling, but immensely disliked in the colonies especially by the merchants involved.

Some Boston merchants hired an attorney named James Otis to challenge the writs in Massachusetts Supreme court in 1761. This became known as the Petition of Lechmere. Otis argued the writs were unconstitutional and "against the fundamental law." Otis also claimed another important point, that even the English Parliament could not pass a law against the Constitution. It took two and a half years for a ruling to come down. Since the use of writs was common in England, the Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson, ruled against the Boston Merchants allowing the use of the writs.

Word spread through the colonies about the trial. Many felt the courts and the Governor had overstepped their authority, that these writs were unfair. Basically they were blanket search warrants. The subject faded away though after the trial ended.

Otis focused on an ideological argument that would play an important part in leading up to the American Revolution. Parliament could not infringe on certain basic rights, often referred to as the "rights of Englishmen." That in the "principals of government", there was a limit, "beyond which if Parliament goes, their Acts bind not."

Actually, there was no written English Constitution. It was an unwritten collection of traditions and customs that "guaranteed rights" to the citizens. It was felt in England that all laws passed by Parliament were written into their Constitution. So Parliament could alter the laws and thus the Constitution whenever it wanted to. That the government was the sole judge of the constitutionality of its actions.(1)

The colonists did not see it that way. Many felt as Otis argued, there was a line the government could not cross. That line was a set of "inalienable rights." John Adams declared that, in Otis's oration before the Supreme Court, "American independence was born." (There is a link below to James Otis's actual argument before the Massachusetts Supreme Court.)

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