Writs of Assistance



ON a bright morning late in October, 1760, the air cool and bracing, young Prince George, grandson of the reigning sovereign of England, was riding near Kew palace with his tutor and favorite companion, the Earl of Bute, when a messenger came in haste with the startling news that the king was dead. That "temperate, methodical old man," rose that morning at six o'clock, as usual, and after drinking a cup of chocolate went into a small closet. His German valet, who always kept near his person, presently heard a noise in the closet as of one falling, and going into the apartment found his master lying upon the floor dead. The ventricle of his heart had bursted, causing instantaneous death. "Full of years and glory," wrote Horace Walpole, "he died without a pang, and without a reverse. He left his family firmly established on a long-disputed throne, and was taken away in the moment that approaching extinction of sight and hearing made loss of life the only blessing that remained desirable."

Prince George remained at Kew during the day and night after the king's death. He was his grandfather's successor to the throne, and was so proclaimed. William Pitt, then at the head of the ministry, immediately repaired to Kew to condole and consult with the new monarch. On the following day the king went to St. James' palace, where Pitt again waited upon him and presented a sketch of an address to be made by the monarch at a meeting of the Privy Council. The minister was politely informed that a speech was already prepared, and that every preliminary was arranged. Pitt perceived, what many had suspected, that the Earl of Bute, who was the special favorite of the young king's mother, was to be a leading spirit in the administration. The pride of the great commoner was touched, and he left the royal presence with clouded brows. A year later he retired from public life.

The young king, who was to occupy the British throne for fifty years--the period in English history the most interesting to Americans--was a son of the dead Frederick Prince of Wales. His mother was the beautiful Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. He was born in London in 1738, and was regarded with special favor by the people of England, because he was a native prince. His tutor and confidential adviser, the Earl of Bute, was a gay Scottish nobleman of handsome person, pleasing address, possessed of moderate mental endowments, and was narrow in his political views. The Princess Augusta seemed fond of him, and scandalous things were suggested concerning their intimacy. Such was the man--a sort of needy adventurer at the English court, at first--without valid claims to the character of a statesman, whom the young monarch unfortunately chose for his counsellor and guide, instead of the wise and sagacious Pitt, who had done so much to glorify England during the reign just closed. Like Rehoboam, George "for-sook the counsel which the old men gave him, and took counsel with the young men that were brought up with him, that stood before him."

This was a mistake that led to lasting disasters to the realm. The unwise policy advised by Bute, concerning the English-American colonies, engendered much of the ill-feeling toward the mother country that led to a revolutionary war and the dismemberment of the British empire. Discontents rapidly appeared in England, when it was seen that the great Pitt was discarded, and that the young king was to be ruled by his unpopular mother and the Favorite. Murmurs of discontent soon became audible; and some-body had the boldness to fasten upon the front of the Royal Exchange in London, this placard in large letters: "No petticoat government--no Scotch minister--no Lord George Sackville!"

Bute's idea concerning the American colonies was that they should be brought into absolute subjection to the British Parliament, by force if necessary, and to do this, he advised the employment of measures for reforming the colonial charters. Acting upon the advice of Bute, the king sent secret agents over the sea to travel in the colonies; make the acquaintance of leading men; collect information about the character and temper of the people, and bring together facts and conclusions that would enable ministers to judge what regulations and alterations might be safely made. The agents came; they made superficial observations, and returned to England with erroneous conclusions which led to trouble. They entirely mistook the character and temper of the Americans, and their reports were fallacious. The colonists saw through their thin disguise as travelers for their own pleasure, and became more watchful than ever. They knew that the Board of Trade had proposed to annul the colonial charters, and to make the people submit to royal government and taxation; and they looked with distrust upon all parliamentary legislation bearing upon the colonies.

A crisis soon came. The officers of customs asked for writs of assistance--warrants to empower them to call upon the people and all officers of government in America to assist them in the collection of the revenue, and to enter the stores and houses of the citizens at pleasure, in pursuit of their vocation. These writs were granted, and the people seeing the great peril to which their liberties were thereby exposed, resolved to openly resist the measure. It was contrary to the cherished theory of English liberties, that "every man's house is his castle," when the "meanest deputy of a deputy's deputy" might enter his dwelling at will. There was also a scheme on foot for establishing the ritual of the Church of England or the state mode of worship in the colonies, and this rekindled the smouldering fires of Puritan zeal in defence of the right of conscience. In these propositions the king and the aristocracy of Great Britain were the exponents of the feudalism which still moulded the policy of rulers in Europe, but which was entirely incompatible with the more advanced and enlightened ideas of human liberty which then prevailed in America.

The writs of assistance were first issued in Massachusetts. Their legality was questioned, and the matter was brought before a court held in the old Town Hall in Boston, in February, 1761. There were calm men there, and there were fiery men there. The calm advocate of the crown (Mr. Gridley) argued that as Parliament was the supreme legislature for the whole British realm, and had authorized the writs, no subject had a right to complain. The calm Oxenbridge Thacher, an eminent lawyer, answered his arguments with keen legal reasoning, showing that the rule in English courts was, in this case, not applicable to America. The fiery James Otis, one of Gridley's pupils, in a speech full of telling logic, expressed with eloquence and impassioned manner, also replied to the attorney-general. He denounced the writs as "the worst instruments of arbitrary power; the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law." "No act of Parliament," he said, "can establish such a writ; even though made in the very language of the petition, it would be a nullity. An act of Parliament against the constitution is void." Referring to the arbitrary power of the writ, he said: "A man's house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court may inquire." "I am determined," he said, "to sacrifice estate, ease, health, applause, and even life to the sacred calls of my country, in opposition to a kind of power, the exercise of which cost one king his head and another his throne."

These words of Otis went forth with amazing power. They stirred the hearts of the people through all the provinces. The speech and event constitute the opening scene of resistance in America to British oppression. On that day the trumpet of the Revolution was sounded; the seeds of patriots and heroes were then and there sown; and when the orator exclaimed, "To my dying day I will oppose, with all the power and faculties God has given me, all such instruments of slavery on one hand and villainy on the other, as this writ of assistance is," "the independence of the colonies," John Adams afterward said, "was proclaimed." But absolute independence was not then desired. Even Otis deprecated the idea. The colonists were proud of their political connection with Great Britain. They asked only for justice and equality, and the privilege of local self-government as British subjects. The topic of American representation in Parliament, which assumed large proportions about two years afterward, was not then discussed.

When Otis left the Town Hall that day, he was greeted by loud huzzas from the populace, who threw up their hats in token of their delight; and from the day of that remarkable event in our history, that unflinching patriot, then six-and-thirty years of age, led the van of the phalanx of revolutionists in Massachusetts for several years. His eloquence and presence were magnetic. He was the incarnation of courage and independence. He had resigned the office of advocate-general of the colony that he might, with a good conscience, wield the sword of opposition. The royalists feared and hated him. His election to a seat in the Massachusetts Assembly in the spring of 1761, alarmed them. "Out of this," wrote the tory Timothy Ruggles, "a faction will arise that will shake this province to its foundations." The Governor (Bernard), fearing the influence of his tongue, exhorted the new legislature not to heed "declamations tending to promote a suspicion of the civil rights of the people being in danger. Such harangues might well suit in the reign of Charles and James, but in the time of the Georges they are groundless and unjust," he said. At that very moment the perfidious governor was secretly promoting the scheme of the Board of Trade for taking away the colonial charters.

The public career of Mr. Otis was ended before the tempest of the Revolution which he had helped to engender, burst upon the colonies. In 1769, his bright intellect was clouded by a concussion of the brain, produced by a blow from a bludgeon in the hands of a custom-house officer whom he had offended. Ever afterward he was afflicted by periods of lunacy. At such times, thoughtless or heartless men and boys would make themselves merry in the streets, at his expense. It was a sad sight to see the great orator and scholar so shattered and exposed. His ready use of Latin was remarkably illustrated one day. He was passing a crockery store, when a young man who was familiar with that language, standing in a door of the upper story, sprinkled some water upon him from a watering-pot he was using, saying: Pluit tantum, nescic quantum. Scis ne tu? "It rains so much. I know not how much. Do you know?" Otis immediately picked up a large stone, and hurling it through the window of the crockery-store, it smashing everything in its way, exclaimed: Fregi tot nescio quot. Scis ne tu ? "I have broken so many. I know not how many. Do you know?"

After the memorable argument in the Town Hall in Boston, the triumphs of the popular will in America began. Few writs of assistance were issued, and these were ineffectual. The Americans prepared for the impending conflict with the British ministry, animated by a prophecy of success because their warfare would be just. They measured the strength of that ministry by true standards, and found them generally weak.





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