The Era of the American Revolution: Studies Inscribed to Evarts Boutell Greene

By Richard B. Morris | Go to book overview

Writs of Assistance as a Cause Of the Revolution

O. M. DICKERSON

AMERICAN histories without exception list writs of assistance as one of the active causes of the American Revolution. An examination of the treatment of this topic reveals that most of the material is drawn from Massachusetts experience and centers around the agitation in 1761 and especially the part taken by James Otis in that affair. Certain basic facts are agreed to by all writers. Such writs were issued by the superior court. They were first granted to Thomas Paxton, chief customs officer in the province in 1755; other writs similar in form were issued to other customs officers by the same court in 1758, 1759, and 1760. The writs were general in form and without limitation in time; all writs expired six months after the death of a monarch and to be valid had to be renewed. Following the death of George II, Thomas Lechmere, surveyor general of the customs in America, applied to the superior court of Massachusetts in 1761 for a renewal of his former writ and the writs of his officers. This application was opposed by Oxenbridge Thatcher and James Otis as attorneys for certain Boston merchants, and the application was supported by Jeremiah Gridley, the attorney general of the colony. The case was argued twice before a full bench, Thomas Hutchinson sitting as chief justice. Legal doubts were raised as a result of the opposition, and the court applied to England for instruction on the contested points of law. When these instructions arrived, they supported the legality of the issuing of the writs. The court unanimously approved the issuance of the writs on December 5, 1761, and the final form of such writs was drafted by Chief Justice Hutchinson. All the officers of the customs in Massachusetts had such writs from 1761 to the outbreak of the Revolution, and similar writs were

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