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   Chapter 24 1764).

Formation of the Union By Albert Bushnell Hart Characters: 3421

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

[Sidenote: Smuggling.]

[Sidenote: Argument of James Otis.]

Under the English acts violation of the Navigation Laws was smuggling, and was punishable in the usual courts. Two practical difficulties had always been found in prosecutions, and they were much increased as soon as a more vigorous execution was entered upon. It was hard to secure evidence, for smuggled goods, once landed, rapidly disappeared; and the lower colonial judges were both to deal severely with their brethren, engaged in a business which public sentiment did not condemn. In 1761 an attempt was made in Massachusetts to avoid both these difficulties through the use of the familiar Writs of Assistance. These were legal processes by which authority was given to custom-house officers to make search for smuggled goods; since they were general in their terms and authorized the search of any premises by day, they might have been made the means of vexatious visits and interference. In February, 1761, an application for such a writ was brought before the Superior Court of Massachusetts, which was not subject to popular influence. James Otis, advocate-general of the colony, resigned his office rather than plead the cause of the government, and became the leading counsel in opposition. The arguments in favor of the writ were that without some such process the laws could not be executed, and that similar writs were authorized by English statutes. Otis in his plea insisted that no English statute applied to the colonies unless they were specially mentioned, and that hence English precedents had no application. But he went far beyond the legal principles involved. He declared in plain terms that the Navigation Acts were "

a taxation law made by a foreign legislature without our consent." He asserted that the Acts of Trade were "irreconcilable with the colonial charters, and hence were void." He declared that there were "rights derived only from nature and the Author of nature;" that they were "inherent, inalienable, and indefeasible by any laws, pacts, contracts, governments, or stipulations which man could devise." The court, after inquiring into the practice in England, issued the writs to the custom-house officers, although it does not appear that they made use of them.

[Sidenote: Effect of the discussion.]

The practical effect of Otis's speech has been much exaggerated. John Adams, who heard and took notes on the argument, declared, years later, that "American independence was then born," and that "Mr. Otis's oration against Writs of Assistance breathed into this nation the breath of life." The community was not conscious at the time that a new and startling doctrine had been put forth, or that loyalty to England was involved. The arguments drawn from the rights of man and the supremacy of the charters were of a kind familiar to the colonists. The real novelty was the bold application of these principles, the denial of the legality of a system more than a century old.

[Sidenote: Enforcement.]

So far was the home government from accepting these doctrines that in 1763 the offensive Sugar Act was renewed. New import duties were laid, and more stringent provisions made for enforcing the Acts of Trade; and the ground was prepared for a permanent and irritating controversy, by commissioning the naval officers stationed on the American coast as revenue officials, with power to make seizures.

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