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US History E-Text > The Revolution: Opening Causes and Events > Otis and Henry

The long war was nearing its close; Quebec had fallen and British arms were triumphant in all parts of the earth, but withal, the British debt had risen to alarming proportions. The colonies also had incurred heavy debts by the war, and a small portion of them had been paid from the English treasury. There was now a general feeling among British statesmen that the colonies should, in some regular and systematic way, be made to bear a portion of the burdens of the empire.

George Grenville now became head of the English government; and, no doubt with good intentions, he decided on a threefold policy in relation to the colonies. First, the Navigation Acts must be enforced. The high duties of the Molasses Act of 1733, which had always been evaded, were lowered in the Sugar Act of April, 1764, after which it was determined to enforce them. Second, a standing army must be maintained in America; and third, the colonies should be taxed.

In order to enforce the navigation laws custom officers were to be armed with "Writs of Assistance," or general search warrants, which authorized them to enter any store, warehouse, or private dwelling to search for smuggled goods. This system of spying was very distasteful to the people, and their resentment was intensified by the genius of James Otis, a brilliant young Boston lawyer, who must be considered the pioneer of the Revolution. Otis was an advocate of the king, but he resigned the office and took up the cause of the people. In a fiery, passionate address before the Superior Court he sounded a clarion note, declaring that the power used in issuing the writs was the kind of power, the exercise of which had "cost one king of England his head and another his throne," and calling upon the people to resist. The people took up the cry, and it spread from the New England hills to the valleys of the Hudson, the Delaware, and the James. In a short time the whole country was roused to resistance against the infringement of their liberties. Otis based his argument on the broad ground of the rights of the colonists as Englishmen.1 The speech of Otis was an epoch-making one; it sounded the first note of resistance to British authority heard in colonial British America, and has been called the opening scene of the Revolution. John Adams, then a young law student, listened to the passionate eloquence of Otis, and wrote, fifty-six years later, "Then and there the child Independence was born."2

Scarcely had the sound of Otis's eloquence ceased to reverberate when a second note of warning arose. It came from Patrick Henry of Virginia. Henry was a young lawyer of Scotch parentage. As a youth he was shiftless and gave little promise for the future, though he had a fair education. Three years before attaining his majority he was married ; he became a storekeeper and failed; then he went to live with his father-in-law, an innkeeper, and became his assistant. The future seemed to promise him little, but he played the violin and seemed contented with his lot. At length he turned his attention to the law, and after six weeks' reading was admitted to the bar. For several years his clients were few and he barely earned his daily bread, but still he was happy with his violin. It was after ten years of married life, when in his twenty-eighth year, that his remarkable genius was discovered. He burst forth suddenly upon the public; he became the most eloquent public speaker of his generation.

The matter that brought Henry to the front is known as the Parson's Cause. It had no connection with navigation acts nor with writs of assistance; but the principle involved was one and the same. Virginia still paid its clergy in tobacco; but back in the fifties, under pressure of the war, the assembly passed an act permitting the payment of public dues, including the salaries of the clergy, in provincial money. All went well for several years, when the clergy, feeling themselves defrauded, complained to the bishop of London, who laid the matter before the king, and the king summarily vetoed the Virginia law. Rev. James Maury now made a test case, sued in the court for damages, or back salary, and won his suit. A jury was to fix the amount of damages, and it was before this jury that Patrick Henry blossomed forth to the world, transformed from a shiftless mediocre to one of the leading men of his age.

Henry was in the wrong, or rather the Virginia assembly had done wrong, for it partially repudiated an honest debt by forcing payment in a depreciated currency. But that was not the chief question dealt with by Henry. The question was, What right has a king three thousand miles away to interfere in the private, internal affairs of Virginia? Virginia has the right to make her own laws, was the burden of his speech; in annulling a law at the request of a class, "a king, from being a father to his people, degenerates into a tyrant, and forfeits all right to obedience." The friends of his Majesty cried "treason," but the people were ripe for such a prophet and heard him gladly; so with the jury, for they awarded the parson only a penny. The fame of the orator spread far and wide. The people admired the rising genius, and, as in the ease of Otis, their admiration was inseparably linked with what be had said about their rights and the infringement of those rights by the king; and thus were sown in the American heart the seeds of discontent.


1Channing's "United States," p.43. [return]

2Otis soon after was elected to the Massachusetts assembly, became the leader of the popular party, and wrote several vigorous pamphlets. Some years later, in an altercation with a customs official, the latter struck him on the bead with a cane, inflicting a wound that impaired his health for life. He fought as a private in tbe battle of Bunker Hill. Otis retired from public life long before his death, which occurred in 1783. He had often expressed a desire to die by a lightning stroke, and one day, as he stood in his door during a thunder shower, his wish was gratified; he was instantly killed by lightning. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XI p. 222-224. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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