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The Parsons' Cause Trial: 1763

The Parsons' Cause Trial: 1763

Plaintiff: Reverend James Maury
Defendants: The collectors of the tax for Louisa County, Colony of Virginia
Plaintiff Claim: 300 Pounds in back pay
Chief Defense Lawyer: Patrick Henry, taking over from John Lewis
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Peter Lyons
Judge: John Henry
Place: Hanover County, Colony of Virginia
Date of Hearing: December 1, 1763
Verdict: Damages awarded, one penny

SIGNIFICANCE: The case provided a forum for challenging the limits of England's power to control American colonial affairs.

The Parsons' Cause began as an argument over a piece of financial legislation and ended with an impassioned speech on a theory of government. That speech was one of the first signs of the schism occurring between England and her American colonies.

Because the Anglican Church was the established church of the colony of Virginia, its clergy were supported by taxes. By a 1748 statute, the salary of a parson was set at 16,000 pounds of tobacco a year. (Tobacco was a common form of tender during the colonial period.) In 1755 and again in 1758, due to shortages of tobacco brought on by drought, laws were enacted allowing tobacco obligations to be fulfilled with Virginia's paper money. Paper money, which generally depreciated in value, was blessed by debtors and loathed by creditors.

The 1758 law, the Two Penny Act, a temporary, one-year measure, allowed the ministers' salaries to be paid in currency at a fixed rate of twopence per pound of tobacco. The prevailing inflated market rate at the time was running at fourpence to sixpence per pound. Once depreciation was factored in, a clergyman was receiving about one-third of his normal, stipulated salary. The colony's council approved and, with the House of Burgesses, convinced Francis Fauquier, the royal governor, to allow the act to go into effect.

Virginia's revenue measures were supposed to be approved by the Privy Council back in London before being implemented. But Fauquier, in a letter to Great Britain's Board of Trade, argued that, given the economic need and the short-term duration of the measure, suspending the act until the Council could review was tantamount to rejecting it and, thus, eliminating all economic relief. Such a decision would repudiate the almost unanimous economic wisdom of experienced local legislators and to ignore the 1755 precedent for which the previous governor "incurred no Censure for having pass'd it."

The clergy objected. They argued that they should reap the benefit of high tobacco prices since they had had to accept whatever their tobacco would sell for when the price was low. But the Privy Council would probably have let the measure stand had it not been for the persistence of the Reverend John Camm of York County. Camm led a group of Anglican ministers determined to see the Two Penny Act nullified. When a war of pamphlets and lawsuits availed them nothing, Camm sailed for England.

In England he enlisted the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. Camm argued that the Two Penny Act was a manifestation of the deliberate erosion of royal and Anglican authority in Virginia. Camm's narrow-minded focus on his own list of grievances ignored the act's purpose as a financial relief measure. (Some historians have questioned the need for the act and there were those in Virginia who were happy to see the ministers take a financial blow. But there is little evidence that the House of Burgesses deliberately set out to penalize the clergy.) The king and his council, on the recommendation of the Board of Trade, disallowed the measure and its predecessors.

Since the Two Penny Act of 1758 already had expired, the repeal of the law would have been moot had not several clergymen sued for back pay. Two cases were rejected on the grounds that the act was valid until it was actually disallowed by the Privy Council. One court awarded a parson double his salary in damages. But it was the case filed by Reverend James Maury of Louisa County that turned out to be the most significant.

The Suit

Maury filed suit, in neighboring Hanover County to avoid the politically hostile climate in his home county. In November of 1763, the presiding judge, Colonel John Henry, ruled that the Two Penny Act had been rendered null from its beginning, contrary to the rulings in the earlier cases. Next came a hearing for damages in which the jury would determine what was due Maury.

At this point, the judge's son, young Patrick Henry, was requested to take over council for the defense. (Such conflicts of interest were common in colonial America.) On December 1, the hearing commenced and the Reverend Maury protested at the prospective jurors offered by the sheriff. Later, in a letter, Maury described them as "the vulgar herd." Maury had some justification for his protest. Three jurors were religious dissenters, and a fourth was a cousin of Patrick Henry's. Henry countered, "They were honest men, and, therefore, unexceptionable, they were immediately called to the book and sworn."

Next, Maury's gifted lawyer, Peter Lyons, rose, summed up the verdict of the previous month and called two tobacco dealers. They testified that the market price of tobacco averaged 50 shillings per 100 pounds in 1759. At 16,000 pounds of tobacco a year as salary, Lyons computed that Maury had been due 450 British pounds in cash, rather than the approximately 150 pounds he had received under the Two Penny Act. Thus Lyons, after praising the Anglican clergy at some length, asked the jury to award Maury 300 British pounds.

Patrick Henry rose. After a faltering start, the great oratorical gift that was to make him famous surfaced. Henry based his argument on an idea called the compact theory of government. According to Maury's letter, Henry stated:

[The] act of 1758 had every characteristic of a good law, that it was a law of general utility, and could not, consistently with what he called the original compact between King and people, stipulating protection on the one hand and obedience on the other, be annuled.

Henry argued that by disallowing good laws, a king forfeited his right to the obedience of his subjects. Instead of being a father to his people, he "degenerates into a Tyrant." Lyons cried out that Henry had "spoken treason," a sentiment echoed by a few others in the courtroom.

Henry also attacked the Anglican clergy, accusing them of greed:

Do they feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Oh, no, gentlemen! These rapacious harpies would, were their power equal to their will, snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphan children her last mich cow! the last bed-nay, the last blanket-from the lying-in woman!"

In conclusion, Patrick Henry suggested Reverend Maury be awarded one farthing. After five minutes of deliberation, the jury awarded four times that amount: one penny. This decision effectively put an end to any more suits.

Henry's spectacular performance gained him fame, good will, clients, and an entre into the political arena. More important, arguments over the compact theory of government and the limitations of royal and parliamentary authority would arise repeatedly as America pulled away from "Mother England." Indeed, its fullest and most eloquent expression would appear 13 years later in the Declaration of Independence.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry, A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1974.

Languth, A.J. Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

McCants, David A., "The Authenticity of James Maury's Account of Patrick Henry's Speech in the Parsons' Cause." Southern Speech Communication Journal, Vol. 42 (1976).

Nettels, Curtis P., The Roots of American Civilization, A History of American Colonial Life. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1938.

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