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The Writ of Assistance (1762)

THE WRIT OF ASSISTANCE (1762)


By 1761, cracks were appearing in the relationship between Great Britain and her colonies in the New World. At issue were frequent disputes over judicial tenure in the colonial courts, the nullification of measures passed in popular domestic assemblies, and, perhaps especially, the adoption of so-called Writs of Assistance. A sort of blanket search warrant, such a writ granted royal customs agents unimpeded authority to search houses for smuggled goods, with or without just cause. Many colonists, already suspicious of legislative decisions made in London, regarded the writs as a direct assault on one of the fundamental principles of liberty and law, that a man's home was his castle. The issuance of the Writs was one of the specific grievances named in the Declaration of Independence. Later, when the Bill of Rights was crafted, the Fourth Amendment banned such general search warrants in order to protect the people from unreasonable search and seizure.

Laura M.Miller,
Vanderbilt University

See also Colonial Policy, British ; Writs of Assistance .

George the third by the grace of God of Great Britain France & Ireland King Defender of the faith &c.

To all & singular our Justices of the peace Sheriffs Constables and to all other our Officers and Subjects within our said Province and to each of you Greeting.

Know ye that whereas in and by an Act of Parliament made in the thir[four]teenth year of [the reign of] the late King Charles the second it is declared to be [the Officers of our Customs & their Deputies are authorized and impowered to go & enter aboard any Ship or Vessel out-ward or inward bound for the purposes in the said Act mentioned and it is also in & by the said Act further enacted & declared that it shall be] lawful [to or] for any person or persons authorized by Writ of assistants under the seal of our Court of Exchequer to take a Constable Headborough or other publick Officer inhabiting near unto the place and in the day time to enter & go into any House Shop Cellar Warehouse or Room or other place and in the case of resistance to break open doors chests trunks & other package there to seize and from thence to bring any kind of goods or merchandize whatsoever prohibited & uncustomed and to put and secure the same in his Majestys [our] Storehouse in the port next to the place where such seizure shall be made.

And whereas in & by an Act of Parliament made in the seventh & eighth year of [the reign of the late] King William the third there is granted to the Officers for collecting and managing our revenue and inspecting the plantation trade in any of our plantations [the same powers authority for visiting & searching of Ships & also] to enter houses or warehouses to search for and seize any prohibited or uncustomed goods as are provided for the Officers of our Customs in England by the said last mentioned Act made in the fourteenth year of [the reign of] King Charles the Second, and the like assistance is required to be given to the said Officers in the execution of their office as by the said last mentioned Act is provided for the Officers in England.

And whereas in and by an Act of our said Province of Massachusetts bay made in the eleventh year of [the reign of] the late King William the third it is enacted & declared that our Superior Court of Judicature Court of Assize and General Goal delivery for our said Province shall have cognizance of all matters and things within our said Province as fully & amply to all intents & purposes as our Courts of King's Bench Common Pleas & Exchequer within our Kingdom of England have or ought to have.

And whereas our Commissioners for managing and causing to be levied & collected our customs subsidies and other duties have [by Commission or Deputation under their hands & seal dated at London the 22 day of May in the first year of our Reign] deputed and impowered Charles Paxton Esquire to be Surveyor & Searcher of all the rates and duties arising and growing due to us at Boston in our Province aforesaid and [in & by said Commission or Deputation] have given him power to enter into [any Ship Bottom Boat or other Vessel & also into] any Shop House Warehouse Hostery or other place whatsoever to make diligent search into any trunk chest pack case truss or any other parcell or package whatsoever for any goods wares or merchandize prohibited to be imported or exported or whereof the Customs or other Duties have not been duly paid and the same to seize to our use In all things proceeding as the Law directs.

Therefore we strictly Injoin & Command you & every one of you that, all excuses apart, you & every one of you permit the said Charles Paxton according to the true intent & form of the said commission or deputation and the laws & statutes in that behalf made & provided, [as well by night as by day from time to time to enter & go on board any Ship Boat or other Vessel riding lying or being within or coming to the said port of Boston or any Places or Creeks thereunto appertaining such Ship Boat or Vessel then & there found to search & oversee and the persons therein being strictly to examine touching the premises aforesaid & also according to the form effect and true intent of the said commission or deputation] in the day time to enter & go into the vaults cellars warehouses shops & other places where any prohibited goods wares or merchandizes or any goods wares or merchandizes for which the customs or other duties shall not have been duly & truly satisfied and paid lye concealed or are suspected to be concealed, according to the true intent of the law to inspect & oversee & search for the said goods wares & merchandize. And further to do and execute all things which of right and according to the laws & statutes in this behalf shall be to be done. And we further strictly Injoin & Command you and every one of you that to the said Charles Paxton Esqr you & every one of you from time to time be aiding assisting & helping in the execution of the premises as is meet. And this you or any of [you] in no wise omit at your perils. Witness Thomas Hutchinson Esq at Boston the day of December in the Second year of our Reign Annoque Dom 1761.

By order of Court

N. H. Cler.

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