The Parsons' Cause was a Virginia legal and political dispute involving the pay of Church of England ministers. Its significance lay in eroding the religious establishment's stature in Virginia and in propelling a previously unknown young lawyer, Patrick Henry, to political prominence.
In colonial Virginia's tobacco monoculture, the vagaries of the world tobacco market affected virtually everyone. When the price of tobacco rose, times were flush; when it fell, serious disruption and suffering might ensue. The Old Dominion, as Virginia was called, suffered from a chronic shortage of specie (money in coin). As a result, in the period after 1748 the ministers' salaries were regulated by a law requiring that they be paid annually sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco. Thus they experienced good economic times and bad right along with Virginia laymen. However, in 1755 and again in 1758, the General Assembly made exceptions to this system. In each of those years, a diminished harvest due to crop failure had driven the price of tobacco to notable heights. In response, the colonial legislature arbitrarily proclaimed that, insofar as meeting a parish's obligation to its minister was concerned, a pound of tobacco was to be understood to have a two-penny value—instead of its actual value of approximately twice that amount in the latter year.
Predictably, the clergymen were displeased with the Two-Penny Acts. They held a convention, appealed for help from the mother country, and asked that the General Assembly do them justice—all without much effect. The King's Privy Council, the institution responsible for overseeing royal colonies, did declare that the Two-Penny Acts were invalid because they had been adopted without the required clause suspending their effect until the king gave his approval. Yet, because the disallowance was not declared to be retroactive, this seemed a victory in name only.
In response, ministers in several counties filed suits against their local parish vestries asking that they be paid back wages to make up the difference between the market value of the tobacco they would have received absent the invalidated Two-Penny Acts and the amount they actually had received. These suits, as a group, became known as the Parsons' Cause. In the first two damage suits to reach verdicts, the courts refused to find for the plaintiffs despite the clarity of the law.
In Hanover County, however, the court, whose presiding judge was John Henry (father of Patrick Henry), found for the plaintiff. At that point, the more senior lawyer who had tried the case turned the argument on the issue of damages over to young Patrick. To murmurs of "treason," Patrick Henry argued that a king who refused to ratify a law adopted by Virginia's General Assembly to accommodate people who faced economic difficulty (the taxpayers, in this case) thereby ceased to be a fit sovereign and degenerated into a tyrant whose will need not be respected. To the astonishment of the plaintiff in the case, and again despite the clarity of the law, the jury took just five minutes to award damages in the amount of one cent. Patrick Henry was then hoisted onto the shoulders of onlookers and paraded around the courthouse grounds.
No clergyman ever benefited from the Parsons' Cause. The argument concocted by Virginia partisans in response to it, that ultimately it was for the General Assembly to determine what was best for Virginia and that the king must ratify such determinations, would have explosive repercussions—especially as enunciated by Patrick Henry.
Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
Henry, William Wirt. Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches. 3 vols., 1891. Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1993.
Mayer, Henry. A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic. New York: Grove Press, 2001.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman