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Parson's Cause

Parson's Cause

PARSON'S CAUSE. 1763. When droughts in the 1750s brought on several crop failures and shot up the price of tobacco, the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1755 and 1758 passed the Two Penny Acts, which made it temporarily legal to pay debts formerly callable in tobacco at the rate of two pence a pound. This price was considerably below the soaring free market price of tobacco, which reached four and a half pence a pound in Virginia currency. The Anglican clergy in Virginia was collectively entitled to an annual salary of 17,280 pounds of tobacco a year, and some clergymen clamored to collect the windfall increase in the value of their maintenance. They took their case to the colony's Privy Council, which on 29 August 1759 exercised its right by disallowing the act of 1758 on the grounds that it did not have the required clause suspending its operation until approved by the king, thereby enabling the clergy to sue for the anticipated value of their salary.

The Reverend James Maury presented such a suit in the Hanover County court in 1763, and the judges had to declare the act null and void. But when a jury was called to determine how much the "parson" would collect, young Patrick Henry's brilliant defense resulted in Maury's being awarded only one penny. The effort of the Anglican clergy to profit from the economic distress inflicted by natural causes, as well as the unwillingness of the imperial government to allow a colony to deal in a timely way with an unforeseen natural disaster, began to sour many Virginians on the imperial connection. The case also marked the beginning of Henry's political career.

SEE ALSO Henry, Patrick.


Knollenberg, Bernhard Origin of the American Revolution, 1759–1766. Edited by Bernard W. Sheehan. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2002.

                            revised by Harold E. Selesky

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