1754-1783: Law and Justice: Overview
1754-1783: Law and Justice: Overview
Taxing the Colonies. The regulation of trade and duties on imports were interlocking elements of British imperial structure. Trade between colonial merchants and non-British ports, both in Europe and in the West Indies, had grown to scandalous levels during the French and Indian War. The colonists not only traded with Britain’s enemies but also generally avoided the payment of import duties. While the end of the war eliminated one type of illegal behavior, ship owners and merchants had become accustomed to the evasion of the revenue laws. The period from 1759 to 1776 was marked by a series of efforts by Great Britain to tighten the enforcement of the trade laws and to increase the collection of revenue. Each of these efforts was met with resistance that soon became cloaked in terms such as “liberty” and “rights of English subjects.” William Pitt’s circular letter in 1760, urging the colonial governors to halt imports from the French West Indies; the expansion of the use of writs of assistance in 1761 to search for smuggled goods; and the Sugar Act of 1763 were all consistent with the mercantile theory that trade bound the empire together and that the revenue from this trade financed the empire’s government and defense.
The Stamp Act. The passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and the colonial reaction to that act marked the turning point in Parliament’s approach to taxation and in the colonists’ relationship to the mother country. Prior to the Stamp tax the colonial assemblies levied taxes for the support of the colonial governments. The British government raised revenue only indirectly, from duties on imports and exports paid by merchants to the customs collector and then passed along to the ultimate consumer in the prices of the goods subjected to these duties. The Stamp duty was Parliament’s first attempt to levy a direct tax on the colonists. Parliament, in debating the passage of the Stamp tax, focused on the need to raise revenue to help pay for the recent war against France and did not appreciate the importance that the colonists placed on this difference between direct and indirect taxes. The colonists saw the tax as extremely significant—not so much for the revenue it would produce but for the precedent it would establish—as Parliament’s first exercise of the power of taxation in the colonies.
Fallout. The colonial assemblies immediately drafted resolutions and petitions asking for the repeal of the Stamp Act; the petitions were ignored. Efforts to boycott British goods began to develop, and resistance soon became more forceful. In August the first riots occurred as tax collectors were threatened and, in some cases, forced to resign. The Stamp Act Congress met in New York in October, and the delegates drafted another petition to the King. It was the breadth of the violent resistance to the Act, however, and not the petitions, that persuaded Parliament to repeal the tax. The repeal of the Stamp Act increased the colonists’ confidence in their own power. Parliament had a different view—at the same time it repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, asserting its authority to levy taxes on the colonists.
The Townshend Duties. Parliament returned to the approach of the indirect tax as a means to raise revenue from the colonies. The Townshend duties were heavier than earlier duties and covered a wide range of goods. The revenue provisions were accompanied by an increased level of administrative structure and additional courts in which trade-related disputes could be resolved. The colonists reacted with renewed boycotts of British goods. Merchants in nearly all the colonies agreed not to import British goods. The boycotts were fairly effective and resulted in enormous decreases in British exports to the colonies. Parliament reacted to pressure from British merchants and in 1770 repealed all the Townshend duties except the one on tea.
The Boston Massacre. Occasional outbursts of violence in Boston, sometimes related to mob efforts to enforce the boycotts of imports, led the colonial governor to ask that British troops be sent to preserve the peace. The troops arrived in 1768 and were as much a source of irritation as they were keepers of the peace. A confrontation with an unruly crowd provoked the Boston Massacre in 1770.
Communication. Each effort by Great Britain to exercise more control over the colonies or to raise more revenue was met by resistance. Not only was there resistance in each colony, but there was also a developing pattern of communication among the colonies to coordinate their efforts. The Stamp Act Congress, John Dickinson’s “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer,” the circular letter from Samuel Adams in 1768, the missives among the colonial merchants leading to the nonimportation agreements, the formation of committees of correspondence, and the two continental congresses reflected a natural progression of communication and cooperation that led the colonies to see the need for uniting.
Legal Profession. The enormous growth of commerce during this period fueled the development of the cities and towns as well as the westward expansion of the frontier. Society was becoming more complex, creating the need for competent lawyers. Leaders of the profession urged that the study of law become more formalized. Some prospective lawyers served as apprentices to established lawyers; some studied at the Inns of Court in London; and a few read law on their own. Whether any of these routes led to a better education than another was the subject of ongoing debate. Many prominent lawyers also urged that the requirements for admission to the bar become more rigorous. In several colonies the courts began to require some type of examination, usually in the form of interviews with lawyers already admitted to practice, before a new lawyer could appear in that court.
Revisions. Prior to the Revolution each of the provincial governments derived their powers from royal charters. In theory these governments continued in existence until, at the earliest, the formal declaration of independence in July 1776. However, many provincial governments were in disarray or totally non-functioning even before that date. Recognizing the deterioration of the governmental structure and preparing for inevitable independence, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution on 15 May 1776 to recommend “to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established,” that they adopt new governments. Some colonies simply carried forward their provincial charters, changing as little as they needed in order to reflect the break with Britain. Other colonies formed conventions to draft new constitutions. Some, such as Virginia, embarked on comprehensive reviews and revisions of their entire bodies of laws.