Gridley, Jeremiah (1701-1767)

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Jeremiah Gridley (1701-1767)



Youth. Jeremiah Gridley was born on 10 March 1701 in Boston, the second of three sons of Captain Richard and Rebecca Gridley. His father, a leather tanner, died in 1710 and left the family business in the hands of his eldest son, John. Jeremiah attended Harvard, graduating in 1725, after which he taught school, started and edited a literary magazine, and read theology and law. He married Abigail Lewis in 1730. Since, at the time, there were no formal educational requirements to be met, his independent study was sufficient to gain him admission to the bar. Gridley started to practice law in the mid 1730s.

Leader of the Profession. Gridleys education and intellect helped establish him quickly, and he was soon recognized as one of the most learned lawyers in Boston. Many students apprenticed themselves to him for their own study; among them were Oxenbridge Thacher, James Otis Jr., William Cushing (later a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), and Benjamin Prat (later chief justice of the New York Supreme Court). John Adams studied informally with him. Gridley founded a marine insurance society, served as an overseer of the public schools, and was grand master of the Masons of North America. In 1755, after his wifes death, Gridley moved to Brookline, where he served as a moderator of the town meeting, representative to the legislature, and colonel in the militia.

Writs of Assistance. Gridleys most famous court appearance was on behalf of the Crown in the writs of assistance case. Writs of assistance were general search warrants that courts occasionally issued, in accordance with an act of Parliament many years earlier. A writ of assistance authorized customs inspectors to search for and seize any goods imported illegally, either because they were the result of trade with the enemy or because duties had not been paid. In 1761, when the question of the legality of these writs was to be argued in the superior court in Boston, Gridley was hired to argue in favor of the issue. Gridley presented a clear legal argument: Parliament had authorized exchequer courts in England to issue these writs to customs officers there, and the powers of the provincial superior courts and colonial customs officers were analogous to those of the exchequer courts and the English customs officers. Gridley conceded that abuses might occur, but that possibility did not outweigh the need to protect the revenue. Two of his former students, Thacher and Otis, argued in opposition, Otis making a fiery speech about natural law and the rights of Englishmen. Gridleys position was upheld by the court.

Stamp Act. Gridley was respected as a patriarch of the Boston bar. When the Stamp Act protests made it clear that no one would use stamped papers in court, effectively closing the courts, the town meeting in Boston asked Gridley to serve on a committee (along with Otis and John Adams) to petition the governor to open the courts in defiance of the Stamp Act. On 25 March 1767 he was appointed attorney general but died within the year on 10 September.


Charles R. McKirdy, Massachusetts Lawyers on the Eve of the American Revolution (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1984).