The Parson’s Cause

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The Parsons Cause


Privy Council. The power of the Privy Council to approve or disapprove colonial legislation was an accepted notion from the days of the first English settlement. Any law passed by a colonial legislature needed the assent of the royal governor and the approval of the Privy Council before it could take effect. However, as the colonists began to challenge Englands role in the control of purely local matters, this constitutional concept was called into question. One 1763 case, which would otherwise have been merely an obscure lawsuit by a clergyman for back pay, highlighted this challenge and also launched Patrick Henrys public career.

The Twopenny Acts. In 1696 the Virginia assembly had set the salary of the clergy of the established church at sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco per year. Tobacco was a commodity of relatively stable value and was a medium of exchange in commerce. Virginia planters sold tobacco through agents in England and bought manufactured goods with prices cast in terms of pounds of tobacco. It was legal tender for both public and private debts. The practice of paying clergy in tobacco continued until 1753, when the failure of the crop in two Virginia

counties made such payment difficult. In that year and again in 1755 the assembly allowed all debts in those counties to be paid in paper money instead of in tobacco at the rate of two pence per pound of tobacco. In 1758 the same law was extended to the entire province.

Outcry. The clergy were troubled and appealed to the bishop of London, asking him to petition the Privy Council to disapprove the 1758 act. They pointed out that they were continually in debt because they collected their salaries only after the end of their year of work. They ordinarily purchased all their necessities of life on credit and paid up in tobacco once a year. Now they would not be able to tender tobacco but would have to pay in locally issued paper money, which was subject to an unfavorable exchange rate overseas and was depreciating in value. Even worse, they pointed out, in 1758 tobacco was selling at about six pence per pound, so by getting paid at the rate of two pence per pound the clergy suffered an immediate reduction in income of two-thirds. In August 1759 the Privy Council repealed the 1758 act and disallowed the 1753 and 1755 statutes.

Maury. In 1762 James Maury, pastor of Fredricksville Parish in Hanover County, filed suit for his back pay. The county court ruled that, based on the Privy Councils disallowance, the act that allowed his parish to pay him in money instead of in tobacco was void, beyond the competence of the assembly to enact. All that remained was for a jury to determine the damages to which he was entitled. Maurys lawyer presented two witnesses, tobacco dealers who testified that the price of tobacco in 1759, the year of the dispute, was six pence per pound as opposed to the two pence provided by statute. The lawyer who had represented the parish in the first part of the case had withdrawn from the case and was replaced by Patrick Henry, who was at the time an unknown country lawyer.

Henrys Argument. Henry argued to the jury about natural rights and said that there was a conditional covenant between the King and his subjects. He told the jury that the 1758 act was a good law, enacted by the provincial assembly for a valid purpose. The compact between the king and the people, providing protection in exchange for obedience, did not allow such a law to be annulled. In fact, Henry said that the King, by annulling such an act from being the Father of his people degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects Obedience... . Henry went on to attack the clergy in general and Maury in particular in an inflammatory appeal to anticlerical prejudice. Clergymen were rapacious harpies who would snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphan children their last milch cow, the last blanket, nay, the last blanket from the lying-in woman. Then tying together the two threads of his argument, he urged the jurors to make such an example of the plaintiff, as might hereafter be a warning...not to dispute the validity of such laws, authenticated by the only authority which...would give force to laws for the government of the colony. Henry spoke for more than an hour. The jury retired and returned almost immediately with a verdict for the plaintiff of one penny; at that moment Henry became a leader in the struggle that led to the Revolution.


Richard R. Beeman, Patrick Henry: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974);

Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775 (New York: Harper, 1954).

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