George Grenville and Writs of Assistance - North American Colonies

Taken from The British Empire in the Nineteenth Century (1898) by Edgar Sanderson

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America, whereby they obtained silver bullion in exchange for timber and other produce.

In an evil hour, George Grenville, Chancellor of the Exchequer and prime-minister in 1765, began to read the despatches from the colonies, which had long been habitually left unopened and dusty in the pigeon-holes of the official whose business it was to manage colonial affairs. Grenville discovered what was going on to the detriment of the revenue, and, eager to pay off some of the National Debt, which had increased, between 1748 and 1763, from about seventy-five to one hundred and thirty millions, he resolved to levy some taxation from the colonies. This able, intrepid, pertinacious, and narrow-minded man had the highest notions concerning the powers of Parliament, and was, in fact, a tyrant who disguised tyranny under constitutional forms. King and subjects alike were small, in his view, compared with the sacred House composed of the people's representatives. He held that the colonies could lawfully be taxed, and all that was lawful was also, in the minister's view, not only expedient, but a laudable discharge of duty to the state. The two great champions of the American colonies against Grenville were the elder Pitt, soon to become Earl of Chatham, and Edmund Burke. They took, however, different grounds, Pitt holding that the colonial assemblies were parliaments which alone possessed the right of taxation: Burke thought that the British Parliament had the abstract right to tax, but that it was expedient to consult the feelings of the colonists, and request a voluntary, instead of demanding a legal contribution. The colonists held to the principle of "no taxation without representation".

In 1764 Parliament carried a resolution that it was "just and necessary for a revenue to be raised in his majesty's dominions in America for defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the same". "Writs of Assistance", or warrants authorizing the British custom-house officers in the colonies to search for smuggled goods, were issued, and aroused great indignation at Boston, where James Otis, advocate-general of Massachusetts, denounced them as "instruments of slavery on the one hand and villainy on the other". In 1765 the Stamp Act was passed, for levying duties in America by way of stamps on deeds and other legal documents, newspapers, and pamphlets. The … continue reading »

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