Writs of Assistance

Colonial America — Cause of the American Revolution

Writs of Assistance were broad search warrants that allowed British customs officials to search property without a court order and force law enforcement officials to help them. In 1761, James Otis challenged the Writs in court, leading James Adams to say, “American Independence was then and there born.”

James Otis, Portrait, Illustration, NYPL

James Otis. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Writs of Assistance Facts

  1. Writs of Assistance were used to crack down on smuggling and enforce the Navigation Acts in support of the Mercantile System.
  2. Writs of Assistance allowed British customs officials to search and seize property without a warrant.
  3. James Otis argued against the Writs of Assistance in 1761, during the court case Paxton v. Gray.
  4. Although Otis lost the case, the arguments he made laid the foundation for the ideology of the American Revolution.
  5. The dispute over the Wrtis of Assitance made them a cause of the American Revolution.
King George III, Painting
King George III. Image Source: Google Arts & Culture.

Writs of Assistance Were Used to Enforce the Navigation Acts

Writs of Assistance were commonly used in the American Colonies and Great Britain for efficient customs enforcement. They were court orders, issued under the authority of the British monarch, that allowed customs officers to conduct broad searches for smuggled goods.

Writs of Assistance Were Introduced in Massachusetts in 1751

Writs of Assistance were introduced in Massachusetts in 1751 to enforce the Navigation Acts. By 1755, they were allowed in other colonies, to crack down on smuggling that continued after the French and Indian War.

Writs of Assistance Violated Personal Property Rights

Writs of Assistance violated personal property rights by allowing customs officials to search property without evidence, at any time they wanted, without a court order. Further, customs officials were not required to specify what they were searching for or where they were searching. 

In other words, customs officials could go into a store and accuse the owner of selling smuggled goods. They did not have to tell the owner what they thought he was selling, and they could proceed to search his store, his warehouses, and his ships. 

At the time, Writs of Assistance were intended to provide customs officials with the authority they needed to enforce the Navigation Acts, to ensure goods and products were shipped according to the law.

Smuggling Made the Writs of Assistance Necessary 

In New England, merchants excelled at smuggling and paying bribes to avoid paying taxes on their shipments. As far as the British government was concerned, Writs of Assistance were a necessary part of enforcing the Navigation Acts.

During the French and Indian War, many merchants were able to trade with foreign nations, including the French West Indies and Spanish West Indies. While American merchants saw this as simply doing good business, British officials viewed it as smuggling and breaking the law.

John Hancock, Portrait, Copley
John Hancock was a prominent Boston merchant. Image Source: MFA Boston.

Writs of Assistance Lasted for the Life of the King

Once a Writ of Assistance was issued to a customs official, it was good until the monarch who signed it died. 

New Writs of Assistance Were Needed After King George II Died

Following the death of King George II on October 25, 1760, his son ascended the throne and became King George III. In Massachusetts, Charles Paxton, a customs official, asked Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson — who was also head of the Massachusetts Superior Court — to issue new writs, which a group of Boston merchants opposed.

Thomas Hutchinson, Portrait
Thomas Hutchinson. Image Source: Wikimedia.

James Otis Delivered a 5-Hour Speech Against the Writs of Assistance

James Otis agreed to represent the Boston merchants, who filed a lawsuit, arguing the renewal of the Writs of Assistance was illegal. During the proceedings, Otis is believed to have given a fiery speech that lasted for at least five hours.

Otis Introduced Natural Law as Part of His Argument Against the Writs of Assistance

Otis based his arguments on Natural Law, the English Bill of Rights, and the constitutional principles of the British government. Although the law and precedent favored the legality of the Writs, Otis argued the Writs allowed unlawful search and seizure of property and violated the inherent natural rights of people to feel safe in their homes. Otis famously said, “…one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle…”

Writs of Assistance Were Upheld, but Otis Inspired the American Revolution

The arguments Otis laid out against the Writs of Assistance inspired the ideology of the American Revolution. Otis went on to protest the Sugar Act, and expanded his arguments in “Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved.” John Adams, who was a young lawyer at the time, was an eyewitness to the speech. Adams took detailed notes and observed that Otis argued the Writs violated the natural rights of man, the legality of search and seizure, and lawful entry. Many years later, Adams recalled the speech and wrote, “Otis was a flame of fire…American Independence was then and there born.”

Writs of Assistance Started No Taxation Without Representation

According to John Adams, Otis used the phrase, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” This phrase was later modified into “no taxation without representation.” However, there is speculation as to whether or not Otis used the phrase in the speech, as it would have been irrelevant to the case.

The Townshend Acts Expanded Writs of Assistance

The Writs of Assistance came into focus again during the enforcement of the Townshend Acts in 1767–1768. Section 10 of the Townshend Revenue Act provided for the expanded use of Writs of Assistance and authorized the Supreme Court of all 13 Colonies to issue them. Section 10 says:

“And whereas by an act of parliament made in the fourteenth year of the reign of King Charles the Second, intituled, An act for preventing frauds, and regulating abuses, in his Majesty’s customs, and several other acts now in force, it is lawful for any officer of his Majesty’s customs, authorized by writ of assistance under the seal of his Majesty’s court or exchequer, to take a constable, headborough, or other public officer inhabiting near unto the place, and in the day-time to enter and go into any house, shop, cellar, warehouse, or room or other place, and, in case of resistance, to break open doors, chests, trunks, and other package there, to seize, and from thence to bring, any kinds of goods or merchandize whatsoever prohibited or uncustomed, and to put and secure the same in his Majesty’s store-house next to the place where such seizure shall be made:

and whereas by an act made in the seventh and eighth years of the reign of King William the Third, intituled, An act for preventing frauds, and regulating abuses, in the plantation trade, it is, amongst other things, enacted, that the officers for collecting and managing his Majesty’s revenue, and inspecting the plantation trade, in America, shall have the same powers and authorities to enter houses or warehouses, to search for and seize goods prohibited to be imported or exported into or out of any of the said plantations, or for which any duties are payable, or ought to have been paid; and that the like assistance shall be given to the said officers in the execution of their office, as, by the said recited act of the fourteenth year of King Charles the Second, is provided for the officers in England: but, no authority being expressly given by the said act, made in the seventh and eighth years of the reign of King William the Third, to any particular court to grant such writs of assistance for the officers of the customs in the said plantations, it is doubted whether such officers can legally enter houses and other places on land, to search for and seize goods, in the manner directed by the said recited acts: To obviate which doubts for the future, and in order to carry the intention of the said recited acts into effectual execution, be it enacted, and it is hereby enacted by the authority aforesaid,

That from and after the said twentieth day of November, one thousand seven hundred and sixty seven, such writs of assistance, to authorize and impower the officer of his Majesty’s customs to enter and go into any house, warehouse, shop, cellar, or other place, in the British colonies of plantations of America, to search for and seize prohibited or uncustomed goods, in the manner directed by the said recited acts, shall and may be granted by the said superior or supreme courts of justice having jurisdiction within such colony or plantation respectively.”

Colonial Courts Responded by Refusing to Issue Writs of Assistance

Although courts upheld the legality of Writs of Assistance into the 1770s, court officials were reluctant to use them as tensions increased between the Colonies and Britain.

Writs of Assistance Were the First Cause of the American Revolution

Of all the Causes of the American Revolution, the dispute over Writs of Assistance in 1761 can be looked at as the first of those causes.

The U.S. Bill of Rights Protects Against Illegal Writs of Assistance

The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights, protects citizens against unlawful search and seizure, as was allowed under British Writs of Assistance. The 4th Amendment says:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Writs of Assitance Court Case, a Quick Overview of the Paxton Case

Merchants in Boston believed Writs of Assistance were illegal and filed a lawsuit. At the time, James Otis held the office of Advocate General of the Vice-Admiralty Court in Boston. Because of his position, he was required to argue on behalf of the Crown and the customs officials that Writs of Assistance were legal.

Otis Sides with the Merchants

The British customs officials asked Otis to represent them in court. Otis, who was embroiled in a dispute with Thomas Hutchinson over another matter, resigned as Advocate General and volunteered to serve as the lawyer for the Boston merchants in the case.

Paxton v. Gray

The case was called Paxton v. Gray, and commonly referred to as Paxton’s Case. Otis was tasked with arguing the Writs were illegal and infringed on the rights of the merchants.

On February 24, 1861, the case was heard before the Massachusetts Superior Court. Otis was joined by another prominent lawyer, Oxenbridge Thacher to make the argument on behalf of the merchants. The Crown was represented by Jeremiah Gridley, Otis’ former employer. Thomas Hutchinson was the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court and oversaw the proceedings.

Otis Delivers a Lengthy Speech

After Gridley and Thacher delivered their opening remarks, Otis spoke for four to five hours against the Writs. He opened his argument with, “May it please your Honors: I was desired by one of the court to look into the books, and consider the question now before them concerning Writs of Assistance. I have accordingly considered it, and now appear not only in obedience to your order, but likewise in behalf of the inhabitants of this town, who have presented another petition, and out of regard to the liberties of the subject. And I take this opportunity to declare that whether under a fee or not (for in such a cause as this I despise a fee) I will to my dying day oppose, with all the powers and faculties God has given me, all such instruments of slavery on the one hand and villainy on the other as this Writ of Assistance is.”

A Man’s House is His Castle

One of his key points was that homes should be protected from being searched by British customs officials on a whim. He said, “…one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle…”

Key Arguments Against the Writs of Assistance

Otis and Thacher made four key arguments against the Writs of Assistance.

  1. Thacher argued the Massachusetts Superior Court did not have the legal authority to issue Writs of Assistance, because the power to do so was only granted to the English Court of Exchequer.
  2. Otis argued that British customs officials should be required to have evidence to apply for a Writ.
  3. Otis argued that Writs needed to identify a specific thing to be searched, whether it be a person or place.
  4. Otis argued that Parliament did not have the authority to pass laws that went against reason and common sense.

Although the court eventually sided with the Crown and upheld the legality of the Writs, the ideas Otis based his argument on became essential tenets to the push for independence, culminating in the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. 

Writs of Assistance Significance to U.S. History

Writs of Assistance are important to United States history because they were a cause of the American Revolution. The Writs allowed British customs officials to carry out search and seizure of property without a warrant, which many Americans, including James Otis, believed was a violation of personal rights. Today, the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution protects Americans against unlawful search and seizure.

Writs of Assistance APUSH Review

Use the following links and videos to study Writs of Assistance, James Otis, and the American Revolution for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Writs of Assistance Definition APUSH

Writs of Assistance for APUSH are defined as legal documents issued by the British government that granted customs officials the right to search any property in the American colonies without a warrant. The writs were often used to enforce the Navigation Acts, which regulated trade between the colonies and other countries. Many colonists saw the writs of assistance as an infringement on their rights and freedoms, and they were a cause of the American Revolution.

Writs of Assistance Video for APUSH Notes

This video from the Center for Civil Education discusses the argument in favor of a person’s right to privacy that Otis made during his speech against the Writs of Assistance.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Writs of Assistance
  • Date Colonial America
  • Author
  • Keywords Writs of Assistance, James Otis, Paxton Case, Paxton v Gray, Navigation Acts
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 27, 2023

Taxonomies