J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

“With a Writ of Assistance”

In a footnote for his contribution to The Era of the American Revolution (1939), Oliver M. Dickerson quoted the American Commissioners of Customs appointing an officer for the port of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1772. The original document was filed with the Treasury Office in London.

To All People to Whom These Presents Shall Come

We the Commissioners for managing and causing to be Levied His Majesty’s Customs and other Duties in America Do hereby Depute and Impower George Roupell Esqr. to be Collector of the Customs at Charles Town South Carolina and to do and perform all things to the said Service or Office or Employment belonging. In virtue whereof He hath power to enter into any Ship Bottom, Boat or other Vessel and also in the daytime with a Writ of Assistance granted by his Majesty’s Superior or Supreme Court of Justice and taking with him a Constable, Head-borough or other Public Officer next inhabiting, to enter into any House, Shop, Cellar, Warehouse or other place whatsoever not only within the said Port but within any other Port or place within our Jurisdiction there to make diligent Search and in case of resistance to break open any Door, Trunk, Chest, Case, Pack, Truss or any other Parcel or package whatsoever for any Goods, Wares, or Merchandizes, prohibited to be exported out of or imported into the said Port, or whereof the Customs or other Duties have not been duly paid: And the same to Seize to His Majesty’s use and to put and secure the same in the Warehouse in the Port next to the Place of Seizure.

In all which Premises He is to proceed in such manner as the law directs.

Hereby praying and requiring all and every His Majesty’s Officers and Ministers and all others whom it may concern, to be aiding and assisting to Him in all things as becometh.

Given under our hands and Seal at the Custom House, Boston this seventh day of April in the Twelfth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King George the Third and in the year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Two.

Signed, Wm. Burch Hen. Hulton Chas. Paxton
The writ of assistance was basically an open-ended search warrant, not tied to specific evidence or specific cases. And because of that generality, the Customs Commissioners actually had a hard time getting them issued by colonial courts outside of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Dickerson’s article is full of examples of how other colonies’ high courts managed not to issue such writs without coming right out and defying the Crown: they asked for more clarification, lost the paperwork, &c.

Tonight I’ll be discussing the history of this legal controversy as part of a panel at the Old State House in Boston on American search and seizure laws. No need for a special document to get in—this session is free and open to all.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! We were discussing the Writs of Assistance in my 8th grade class today in Castle Rock, Colorado, so this could not have been more timely. Over the years you have provided many points of reference for my lessons.

On another topic - I remember once seeing a copy of a primary source document that listed the three ships of the Boston Tea Party and their respective cargos, right down to the type of tea. Unfortunately, I cannot locate it. Do you have any ideas?

J. L. Bell said...

Glad this website is useful for you!

As for the tea, as I wrote about in this post, the appendix of Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party states what cargo each tea ship was carrying.