On this date in 1763, Patrick Henry successfully argued a court case now known as the “Parson’s Cause.” The debate foreshadowed future conflicts between the colonies and Great Britain over colonial sovereignty and served as an early lesson in the power of resistance and nullification.
In colonial Virginia, the Anglican Church enjoyed the status of the officially sanctioned state church. Under a law passed by the colonial legislature in 1748, Anglican clergy received payment of the equivalent of 16,000 pounds of tobacco annually at taxpayer expense. In effect, the salaries of Anglican clergy were paid by Virginia taxpayers.
At the time the law was passed, tobacco sold for about 2 pennies per pound.
In 1755 and 1758, Virginia suffered droughts that drastically decreased the tobacco crop. As a result, the price of tobacco skyrocketed to 6 pennies per pound. This amounted to a significant defacto tax increase on Virginia landowners. It also meant a nice raise for the Anglican clergy.
To mitigate the impact of the tobacco shortage, the House of Burgesses passed the Two Penny Act, a law authorizing the payment of “public, county and parish levies, and officers fees” in currency or tobacco notes backed by tobacco with the price set at 2 pence per pound.
Acting Royal Governor Francis Fauquier signed the act into law, despite the fact that doing so was likely in opposition to his royally-mandated instructions. As noted in Bernhard Knollenberg’s book Origin of the American Revolution, 1759–1766 Fauquier was aware, but did so anyway due to the political climate of the time. He wrote:
“As the Bill was a temporary Law to ease the people from a Burthen [sic] which the Country thought too great for them to bear…. The country were intent upon it, and both the Council and the House of Burgesses were almost unanimous in their pressing it. And I conceived it would be a very wrong Step for me to take who was an entire Stranger to the Distresses of the Country, to set my Face against the whole colony by refusing the Bill which I had a Precedent for Passing. Whatever may be the Case now, I am persuaded that if I had refused it, I must have despaired ever gaining any Influence either in the Council or House of Burgesses.”
Because of the Two Penny Act, many Anglican clergymen felt they were getting a pay cut by two-thirds. Thirty-five of the 75 Anglican clergymen in Virginia met in a convention to protest the law and sent their case to the Board of Trade. Ultimately, King George III vetoed the colonial law at the board’s recommendation.
The king’s veto outraged many Virginia leaders. They viewed King George’s action as a usurpation of their local legislative authority. This would become an ongoing theme in the following years as Parliament asserted more and more control over colonial affairs.
The king’s veto set the stage for Reverend James Maury to go to court in order to collect damages. He believed he was entitled to the 4-penny difference between the 2 pence he was paid under the colonial law and the 6-penny market price of tobacco.
Maury’s lawyer, Peter Lyons, won the first round in court. On Nov. 5, 1763, the court held that Maury had a valid claim. But the judge ruled that the amount of damages had to be determined by a jury.
Patrick Henry was a relatively unknown lawyer but was assigned to defend Hanover County against Maury’s claim. His father served as the judge in the case. On December 1, 1763, Henry rose and delivered a fiery speech to the jury, arguing that King George had no authority to veto a duly enacted Virginia law and that Virginians were under no obligation to obey his actions.
In a letter to another clergyman, Maury recounted that Henry said, “the act of 1758 had every characteristic of a good law; that it was a law of general utility, and could not, consistently with what he called the original compact between King and people, stipulating protection on the one hand and obedience on the other, be annulled.” Hence, he inferred, “that a King, by annulling or disallowing Laws of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerates into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.”
By invoking the term “original compact,” Henry was asserting the constitutional understanding of the rights of Virginia citizens. In his view, the King didn’t have any authority to overturn local representation and any attempt to do so was void.
Two years later, Henry would make a similar argument against the Stamp Act. Then a member of the House of Burgesses, Henry drafted a series of resolutions. In the seventh, He asserted, “the Inhabitants of this Colony, are not bound to yield Obedience to any Law or Ordinance whatever, designed to impose any Taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the Laws or Ordinances of the General Assembly aforesaid.” [emphasis added]
Moved by Henry’s oration, the jury awarded Maury 1 penny. As the historian writing for St. John’s Church put it, “The award essentially nullified the Crown veto, and no other clergy sued.”
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