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The Parsons' Cause Trial: 1763

The Suit

Maury filed suit, in neighboring Hanover County to avoid the politically hostile climate in his home county. In November of 1763, the presiding judge, Colonel John Henry, ruled that the Two Penny Act had been rendered null from its beginning, contrary to the rulings in the earlier cases. Next came a hearing for damages in which the jury would determine what was due Maury.

At this point, the judge's son, young Patrick Henry, was requested to take over council for the defense. (Such conflicts of interest were common in colonial America.) On December 1, the hearing commenced and the Reverend Maury protested at the prospective jurors offered by the sheriff. Later, in a letter, Maury described them as "the vulgar herd." Maury had some justification for his protest. Three jurors were religious dissenters, and a fourth was a cousin of Patrick Henry's. Henry countered, "They were honest men, and, therefore, unexceptionable, they were immediately called to the book and sworn."

Next, Maury's gifted lawyer, Peter Lyons, rose, summed up the verdict of the previous month and called two tobacco dealers. They testified that the market price of tobacco averaged 50 shillings per 100 pounds in 1759. At 16,000 pounds of tobacco a year as salary, Lyons computed that Maury had been due 450 British pounds in cash, rather than the approximately 150 pounds he had received under the Two Penny Act. Thus Lyons, after praising the Anglican clergy at some length, asked the jury to award Maury 300 British pounds.

Patrick Henry rose. After a faltering start, the great oratorical gift that was to make him famous surfaced. Henry based his argument on an idea called the compact theory of government. According to Maury's letter, Henry stated:

[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 annuled.

Henry argued that by disallowing good laws, a king forfeited his right to the obedience of his subjects. Instead of being a father to his people, he "degenerates into a Tyrant." Lyons cried out that Henry had "spoken treason," a sentiment echoed by a few others in the courtroom.

Henry also attacked the Anglican clergy, accusing them of greed:

Do they feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Oh, no, gentlemen! These rapacious harpies would, were their power equal to their will, snatch from the hearth of their honest parishioner his last hoe-cake, from the widow and her orphan children her last mich cow! the last bed-nay, the last blanket-from the lying-in woman!"

In conclusion, Patrick Henry suggested Reverend Maury be awarded one farthing. After five minutes of deliberation, the jury awarded four times that amount: one penny. This decision effectively put an end to any more suits.

Henry's spectacular performance gained him fame, good will, clients, and an entre into the political arena. More important, arguments over the compact theory of government and the limitations of royal and parliamentary authority would arise repeatedly as America pulled away from "Mother England." Indeed, its fullest and most eloquent expression would appear 13 years later in the Declaration of Independence.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry, A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1974.

Languth, A.J. Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

McCants, David A., "The Authenticity of James Maury's Account of Patrick Henry's Speech in the Parsons' Cause." Southern Speech Communication Journal, Vol. 42 (1976).

Nettels, Curtis P., The Roots of American Civilization, A History of American Colonial Life. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1938.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832The Parsons' Cause Trial: 1763 - The Suit, Suggestions For Further Reading