THE PARSON’S OPINION OF “ THE PARSON’S CAUSE ”
BY REVEREND JAMES MAURY
This celebrated case illustrates the relation of church and state in the colonies, and is also the beginning of the public career of Patrick Henry. The Reverend James Maury was an estimable minister of Huguenot ancestry.– Bibliography: Winsor, Narrative and Critical History, VI, 24; Maury, Memoirs of a Huguenot Family; Channing and Hart, Guide, § 134.
December 12th, 1763.
To the Reverend John Camm.
DEAR SIR: — Now that I am somewhat more at leisure, than when I wrote to you by Major Winston, from Hanover County, Virginia, some few days ago, I have sat down to give you the best account I can of the most material passages in the trial of my cause against the Collectors in that Court, both to satisfy your own curiosity, and to enable the lawyer, by whom it is to be managed in the General Court, to form some judgment of its merits. I believe, sir, you were advised from Nov’r Court, that the Bench had adjudged the Two-Penny Act to be no law; and that, at the next, a jury, on a writ of inquiry, were to examine whether the Plaintiff had sustained any damages, and what. Accordingly, at December Court, a select jury was ordered to be summoned; but, how far they who gave the order, wished or intended it to be regarded, you may judge from the sequel. The Sheriff went into a public room, full of gentlemen, and told his errand. One excused himself (Peter Robinson of King William County) as having already given his opinion in a similar case. On this, as a person then present told me, he immediately left the room, without summoning any one person there. He afterwards met another gentleman (Richard Sq. Taylor) on the green, and, on his saying he was not fit to serve, being a churchwarden, he took upon himself to excuse him, too, and, as far as I can learn, made no further attempts to summon gentlemen.
These, you’ll say, were but feeble endeavors to comply with the directions of the Court in that particular. Hence, he went among the vulgar herd. After he had selected and set down upon his list about eight or ten of these, I met him with it in his hand, and on looking over it, observed to him that they were not such jurors as the Court had directed him to get, being people of whom I had never heard before, except one, whom, I told him, he knew to be a party in the cause, as one of the Collector’s Securities, and, therefore, not fit for a juror on that occasion. Yet this man’s name was not erased. He was even called in Court, and, had he not excused himself, would probably have been admitted. For, I cannot recollect, that the Court expressed either surprise or dislike that a more proper jury had not been summoned. Nay, though I objected against them, yet, as Patrick Henry (one of the Defendant’s lawyers) insisted they were honest men, and, therefore, unexceptionable, they were immediately called to the book and sworn. Three of them, as I was afterwards told, nay, some said four, were Dissenters of that denomination called New Lights, [1a], [1b], [1c],[1d], which the Sheriff, as they were all his acquaintance, must have known. Messrs. Gist and McDowall, the two most considerable purchasers in that county, were now called in to prove the price of tobacco, and sworn. The testimony of the former imported, that, during the months of May and June, 1759, tobacco had currently sold at 50s. per hundred, and that himself, at or about the latter end of the last of those months, had sold some hundreds of hhds. (hogsheds) at that price, and, amongst the rest, one hundred to be delivered in the month of August, which, however, were not delivered till September. That of the latter only proved, “That 50s. was the current price of tobacco that season.” This was the sum of the evidence for the Plaintiff.
Against him, was produced a receipt to the Collector, to the best of my remembrance in these words: “Received of Thomas Johnson, Jun’r, at this and some former payments, £. 144, current money, by James Maury.” After the lawyers on both sides had displayed the force and weight of the evidence, pro and con. to their Honors, the jurors, and one of those who appeared for the Defendants had observed to them that they must find (or if they must find, I am not sure which, but think the former) for the Plaintiff, but need not find more than one farthing; they went out, and, according to instruction (though whether according to evidence or not, I leave you to judge), in less than five minutes brought in a verdict for the Plaintiff, one penny damages. Mr. Lyons urged, as the verdict was contrary to evidence, the jury ought to be sent out again. But no notice was taken of it, and the verdict admitted without hesitation by the Bench. He then moved to have the evidence of Messrs. Gist and McDowell recorded, with as little effect. His next motion, which was for a new trial, shared the same fate. He then moved it might be admitted to record, “that he had made a motion for a new trial, because he considered the verdict contrary to evidence, and that the motion had been rejected;” which, after much altercation, was agreed to. He lastly moved for an appeal, which, too, was granted. This, sir, as well as I can remember, is a just and impartial narrative of the most material occurrences in the trial of that cause. One occurrence more, tho’ not essential to the cause, I can’t help mentioning, as a striking instance of the loyalty, impartiality and attachment of the Bench to the Church of England in particular, and to religion at large. Mr. Henry, mentioned above (who had been called in by the Defendants, as we suspected, to do what I some time ago told you of ), after Mr. Lyons had opened the cause, rose and harangued the jury for near an hour. This harangue turned upon points as much out of his own depth, and that of the jury, as they were foreign from the purpose; which it would be impertinent to mention here. However, after he had discussed those points, he labored to prove “that 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 disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, from being the father of his people, degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience.” He further urged, “that the only use of an Established Church and Clergy in society, is to enforce obedience to civil sanctions, and the observance of those which are called duties of imperfect obligation; that, when a Clergy ceases to answer these ends, the community have no further need of their ministry, and may justly strip them of their appointments; that the Clergy of Virginia, in this particular instance of their refusing to acquiesce in the law in question, had been so far from answering, that they had most notoriously counteracted, those great ends of their institution; that, therefore, instead of useful members of the state, they ought to be considered as enemies of the community; and that, in the case now before them, Mr. Maury, instead of countenance, and protection and damages, very justly deserved to be punished with signal severity.” And then he perorates to the following purpose, “that excepting they (the jury) were disposed to rivet the chains of bondage on their own necks, he hoped they would not let slip the opportunity which now offered, of making such an example of him as might, hereafter, be a warning to himself and his brethren, not to have the temerity, for the future, to dispute the validity of such laws, authenticated by the only authority, which, in his conception, could give force to laws for the government of this Colony, the authority of a legal representative of a Council, and of a kind and benevolent and patriot Governor.” You’ll observe I do not pretend to remember his words, but take this to have been the sum and substance of this part of his labored oration. When he came to that part of it where he undertook to assert, “ that a King, by annulling or disallowing acts of so salutary a nature, from being the Father of his people degenerated into a Tyrant, and forfeits all right to his subjects’ obedience;” the more sober part of the audience were struck with horror. Mr. Lyons called out aloud, and with an honest warmth, to the Bench, “ That the gentleman had spoken treason,” and expressed his astonishment” that their worships could hear it without emotion, or any mark of dissatisfaction.”
At the same instant, too, amongst some gentlemen in the crowd behind me, was a confused murmur of Treason, Treason! Yet Mr. Henry went on in the same treasonable and licentious strain, without interruption from the Bench, nay, even without receiving the least exterior notice of their disapprobation. One of the jury, too, was so highly pleased with these doctrines, that, as I was afterwards told, he every now and then gave the traitorous declaimer a nod of approbation.
After the Court was adjourned, Mr. Henry apologised to me for what he had said, alleging that his sole view in engaging in the cause, and in saying what he had, was to render himself popular. You see, then, it is so clear a point in this person’s opinion, that the ready road to popularity here, is, to trample under foot the interests of religion, the rights of the church, and the prerogative of the Crown. If this be not pleading for the “assumption of a power to bind the King’s hands,” if it be not asserting “such supremacy in provincial Legislatures” as is inconsistent with the dignity of the Church of England, and manifestly tends to draw the people of these plantations from their allegiance to the King, tell me, my dear sir, what is so, if you can.
My warmest wishes and prayers ever attend you. And besides these there is little else in the power of, my dear Camm,