America: 1763-1776

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The Writs of Assistance

Summary The Writs of Assistance

Although he lost the case against the writs of assistance, James Otis hit upon precisely the ideological cornerstone that would lead the colonies up to and into revolution. The British Constitution was not a written document; it was an unwritten collection of customs and traditions guaranteeing certain rights, and therefore an abstract and fungible thing. Most British subjects assumed that all laws made by Parliament were incorporated into the Constitution, and thus that Parliament could alter the Constitution as it wished, without question. The government was the sole judge of the constitutionality of its actions. However, Otis' primary argument in front of the supreme court centered on the growing sentiment in the colonies that even Parliament could not infringe on certain basic rights that stood at the core of the Constitution, often termed 'the rights of Englishmen.' Otis contended that in the principles of government, there existed certain limits, "beyond which if Parliaments go, their Acts bind not." This claim echoed the growing conception of the great majority of colonists as to the proper role of Parliament under the British Constitution. In the years to come, the colonists continued to complain that the British government had infringed upon this set of "inalienable" rights. This infringement was commonly claimed as the motive for revolution.

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