Parson's Cause

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George Cooke's 1834 depiction of Patrick Henry arguing the "Parson's Cause" case at the Hanover County Courthouse.

The "Parson's Cause" was an important legal and political dispute in the Colony of Virginia often viewed as an important event leading up to the American Revolution. Colonel John Henry, father of Patrick Henry, was the judge who presided over the court case and jury that decided the issue. The relatively unknown Patrick Henry advocated in favor of colonial rights in the case.

In 1758 the Virginia colonial legislature passed the Two Penny Act. According to legislation passed in 1748, Virginia's Anglican clergy were to be paid 16,000 pounds of tobacco per year, one of the colony's major commodity crops. Following a poor harvest in 1758, the price of tobacco rose from two to six pennies per pound, effectively inflating clerical salaries. The House of Burgesses responded by passing legislation allowing debts in tobacco to be paid in currency at a rate of two pennies per pound. King George III of Great Britain vetoed the law, causing an uproar in the colony. Many Virginia legislators saw the king's veto as a breach of their legislative authority.

The Reverend James Maury, a clergyman who had sued in Hanover County Court (April 1, 1762) for back wages on behalf of all the ministers involved, effectively becoming a representative of the British cause. The court ruled (Nov. 5, 1763) that Maury's claim was valid, but that the amount of damages had to be determined by a jury, which was called for in December 1763. Patrick Henry, then relatively unknown, rose to prominence by defending Hanover County against Maury's claims. Henry argued in favor of the Two Penny Act. As reported by the plaintiff Maury in a letter (Dec. 12, 1763) to fellow Anglican minister John Camm shortly after the trial, Henry argued in substance "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." (Ann Maury, Memoirs of a Huguenot Family, G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1872, letter at pages 418-424, quote at page 421).

The jury awarded Maury one penny in damages. The award effectively nullified the Crown veto, and no other clergy sued.

The Hanover County Courthouse is still operating; historic U.S. Route 301 passes by it. The courthouse is adjacent to the Hanover Tavern, where Patrick Henry lodged while arguing the Parson's Cause. The courthouse is the third oldest courthouse still in use in the United States. The state historic office dates the courthouse's construction as between 1737 and 1742.[1]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  • Scott, Arthur P. “The Constitutional Aspects of the Parson’s Cause,” Political Science Quarterly, 31 (Dec. 1916): 558-77.