The Stamp Act Crisis:
The First Defense of Freedom in America
The American Revolution was, in essence, the American people’s defense of their right not to be deprived of their property without their consent. The Stamp Act Crisis was the first battle in that defense.
Note: The following is the text of a speech given by J. Patrick Mullins at the Ashland Colloquium: Leadership and Ethics in American Business, on March 28, 2003.
Aristotle observed that, to understand the nature of a thing, one must identify its origin, its first cause. To understand the nature of America, and what it means to be an American, one must study the origin of this country. One must study the American Revolution. In my own studies of this subject, though, I have wanted to go one more step back, and identify the origins of the Revolution itself.
In most historians’ understanding, the American Revolution occurred in three major phases. The first is what historians call the Imperial Crisis, an intellectual and political conflict over the constitutional relationship between Britain and the thirteen American colonies. The Imperial Crisis began in 1765, with Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act. The second phase of the Revolution was the Revolutionary War itself, which began in April 1775, when constitutional debate gave way to bloodshed between the Americans and British at Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts. The third and last phase has been called by some scholars the Critical Period, a time when American leaders had to face the new problems of preserving that liberty and independence which the people had won from Britain. The Critical Period effectively began with the decisive defeat of the British at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, and ended when a new national government under the U.S. Constitution assumed power over the thirteen states in 1789. The story of the American Revolution, then, is the story of the creation of a new nation: the United States.
The Stamp Act Crisis of 1765-1766 was, therefore, the opening scene in the first act of the drama of the American Revolution. In March 1765, the Parliament of Great Britain passed an act imposing a stamp tax on printed documents—such as newspapers, contracts, licenses, diplomas, etc.—throughout the American colonies. Collection of the tax was scheduled to begin in November of that year. As soon as word of the coming stamp tax arrived in the colonies, though, American Patriots sprang into action to stop it.
In May, Patrick Henry persuaded the Virginia legislature to pass resolutions demanding the act’s repeal. Henry even went so far as to call for civil disobedience against the enforcement of an act that he considered unjust and unconstitutional. The rest of the colonies were listening. In Boston, Massachusetts, mass protests forced the tax collector to refuse his commission. The protests of early August turned into the riots of late August, in which the Boston mob ransacked the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who considered himself duty-bound to enforce the King’s law.
All over the colonies, the Sons of Liberty preempted enforcement of the Stamp Act by intimidating crown officials. Political pamphlets by the likes of John Adams informed the people about the nature of the threat that the Stamp Act posed to their traditional rights as English subjects and their natural rights as free individuals. Thomas Hutchinson called for an assembly of colonial representatives to resolve the Crisis peacefully. In October, the Stamp Act Congress demanded repeal of the Stamp Act on the principle that “it is essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted rights of Englishmen, that no taxes should be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.” To give their demand teeth, the Congress organized a boycott of English imports throughout the thirteen colonies. Under economic pressure, British manufacturers lobbied for repeal, and Parliament withdrew the Stamp Act in the spring of 1766.
It is well they did, for by January of that year, there were murmurings among the colonists that they might soon have to resist Britain through military force and even seek independence. One historian has called the Stamp Act Crisis the “prologue to revolution.” Indeed, one sees in the Crisis of 1765-1766 the pattern that the colonists would repeat against further encroachments on their rights by the British in the 1770s. Again, we would see legislative resolutions, pamphlets, riots, boycotts, and the formation of a continental congress. Only, next time, the British did not back down, and the result was war. In the Stamp Act Crisis, one can see the American people begin their journey down the road to national independence. This truly marked the beginning of the American Revolution.
But what, I asked myself, was the cause of the Stamp Act Crisis? Why did the passage of the Stamp Act flare into a crisis in the first place? Why did the Americans resist this one little tax so passionately, unanimously, and even violently? Why did they say that the Stamp Act was the latest step in a systematic plot to enslave them and destroy their rights? My contention is that the American Patriots saw in the Stamp Act an attack on the very principle that an individual may not be deprived of his property without his consent. To allow a distant Parliament to tax them would be to concede this principle, and to sanction the right of the Parliament to take all of their property away. The American Revolution should, then, be understood as a principled defense of American rights—primarily, individual property rights—against British tyranny.
Moreover, their fear that the Stamp Act was part of a larger conspiracy against colonial rights was not some paranoid fantasy, as some historians have suggested. If we take a glance at American legal and political history in the five years preceding the Stamp Act, we can see that it was indeed merely the latest in a series of British encroachments on the right of Americans to keep their private property secure against arbitrary and unaccountable power.
Since the seventeenth century, Parliament had exercised the authority to make laws binding on the thirteen American colonies. Although the American colonists often chafed under the bit, they did not challenge this legislative authority in principle. The colonists also conceded the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, but only if such taxes served to regulate colonial trade, rather than raise revenue at the cost of colonial wealth. The colonists reserved the right to have their property taxed only by their own elected representatives, and many colonial charters recognized this right explicitly.
The British passed regulatory laws in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant to control the economic activity of the American colonists. Many of these laws compelled the Americans to buy and sell goods only with Britain, rather than trading goods in foreign markets. In 1733, for instance, Parliament passed the Sugar Act. The act did not forbid Americans to buy sugar products from the French West Indies, but it did place a tax on such imports so high that no one could pay it, thus effectively banning the trade and forcing Americans to buy their sugar products at a higher price from the British West Indies. In this manner was the taxing power of Parliament applied for regulatory purposes.
For much of the first half of the eighteenth century, though, Britain’s political leadership had a laissez-faire policy of “salutary neglect,” under which crown officials laxly enforced the regulatory legislation, allowing the Americans to go about their business in relative freedom. Americans continued their trade with the French West Indies, in spite of the Sugar Act of 1733, while British customs officers turned a blind eye to smuggling in return for the occasional bribe. Under salutary neglect, the colonial economy boomed, and Americans took pride in being subjects of so freedom-loving a monarch as the King of Great Britain.
The British government, however, indulged the Americans less from love of liberty as from recognition that they needed the cooperation of the Americans in Britain’s frequent colonial wars with the French. Many British officials, and their Loyalist supporters in the colonies, looked forward to the day when the people’s liberties would be curbed, order would be imposed by crown officers appointed by the King and paid by Parliament out of colonial tax revenues, and these unruly colonists would finally be taught to submit to their aristocratic masters with appropriately slavish humility.
That time came at the end of the French and Indian War. After half a century of indecisive wars between the British and the French in North America, British forces crushed the French at Quebec in 1759. With the French threat to British dominance of North America effectively ended, the British government resolved to end its mollycoddling of their disobedient American children and render them subject to the authority of King and Parliament.
In 1763, just after the official conclusion of peace with the King of France, Britain took its first steps toward the taxation of the colonies, not for the purpose of regulation, but for the purpose of raising revenue for the payment of government expenses. It was only fair, the British government observed, that the Americans pay part of the cost of keeping the British army in the thirteen colonies for their own defense. Defense—against whom? The war was over and the French had been defeated, once and for all. While hostile Indians continued to be a menace, the only troops who proved effective against the Indians were American rangers, not British redcoats. And the colonists did not fail to notice that, at the end of the war, the Crown disbanded the rangers while keeping the redcoats. Clearly, Britain’s continued military presence in the colonies was not meant to defend the Americans, but to control them.
If that weren’t bad enough, the British expected the Americans to pay the cost of their own military occupation. In 1764, Parliament passed a new act that revised the old Sugar Act of 1733. The new Sugar Act of 1764 actually cut in half the amount of the old tax. Now the tax was low enough that it was no longer cost-effective for New England merchants to pay bribes to customs officers. By paying the lowered tax, though, Americans would be conceding the right of Parliament to raise revenue at the expense of their fortunes. If Parliament could raise revenues from the sugar trade, then why not other forms of trade? And why not tax their land and homes? Since Parliament did not have to answer to Americans the way it did to the English electorate, there was great incentive to shift the English tax burden from English voters to unrepresented Americans, who would have no legal recourse but submission.
The Sugar Act was oppressive not only in its object, but in its means of enforcement. The days of regulatory laxity and indulgence were over. If Americans tried to continue smuggling French rum and molasses despite the lowering of the tax rate, the Sugar Act promised terrible penalties. American traders guilty of evading the sugar duty would not only be fined, but have their cargo and even their ships confiscated by the Crown as contraband. Customs officers who failed to do their duty or who accepted bribes would be summarily dismissed. But, since customs officers got a cut of the proceeds of the wealth they confiscated, the Sugar Act gave them great incentive to enforce the law zealously, indeed to frame innocent traders for smuggling, or haul them into court over legal technicalities.
And American businessmen had little protection against the legal plunder of such predatory customs racketeers, since charges of smuggling would be prosecuted in admiralty courts. Colonial juries were notorious for letting accused smugglers off the hook, since the American public enjoyed the cheap goods they imported from foreign markets. But, in admiralty courts, there were no juries. A royally appointed judge would decide both the facts and the law of the case, and such judges typically found in favor of the Crown. In admiralty courts, accused merchants were considered guilty until they could prove themselves innocent, and they were even denied the right to sue customs officers for wrongful acts, so long as the officer could persuade the judge that he had probable cause to stop, search, and seize the ship in question. The Sugar Act was a savage broadside against the property rights of American colonists. Now their property could not only be taxed, but searched and seized, by government officials, who would be paid not by elected representatives, but by the Crown.
The Sugar Act of 1764 was Britain’s first attempt to tax the Americans for purposes of revenue. If it was the greatest precedent for the Stamp Act of 1765, it was not the only one. The five years before the Stamp Act Crisis saw many other invasions of American rights by the British. Americans had supported, with their blood and treasure, the last war against the French, partly in hopes that the elimination of the French from North America would open the lands west of the Alleghenies to American settlement. But, in 1763, the King issued a proclamation banning Americans’ westward expansion, and ending the private sales of land by Indians to whites, so as to mollify the Indian tribes. Also in 1763, Britain resumed enforcement of the White Pines Act of 1722. The lumber industry was key to the economy of New England. And New Englanders were only too happy to sell white pines to the mother country to provide masts for the Royal Navy. But the King wanted a monopoly on white pines, and Parliament’s Act forbade the King’s subjects from felling any of these trees except those on private lands or within townships, effectively closing the great forests of Maine to exploitation by enterprising New Englanders. If royal officials observed that a man had built his house out of white pine planks, they could literally tear his house apart if the homeowner could not prove that the wood came from within the township. Again, violations of the White Pines Act would be tried in admiralty courts, that could be expected to find in favor of the Crown. The Royal Army and Navy were commanded to assist crown officials in the enforcement of these acts. And to assist the army in their occupation of the colonies, Parliament passed a Quartering Act on the eve of the Stamp Act Crisis that required private citizens to provide room and board at their own expense for His Majesty’s Troops.
These were only a few of Britain’s invasions of colonial rights made during the five years before the Stamp Act Crisis. One might well say that it was no wonder the Americans resisted the Stamp Act of 1765 as the latest in a series of British attacks upon their property rights. But there were Loyalists who welcomed these measures by the mother country, and there were also many moderates who recognized the threat, but lacked the will to resist it, fearing popular disorder and royal retribution. Organized resistance to British tyranny in the 1760s required leadership by men who understood the sacred principles at stake, and the disastrous consequences of compromise.
By the 1760s, lawyers provided the core of the thirteen colonies’ political leadership. From James Otis and John Adams in Massachusetts, to Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, the American lawyers who led the Patriot resistance derived their understanding of the origin, purpose and limits of government from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government more than from any other single book. Although this British philosopher’s work was first published in 1689, Locke approached the basic questions of government in terms of essentials, providing the Americans of the late eighteenth century with timeless principles that guided them through the Imperial Crisis of the 1760s and 1770s.
When the British Parliament began raising revenue in the 1760s by taxing American trade, the Americans argued against taxation without representation. But this stance, with which we are all familiar, rested upon the still higher principle that no individual should be deprived of his property without his consent, whether given in person or through his elected representative. The Americans understood parliamentary taxation as a radical attack on the natural right of private property in large part thanks to the philosophic guidance of Locke.
Back in 1689, John Locke argued that the primary reason why people agree to subordinate themselves to law is for the better preservation of their property. Since government exists to protect property, and since the people did not agree to give the government the power to seize property arbitrarily, government cannot rightfully take a person’s property without his consent. Locke upheld individual property rights in principle. He claimed that right to be violated if the government took even part of an individual’s property without his consent. As he explained in paragraph 138 of the Second Treatise of Government,
“Men therefore in Society having Property, they have such a right to the goods, which by the Law of the Community are theirs, that no Body hath a Right to take their substance, or any part of it from them, without their own consent; without this, they have no Property at all. For I have truly no Property in that, which another can by right take from me, when he pleases, against my consent. Hence it is a mistake to think, that the Supream [sic] or Legislative Power of any Commonwealth, can do what it will, and dispose of the Estates of the Subject arbitrarily, or take any part of them at pleasure.”
Locke conceded that the government can tax the property of individuals, but only with the consent of the governed. “”Tis true,” he wrote in paragraph 140 of his Second Treatise, “Governments cannot be supported without great Charge, and ‘tis fit every one who enjoys his share of the Protection, should pay out of his Estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own Consent, i.e. the Consent of the Majority, giving it either by themselves, or their Representatives chosen by them. For if any one shall claim a Power to lay and levy Taxes on the People, by his own Authority, and without such consent of the People, he thereby invades the Fundamental Law of Property, and subverts the end of Government. For what property have I in that which another may by right take, when he pleases to himself?”
Locke made the revolutionary contention that, if the government takes away the people’s property without their consent, the government has committed an act of criminal aggression, forfeits its claim on the obedience of the people, and may be overthrown and replaced by the people with a more accountable regime.
“The Reason why Men enter into Society, is the preservation of their Property;” Locke reminds us in paragraph 222 of the Second Treatise, “and the end why they chuse and authorize a Legislative, is, that there may be Laws made, and Rules set as Guards and Fences to the Properties of all the Members of the Society. . . . [W]henever the Legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided all Men, against Force and Violence. Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society; and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, . . . an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and, by the Establishment of a New Legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society.”
Locke’s language recurs throughout the political literature of the American Patriot movement, most famously in the Declaration of Independence. We see it in the first great collision of British authority and colonial rights, the writs of assistance case in 1761.
The British crackdown on smuggling of French rum and molasses by New England merchants predated the Sugar Act of 1764. In 1760, royal customs officers in Massachusetts petitioned Parliament for renewal of the recently expired act empowering them to acquire writs of assistance. These writs were general search warrants, warrants not specifying the place to be searched, thus empowering customs officers to search any one’s warehouses, ships, shop, or even private home, without any accountability or limit. Boston’s merchants challenged the legality of writs of assistance before the highest court in Massachusetts.
As Advocate-General for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, James Otis was duty-bound to argue in favor of writs of assistance on behalf of the customs officers. Opposing writs of assistance in principle as an unconstitutional invasion of individual rights, Otis resigned his office as Advocate-General. In February 1761, he instead argued the merchants’ case before the Superior Court of Massachusetts. The thirty-six-year-old lawyer refused to accept any legal fees for their defense, seeing that the very principle of individual property rights was at stake in the merchants’ case.
Otis addressed the Court with the confidence of a man who knows he is in the right: “I will to my dying day oppose, with all the powers and faculties God has given me, all such instruments of slavery on the one hand and villainy on the other as this writ of assistance is. It appears to me (may it please your Honours) the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of the constitution that ever was found in an English law-book.” Otis considered natural law, including the natural right to be deprived of property only with one’s consent, as the moral foundation of the British constitution, and any act of Parliament that violated natural law was unconstitutional and thus null and void.
“The writ prayed for in this petition, being general, is illegal,” he informed the assembled justices. “It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer. . . . Every one, with this writ, may be a tyrant. . . . [A] person with this writ, in the day time, may enter all houses, shops, etc., at will, and command all to assist him. . . Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. . . . This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Customs-house officers may enter our houses when they please. . . . Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break, through malice or revenge, no man, no court, can enquire. . . . Thus, reason and the constitution are both against this writ. Let us see what authority there is for it. . . . No acts of parliament can establish such a writ. . . . An act against the constitution is void.”
For four hours Otis spoke, asserting the natural right of individuals to be secure in their property and denying the authority of Parliament to make laws violating individual rights. Sitting in the court that day was a young lawyer named John Adams. Years later, Adams recalled Otis’s impassioned speech against writs of assistance:
“Otis was a flame of fire! With a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic glance of his eye into futurity, and a torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away everything before him. American Independence was then and there born; . . . Every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take up arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain.”
Otis’s “impetuous eloquence” failed to move the Superior Court, though. Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson delayed the court’s decision for several months to inquire into the legal status of general search warrants in England. On determining that writs of assistance were still considered legal in the mother country, that was enough for him, and the court ruled in favor of the royal customs officers. Otis, however, had awakened the people of Boston against the encroachment of British tyranny. In 1762, they elected him to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he became the leader of Patriot resistance to the Sugar Act and other such violations of American property rights.
In 1764, Otis took aim at the Sugar Act in a pamphlet called The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. Frequently paraphrasing John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, his pamphlet attacked Britain’s presumption to deprive Americans of their property without their consent. He wrote, “I can see no reason to doubt, but that the imposition of taxes, whether on trade, or on land, or houses, or ships, on real or personal, fixed or floating property, in the colonies, is absolutely irreconcileable [sic] with the rights of the Colonists, as British subjects, and as men. I say men, for in a state of nature, no man can take my property away from me, without my consent: If he does, he deprives me of my liberty, and makes me a slave. If such a proceeding is a breach of the law of nature, no law of society can make it just.—The very act of taxing, exercised over those who are not represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights, as freemen; and if continued, seems to be in effect an entire disenfranchisement of every civil right. For what one civil right is worth a rush, after a man’s property is subject to be taken from him at pleasure, without his consent? If a man is not his own assessor in person, or by deputy, his liberty is gone, or lays intirely [sic] at the mercy of others.”
Having characterized the Sugar Act as a violation of the law of nature, of the natural rights of man, Otis went on to say that any such act such be considered null and void. The law of nature, dictated by God, was the highest law, by which all others should be judged and measured. “Should an act of parliament be against any of his natural laws, which are immutably true,” he stated, “their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity and justice, and consequently void: and so it would be adjudged by the parliament itself, when convinced of their mistake.”
Recoiling from forcible resistance to unjust laws as anarchistic, Otis insisted that the Parliament, in their wisdom, would surely repeal the Sugar Act, once gently reminded of their error, and that in the meantime the colonies would have to obey it. In his pamphlet, he proposed as a cure-all for the developing crisis between Britain and America that the colonies be represented in Parliament, so they could have their own say on matters of colonial taxation.
The General Assembly of New York, however, insisted that colonial legislatures maintain their control over colonial taxation. In a 1764 petition to the House of Commons authored by William Livingston, the New York Assembly insisted upon the colony’s exemption from parliamentary taxation. Arguing from Lockean principles, Livingston asserted this exemption as a moral right rather than a mere privilege that could be revoked at royal whim.
“[A]n Exemption from the Burthen [sic] of ungranted, involuntary Taxes, must be the grand Principle of every free State,” Livingston wrote, “Without such a Right vested in themselves, exclusive of all others, there can be no Liberty, no Happiness, no Security; it is inseparable from the very Idea of Property, for who can call that his own, which may be taken away at the Pleasure of another? And so evidently does this appear to be the natural Right of Mankind, that even conquered tributary States, though subject to the Payment of a fixed periodical Tribute, never were reduced to so abject and forlorn a Condition, as to yield to all the Burthens which their Conquerors might at any future Time think fit to impose. . . . And if conquered Vassals . . . may claim a Freedom from Assessments unbounded and unassented to, without which they would sustain the Loss of every Thing, and Life itself become intolerable, with how much Propriety and Boldness may we proceed to inform the Commons of Great-Britain, . . . that the People of this Colony . . . , nobly disdain the thought of claiming that Exemption as a Privilege.—They found it on a Basis more honourable, solid and stable; they challenge it, and glory in it as their Right.”
In the seventeenth century, the British people had fought a long civil war and waged a revolution in their struggle to wrest the right of taxation from their own king. Few principles were more treasured by Britons than the right to have their property taxed by none other than their own elected representatives. So the British government found it difficult to deny the claims of the American Patriots without repudiating their own principles. And yet, they remained doggedly determined to subject the thirteen colonies to the taxing power of Parliament, despite the impassioned objections of the colonists. Having passed the Sugar Act in 1764, British officials were openly discussing the idea of a Stamp Act by January of 1765.
Early in 1765, Thomas Whately, a member of Parliament and secretary to the treasury, authored a pamphlet in response to American claims that the colonies were not subject to parliamentary taxation. In Whately’s pamphlet, he conceded the Lockean principle that, “No new Law whatever can bind us that is made without the Concurrence of our Representatives.” But, in a classic bait-and-switch, Whately then made the extraordinary argument, against Otis’s plea for the colonies to gain representation in Parliament, that “the Fact is, that the Inhabitants of the Colonies are represented in Parliament.” The colonists do not elect members of Parliament, but, Whately pointed out, neither do “Nine Tenths of the People of Britain.” And yet all Britons are subject to the taxation of their property by Parliament. How can this be just? Whately explained that, while the people of Britain and America who cannot vote for Parliament are not “actually” represented in Parliament, they are “virtually” represented. Members sit in the House of Commons to represent the interests of all British subjects, not just those who elect them. And Parliament, Whately maintained, passes laws with the greater good of the Empire in mind, even if that means the wishes of some part of the Empire may be thwarted in this process.
Whately seemed unfazed by the prospect that not merely some men’s wishes but some men’s rights might be voted away by Parliament. Indeed, he personally drafted the Stamp Act which Parliament passed only a few short weeks after the ink dried on his pamphlet. Wholly unpursuaded by the sophistry of “virtual representation,” the people of America found themselves reduced to a single alternative: submit their property to the good graces of Parliament, or resist.
Guided by the moral principles of British philosophers like John Locke, and inspired by the intellectual leadership of Patriots like James Otis, William Livingston, and Patrick Henry, the Americans braced themselves for a fight. That fight began with the Stamp Act Crisis, but it would not end until King George III grudgingly recognized the independence of the United States after a fratricidal nine-year war. It was a fight that the Americans made not due to some paranoid and unjustified fear, nor indeed for “light and transient causes,” but, as Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, only after “a long train of abuses and usurpations.”
The American Revolution was, in essence, the American people’s defense of their right not to be deprived of their property without their consent. Their Patriot leaders saw the menace that early British encroachments posed to the individual right of property, and they upheld this right in principle, throughout the Imperial Crisis, to the conclusion of the Revolution. Today, the American people—and property owners and businesspeople in particular—would do well to remember the lessons of the Revolution, and to assume the principles of John Locke and his American disciples as their own. In fighting for the individual right of property, the American Revolutionaries vindicated all individual rights.
Indeed, as the twentieth-century philosopher Ayn Rand observed, there can be no rights at all without property rights. The Fifth Amendment of our Bill of Rights specifically prohibits the seizure of private property for public purposes without just compensation, and forbids the deprivation of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. But none of the freedoms recognized in the U. S. Bill of Rights can stand if we abandon the natural right of private property.
In upholding the individual right of property, one also secures such specific forms of property as the churches and printing presses of the First Amendment and the firearms of the Second. One upholds the Third Amendment’s protection of homeowners from having troops quartered on their property without their consent, and of course the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee that all individuals “be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and that search warrants specify the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.
The Framers of the Bill of Rights well remembered the battles of the early 1760s, and thanks to their commitment to the principle of individual rights, writs of assistance and admiralty courts have been consigned to the museum of human oppression. But the regulation of the economy in general, and environmental regulation in particular, again menace the property owners and businesspeople of this country with the deprivation of their property without their consent by the arbitrary power of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats, whether those spawned by Congress or supranational bodies like the United Nations. Rather than despair at the apparent return of an old tyranny in new vestments, let all men and women who cherish their rights study the history of their country, imbibe the spirit of James Otis, Patrick Henry and their comrades, and follow their lead boldly.
J. Patrick Mullins is a Ph.D. student in the History Department at the University of Kentucky specializing in the history of the American Revolution.
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