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had so long hovered over his prospects, cleared away. The celebrated Parsons' Cause, as it is still called in Virginia, afforded him the opportunity, which alone was wanting, to establish his powers, and placed him at once at the head of the profession.
The Parsons' Cause. - First remarkable Echi
bition of Henry's Eloquence.
The account of the Parsons' Cause is one of those passages in the life of Henry, in which poetry appears to be in some degree mingled with truth ; nor is it easy, with the information now before us, to say, with entire certainty, what parts of the narrative appertain respectively to one or the other of these departments. The particulars of the affair are briefly as follows.
The Parsons'Cause was an action brought by the Rev. James Maury, in the county court of Hanover county, against the collector of taxes for that county and his sureties, for the recovery of damages for the non-payment of a certain quantity of tobacco, alleged to be due to him
account of his salary. The claim was founded in a statute of the colony, originally passed in the year 1696, and reënacted, with amendments, in the year 1748, which fixed the annual stipend of a parish minister at sixteen thousand pounds of tobacco, and authorized him to demand payment in the article itself. He was, of course, at liberty to receive it in any other way that might suit his convenience. The common market price of tobacco had, for a long time, remained stationary at two pence the pound, or sixteen shillings and eight pence the hundred, and the clergy were in the habit of commuting the delivery of the article in kind for a money payment calculated on this basis.
In the year 1755, the crop of tobacco having fallen short, the price rose to fifty or sixty shillings the hundred. In order to relieve the planters from the effect of this accidental change in the value of the article, the legislature passed an act authorizing them, for the present year, to pay in money such of these debts as might be due in tobacco, at the rate of sixteen shillings and eight pence the hundred. The act was to continue in force for ten months, and went into effect immediately, not having contained the clause which was usually inserted in the acts of the colonial legislature, suspending their operation until they should receive the royal assent. No opposition was made by the clergy to the execution of this law, which was regularly carried into effect during the period for which it was enacted.
Three years afterwards, in the year 1758, in consequence of the probability of the occurrence of another short crop, the law of 1755 was reënacted, and, as before, without the clause requiring the royal assent. The clergy now took alarm, and the measure was attacked in a vigorous pamphlet, entitled The Two-penny Act, published by the Rev. John Camm, rector of York-Hampton parish, and Episcopalian 'commissary for the colony. He was answered in two pamphlets, one written by Colonel Richard Bland, and the other by Colonel Landon Carter, in which the commissary was treated without much ceremony.
He replied in a still more pointed pamphlet, entitled The Colonels Dismounted. The colonels rejoined, and a war of pamphlets followed, which created a great excitement throughout the colony. The popular sentiment appears to have been adverse to the pretensions of the clergy, and at length became so strong, that the printers within the colony refused to publish for them, so that Mr. Camm was finally compelled to resort to Maryland for a publisher.
The pamphlets, which were elicited by this controversy, are still extant, and Mr. Wirt remarks, that “ It seems impossible to deny, at this day, that the clergy had much the best of the argument.” This, however, seems to be a merely technical view of the subject, founded on the idea, that the colonial laws were not valid without the royal assent, and that the clergy had, of course, retained, throughout the whole affair, all the rights, that were vested in them by the act of 1748. Such, probably, was the correct construction of the law ; but it seems to be clear, that the equity of the affair was on the other side, and that, so far as the argument turned upon any other topic than that of strict legal right, the planters were able to make out a very strong case. The act of 1748 was a liberal and beneficial statute, intended to secure the clergy against the effect of fluctuations in the value of money; and it was hardly fair or honorable in the clergy to take advantage of this act of liberality in the planters, to extort from them, in a time of scarcity, triple the amount of the usual stipend. If the rise in the price of tobacco had been the effect of a depreciation in the value of money, and had extended to all other articles, the equity would have been with the clergy, because they could not have obtained the real value of their usual stipend without receiving it in kind.
But as the rise took place in the article of tobacco only, being the effect of a short crop, while the value of money remained the same, the clergy, by commuting the payment in tobacco for a money payment at the former price, would have received the full amount of their usual salary, and this was all that they could fairly claim. Mr. Wirt remarks, that they could not help observing the benefits resulting from the act to the rich planters, who received fifty or sixty shillings the hundred for their tobacco, while they were paying their tobacco debts at the rate of sixteen shillings and eight pence. He does not seem to have recollected, that the rise in the price of tobacco was the effect of a reduction in the quantity. If the planter, by selling a crop of only a third of the ordinary amount, for three times the usual price, was able to avoid the injurious effect of a short crop, he was still in no better condition than he would have been if the rise had not occurred; and if he paid his tobacco debts in kind at the existing high prices, he sustained an actual loss equal to two thirds of the amount due. It was not fair, as has been remarked, for the clergy to extort this difference under pretence of a law, which the planters had passed for the relief and benefit of the order. If, therefore, the law was with the clergy, the equity was clearly with the planters.