Writs of assistance were court orders that authorized customs officers to conduct general (non-specific) searches of premises for contraband. The exact nature of the materials being sought did not have to be detailed, nor did their locations.The writs were first introduced in Massachusetts in 1751 to strictly enforce the Acts of Trade, the governing rules for commerce in the British Empire. Merchants in much of New England were skillful at evading the system and many had become masters of smuggling.The powerful new court orders enabled officials to inspect not only shops and warehouses, but also private homes. It quickly became apparent to many colonists that their homes were no longer their castles.In 1761, James Otis represented Boston merchants in their challenge to the renewal of the writs. He failed to convince the court, but gained public prominence in arguing that the writs violated the colonists’ Natural Rights. He began his speech before the Superior Court of Massachusetts:
I was desired by one of the court to look into the (law) books, and consider the question now before them concerning Writs of Assistance. I have accordingly considered it, and now appear not only in obedience to your order, but likewise in behalf of the inhabitants of this town, who have presented another petition, and out of regard to the liberties of the subject. And I take this opportunity to declare that whether under a fee or not (for in such a cause as this I despise a fee) 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 villainly on the other, as this Writ of Assistance is.
The writs of assistance again drew public attention with the enforcement of the Townshend Duties in 1767. Courts continued to uphold the constitutionality of the orders into the 1770s, but as time passed and popular passions heated, few officials had the courage to use them.The writs were one of a list of grievances that the Americans harbored against the Crown and contributed to the process of changing loyal colonists into advocates for independence.
See timeline of the American Revolution.