Acts of Parliament made against the Magna Charta are void

“Father of the American Revolution” — Samuel Adams

Liberty Letters, Samuel Adams, January 27, 1772

Boston Gazette, January 27, 1772

Messieurs EDES & GILL,

I have observed from Baron Montesquieu, that the British constitution has liberty for its direct object and that the constitution of this province, according to Mr. Hutchinson, is an epitome of the British constitution: That the right of representation in the body that legislates, is essential to the British constitution, without which there cannot be liberty; and Chronus himself acknowledges, that the Americans are “incapable of exercising this right”: Let him draw what conclusion he pleases. All I insist upon is, that the conclusion cannot be just, that “the parliament’s laying duties upon trade with the express purpose of raising a revenue, is not repugnant to or subversive of our constitution.” This doctrine, tho’ long exploded by the best writers on both sides of the atlantic, he now urges; and he is reduced to this necessity, in order to justify or give coloring to his frequent bold assertions, that “no one has attempted even to infringe our liberties,” and to his ungenerous reflections upon those who declare themselves of a different mind, as “pretended patriots,” “overzealous,” “intemperate politicians,” “men of no property,” who “expect to find their account” in perpetually keeping up the ball of contention. But after all that Chronus and his associates have said, or can say, the people of America have just “grounds still to complain” that their rights are violated. There seems to be a system of “tyranny and oppression” already begun. It is therefore the duty of every honest man, to alarm his fellow-citizens and countrymen, and awaken in them the utmost vigilance and circumspection. Jealousy, especially at such a time, is a political virtue: Nay, I will say, it is a moral virtue; for we are under all obligations to do what in us lies to save our country.” Tyrants alone, says the great Vatel, will treat as seditious, those brave and resolute citizens, who exhort the people to preserve themselves from oppression, in vindication of their rights and privileges: A good prince, says he, will commend such virtuous patriots” and will “mistrust the selfish suggestions of a minister, who represents to him as rebels, all those citizens who do not hold out their hands to chains, who refuse lamely to suffer the strokes of arbitrary power.”

I cannot help observing how artfully Chronus expresses his position, that the “parliament’s laying duties upon trade with the express purpose of raising a revenue, is not repugnant to our constitution.” It has not been made a question, that I know of, whether the parliament hath a right to make laws for the regulation of the trade of the colonies. Power she undoubtedly has to enforce her acts of trade: And the strongest maritime power caeteris paribus, will always make the most advantageous treaties, and give laws of trade to other nations, for whom there can be no pretence to the right of legislation. The matter however should be considered equitably, if it should ever be considered at all: If the trade of the Colonies is protected by the British navy, there may possibly be from thence inferr’d a just right in the parliament of Great Britain to restrain them from carrying on their trade to the injury of the trade of Great Britain. But this being granted, it is very different from the right to make laws in all cases whatever binding upon the Colonies, and especially for laying duties upon trade for the express purpose of raising a revenue. In the one case it may be the wisdom of the Colonies, under present circumstances to acquiesce in reasonable restrictions, rather than lose their whole trade by means of the depredations of a foreign power: In the other, it is a duty they owe themselves and their posterity, by no means to acquiesce; because it involves them in a state of perfect slavery. I say perfect slavery: For, as political liberty in its perfection consists in the people’s consenting by themselves or their representatives, to all laws which they are bound to obey, so perfect political slavery consists in their being bound to obey any laws for taxing them, to which they cannot consent. If a people can be deprived of their property by another person or nation, it is evident that such a people cannot be free. Whether it be by a nation or a monarch, is not material: The masters indeed are different, but the government is equally despotic; and tho’ the despotism may be mild, from principles of policy, it is not the less a despotism.

Chronus talks of Magna Charta as though it were of no greater consequence than an act of parliament for the establishment of a corporation of buttonmakers. Whatever low ideas he may entertain of that Great Charter, and such ideas he must entertain of it to support the cause he hath espous’d, it is affirm’d by Lord Coke, to be declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws and liberties of England. “It is called Charta Libertatum Regni, the Charter of the Liberties of the kingdom, upon great reason, says that sage of the law, because liberos facit, it makes and preserves the people free.” Those therefore who would make the people slaves, would fain have them look upon this charter, in a light of indifference, which so often affirms sua jura, suas libertates, their own rights, their own liberties: But if it be declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws and liberties of England, it cannot be altered in any of its essential parts, without altering the constitution. Whatever Chronus may have adopted from Mr. Hume, Vatel tells us plainly and without hesitation, that “the supreme legislative cannot change the constitution,” “that their authority does not extend so far,” & “that they ought to consider the fundamental laws as sacred, if the nation has not, in very express terms, given them power to change them.” And he gives a reason for it solid and weighty; for, says he, “the constitution of the state ought to be fixed.” Mr. Hume, as quoted by Chronus, says, the only rule of government is the established practice of the age, upon maxims universally assented to. If then any deviation is made from the maxims upon which the established practice of the age is founded, it must be by universal assent. “The fundamental laws,” says Vatel, “are excepted from their (legislators) commission,” “nothing leads us to think that the nation was willing to submit the constitution itself to their pleasure.” “They derive their authority from the constitution, how then can they change it without destroying the foundation of their own authority?” If then according to Lord Coke, Magna Charta is declaratory of the principal grounds of the fundamental laws and liberties of the people, and Vatel is right in his opinion, that the supreme legislative cannot change the constitution, I think it follows, whether Lord Coke has expressly asserted it or not, that an act of parliament made against Magna Charta in violation of its essential parts, is void. – “By the fundamental laws of England, says Vatel, the two houses of parliament in concert with the King, exercise the legislative power: But if the two houses should resolve to suppress themselves, and to invest the King with the full and absolute government, certainly the nation would not suffer it, “although it was done by a solemn act of parliament. But such doctrine is directly the reverse of that which Chronus holds; which amounts to this, that if the two houses should give up to the King, any, the most essential rights of the people declared in Magna Charta, the nation has not a power either de jura or de facto to prevent it. I may hereafter quote for his serious perusal, the reasoning of the immortal Locke upon this important subject, and am, in the mean time,


Source: Samuel Adams, 27 January 1772, Samuel Adams letter, to the Boston Gazette.

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