The Vice-Admiralty Courts and the American Revolution

The Vice-Admiralty Courts and the American Revolution

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  • Book Info
    The Vice-Admiralty Courts and the American Revolution
    Book Description:

    This study describes the courts of vice-admiralty as they existed in the American colonies at the beginning of the revolutionary struggles, analyzes the changes in the courts and their jurisdiction from 1763 to the outbreak of the war, and examines the American objections to the vice-admiralty system.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0059-8
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-2)
  4. 1 Salt-Water Courts
    (pp. 3-22)

    HALIFAX Courthouse was crowded to the point of overflowing on the morning of October 2, 1764. In the audience sat the Right Honorable Lord Colville, commander of His Majesty’s navy in North America, surrounded by army and navy officers and the gentlemen and ladies of the Nova Scotia seaport. This day had been appointed for the opening of the new court of vice-admiralty for all North America. Only a week before, the brig Polly had entered the harbor at Halifax, bringing Doctor William Spry and his family safely from London. Now, in the scarlet robes of his new office, the...

  5. 2 A War Ends and a Court Begins
    (pp. 23-54)

    THE ERUPTION of hostilities between Britain and France in 1754 shattered the tranquility of the provincial vice-admiralty courts. All along the Atlantic coastline the admiralty judges found themselves powerful agents in the hostilities, authorized by special commissions to pass judgment on the prize cases brought into their provinces. As soon as the war commenced, Whitehall sent instructions to issue letters of marque and reprisal to merchant vessels. Armed with these “licenses that distinguished legitimate plundering from piracy,”¹ the colonial captains roamed the high seas in search of enemy sail and brought an amazing number of ships into the American ports...

  6. 3 From Sugar to Stamps
    (pp. 55-80)

    A SET of fugitives and vagabonds … kept in fear by a fleet and an army” inhabited that “obscure Corner of His Majestys Dominions, calld Hallifax.”¹ There, the British Admiralty had constructed a lighthouse and a dry dock, and the port was now the rendezvous for the North American fleet. It was also the seat of Doctor William Spry’s new court of vice-admiralty. Admiral Colville and William Spry! Naval officer and vice-admiralty judge! This alliance had the effect of making the town suddenly become foreign and distant. To tradesmen in Georgia it was as remote as London itself, and even...

  7. 4 Courts and Customs
    (pp. 81-103)

    THE NEW YEAR had come and gone. Reports of violence and riots in the mainland colonies drifted north to Halifax. Governor Wilmot and Admiral Colville sympathized with the American governors. A noisy radical element in Nova Scotia had attempted to battle against the stamps, but they had not succeeded. Halifax remained loyal to king and Parliament and was using the stamps as directed in the act. Wilmot and Colville could not understand why people should set themselves up against government. Judge William Spry shared their sentiments.¹

    Judge Spry had little to do but discuss American affairs: His court was a...

  8. 5 Some Patriots Are Made, Not Born
    (pp. 104-127)

    JUDGE SPRY decided that he would remain a judge no longer. His court was not consulted; he was bored with the whole arrangement. When Governor Montagu Wilmot, who had ruled over Nova Scotia for less than three years, died in the early summer of 1766, Spry resolved to graduate to a governorship. He wrote to Grenville, asking for his aid in gaining the vacant position. But Grenville was unable to help and could only assure Spry that he believed he deserved a high office and would promote his cause when he could.¹

    It was almost a year before the judge’s...

  9. 6 Four New Courts
    (pp. 128-147)

    JOSEPH GERRISH, storekeeper for King George’s navy in American waters, had been pleased when Judge Spry appointed him his deputy. It was a signal honor, regardless of the emptiness of the office, to follow in the footsteps of a man lately promoted governor. Gerrish thought so highly of his new position that he determined to secure a permanent commission as the doctor’s surrogate, and he wrote to the Admiralty in England, requesting a “confirmation” of his appointment.

    The Admiralty, however, could not help him. When his letter arrived in England, plans for altering the American admiralty establishment were well developed....

  10. 7 The Courts at Work
    (pp. 148-178)

    HALIFAX, Nova Scotia, was an uncommonly dull town compared to Boston, Massachusetts. The prospect of court-keeping there was no more pleasant to Jonathan Sewall than it had been to William Spry. Sewall thoroughly enjoyed himself in Massachusetts, where his double office of advocate and attorney general kept him in the midst of the relentless struggle between crown and colony. The honor of the vice-admiralty judgeship had been pleasant to receive, despite the sarcastic tone of the radical press in announcing the appointment. And the salary of £600 sterling, more than the best-paid common-law justice received, added to the pleasurable prospect....

  11. 8 New Courts for Old
    (pp. 179-201)

    ON THE SECOND day of June 1774, the Honorable Joseph Gerrish, judge surrogate of the Admiralty, died at Halifax, and Jonathan Sewall, still residing in Massachusetts, found himself in need of a new deputy. Sewall had no more intention of taking up the duties of his court himself than he had five years before when he appointed Gerrish as his surrogate. It would be pleasant to be out of Boston, but the “inhospitable, Lilliputian Region of Halifax” did not interest him. The climate was cold, the winters long, “provisions poor, scarce, & dear.” Besides, the “flame” might “catch there notwithstanding the...

  12. 9 Fact and Fiction
    (pp. 202-211)

    A REVOLUTION is not easily dissected. Men take up arms and fight battles; the armies are victorious or suffer defeat; the cause is triumphant and the leaders become patriots, or the cause is crushed and its propagators are rebels. The battles and the men who fought them are facts, easily detailed in history. But to discover the psychology of a revolution is more difficult, for the revolution must be separated from the image it has engendered. But when each known fact has been duly classified, and we have attempted to relate them, one to the other, we may be confronted...

  13. A Note on Sources
    (pp. 212-214)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 215-228)
  15. Index
    (pp. 229-242)