Writs of Assistance: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

One of the most basic ideas in the United States is that ~'a man's home is his castle.~' Read on to see how that idea became part of American society with the Writs of Assistance.

Defining the Writs of Assistance

Before the American Revolution, many citizens in Colonial America were growing angry with the British government for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons revolved around the Writs of Assistance.

A writ is just another word for a court order. The Writs of Assistance were court orders that enabled British soldiers to carry out searches of Colonial homes and businesses without just cause or specific substantiation. The Writs of Assistance played a major role in the Colonists' dissatisfaction with England.

Summary of the Writs of Assistance in Colonial America

British officers used Writs of Assistance as ways to increase their power over the Colonists. Though the writs were originally developed to combat smuggling in the colonies, British officers began to use the powers granted to them in the Writs of Assistance to exert more pressure on the Colonists.

The Writs of Assistance did not require British officers to have any type of specific evidentiary suspicion or justification before committing a search. They also did not require any particular time frame, as they were good for the duration of the monarch. As a result of such latitude, Colonial places of businesses and homes were searched without any hesitation.

Pushback from Colonists

Obviously, being subject to continual searches and invasions of privacy did not please the Colonists. The Colonists felt increasingly disrespected when they saw their places of businesses and homes inspected without just cause. The prolonged use of the Writs of Assistance fed into a larger narrative of disrespect that the Colonists were experiencing after the French and Indian War.

The Colonists were frustrated at the lack of documentation surrounding the Writs of Assistance. They were also angry at the little control that they held over the use of the writs. The Colonists perceived the use of the Writs of Assistance as one where British power was synonymous with Colonial disrespect.

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