Two-hundred-thirty-seven years ago, John Adams express-mailed his wife, Abigail, a copy of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, the first newspaper to reprint the Declaration of Independence.
For John Adams, who would become the nation’s second president, the seeds for the American Revolution actually were sown in 1761, in a legal dispute with the British crown over the right to privacy, which came to be known as “Paxton’s case.”
Paxton was a British customs agent who held so-called writs of assistance, issued by the Crown, which authorized him to search the property of Massachusetts colonists without specifying a reason.
The writs were challenged by 63 Boston merchants, who were represented by Boston attorney James Otis. During a five-hour court hearing, Otis delivered an impassioned argument that the writs were a violation of the colonists’ natural rights and, therefore, should be null and void.
“A man’s house is his castle,” said Otis, “and whilst he is quiet, he is as well-guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, break locks, bars and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice, no man, no court may inquire.”
Otis was rebuffed by the court. But he left an indelible impression upon Adams, then a young barrister, who later declared the Paxton case “the spark in which originated the American Revolution.”
In fact, in 1780, Adams authored Article XIV of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which enshrined in the commonwealth’s Constitution the requirement that all searches must be “reasonable.”
That language subsequently was incorporated into the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches.”
Two hundred thirty-seven years after adoption of the Declaration of Independence, this nation’s leaders apparently have forgotten the circumstances that precipitated this nation’s separation from Mother England. They no longer remember the Paxton case.
Otherwise, we would not have a president who maintains that a man’s house is not his castle; that the Fourth Amendment does not proscribe the federal government from secretly monitoring the phone calls of practically every American, reading their emails and following their credit card transactions.
Nor would we have court rulings declaring that “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.” That includes a person’s bank records. It even includes the garbage he or she leaves at curbside for collection.
This is not the free republic John Adams and John Otis envisioned when they opposed the British Crown. And it is in their memory that the civil libertarians among us must vigorously oppose the government’s abrogation of privacy rights.