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American Revolution History by
American Revolution History by
  • American Revolution History by ColonialAmerica.comOrigin of the Search and Seizure Amendment and Its Relevance Today

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Origin of the Search and Seizure Amendment and Its Relevance Today

This article is reprinted courtesy of Attorney David Snyder and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The technology powering the National Security Agency’s illegal domestic spying program would have amazed James Madison and the other framers of the Bill of Rights. In a time when the steamboat was a technological marvel, it would have been unimaginable for the government to collect millions of innocent Americans' private communications and use computers to look for "suspicious patterns."

But aside from the technology, the government’s ongoing violation of fundamental civil liberties would have been very familiar to the men who gathered in 1791 to adopt the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers battled an 18th century version of the wholesale surveillance that the government is accused of doing today – an expansive abuse of power by King George II and III that invaded the colonists’ communications privacy.

Using "writs of assistance," the King authorized his agents to carry out wideranging searches of anyone, anywhere, and anytime regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. These "hated writs" spurred colonists toward revolution and directly motivated James Madison's crafting of the Fourth Amendment.

We’ve now come full circle. The president has essentially updated this page from King George's playbook, engaging in dragnet surveillance of millions of Americans, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime. The founders of this country took steps to limit precisely this sort of unfettered executive power. Will we?


Writs of assistance gave the King’s men – customs officials generally, but not exclusively – carte blanche to search the homes, papers and belongings of anyone. They permitted officials to “enter and go into any House, Warehouse, Shop, Cellar or other Place” to seize contraband goods. Though similar in a very broad sense to search warrants, they bore little resemblance to the modern document. They required no judicial oversight or probable cause – the evidence investigators must show before a judge will issue a warrant.

The writs delegated “practically absolute and unlimited” discretion to the officials who carried them out. The writs were valid for the entire duration of the life of the King who issued them. This meant that a single writ, sometimes (but not always) approved by a court at its inception (and never with any evidence of suspicion or specifics about what would be searched), could last decades with no further judicial input. Aside from that, the only limitations were that the writs did not authorize the arrest of anyone and permitted the search of land structures only during the day.

Continued ...

American Revolution History by
William Scott,

Removed from Ann-Street to the Sign of the Spinning Wheel In Marlborough-Street, has imported, by the Lucretia, Capt. Callahan, Irish Linens, Table-Cloths, Sheetings ad Dowlasses, of all prices, besides a large Assortment of ENGLISH and INDIA GOODS, Which will be sold on such Terms as cannot fail to please the Purchasers. Also China and Glass WARES, Doctor Hemmet's celebrated ESSENCE of PEARL and PEARL DENTIFRICE.

Cash given for POT and PEARL ASHES.
A Stable and Coach-House, to be let. Inquire as above.

Boston, August 22, 1787

A woman with a good breast of milk, who can be well recommended, would go into a family, or take a child to suckle. Inquire of the printer.

Boston, May 23, 1787

For Sale,
A quantity of Hair Powder, very white and in convenient boxes, very suitable for the West India market and entitled to a drawback on exportation. Apply to J.W. Quincy, No. 54, State Street

Boston, January 24, 1798

For Sale at No. 12, Long-Wharf, About 15 tons Spanish IRON, suitable to make fisherman's Anchors etc. 11 pipes Brandy; Beef, Pork, and Tongues of the best quality.

Boston, January 31, 1798