James Otis Jr
James Otis Jr.
His brilliant defense of American colonial rights at the outset of the struggle between England and its colonies marked James Otis, Jr. (1725-1783), a leading spokesman for the Boston patriots prior to the American Revolution.
At a time when oratory was a powerful political weapon, James Otis's reputation as a defender of colonial rights in the quarrel with Great Britain was unmatched during the decade 1760-1770. While Samuel Adams wrote inflammatory articles at the popular level, Otis appealed to the law and to the logic of Englishmen everywhere. His case rested on the law of nature and the goodness of the British constitution, both terms sufficiently ambiguous for him to convince vast audiences that his arguments were unanswerable. As a leader of the antiadministration party, he worked with the radicals after the Sugar Act and Stamp Act convinced him that the British Empire could not be maintained without some moderation of the old system of parliamentary domination.
James Otis, Jr., was born on Feb. 5, 1725, in West Barnstable, Mass., the eldest of 13 children. His father was a lawyer, judge, and member of the colonial council, and his oldest sister became a talented political writer and observer. Otis graduated from Harvard College in 1743. His legal studies under the distinguished Jeremiah Gridley (1745-1747) and his admission to the bar were the usual approach to power in colonial Massachusetts.
Otis began law practice at Plymouth, Mass., and later moved to Boston. In 1755 he married Ruth Cunningham. The marriage produced three children but cannot be described as a happy union-particularly because of political differences within the family.
The British decision to increase imperial revenues by enforcing old but neglected customs regulations in the Colonies seemed, at first, simply another kind of family quarrel. The Molasses Act of 1733 had not been enforced; indeed, many New England merchants made a comfortable living while evading it. But when the merchants were unable to block the tightening of customs regulations, they turned their wrath upon the general search warrants issued in pursuit of smuggled cargoes. These writs of assistance were issued by the provincial courts, but the merchants insisted that the courts had no such authority.
Independence Is Born
Otis had been appointed a Crown official as advocate general, but he thought that the writs were indefensible and resigned his office to represent the protesting merchants. The dramatic trial in which Otis confronted his mentor, Gridley (who was the Crown's attorney), was later described by witness John Adams as "the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born." Otis spoke for 5 hours, holding that writs were contrary to both English practice and natural law. Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson, however, decided against the merchants.
Aided by Oxenbridge Thacher, Samuel Adams, and others of the growing radical element in Boston, Otis helped organize the Boston freeholders to oppose Crown measures. In the general court, he thwarted the plans of Governor Francis Bernard to raise taxes and repeatedly drew all but blood in verbal bouts with Crown officials. Though Otis sidestepped their angry threats with verbal missiles, violence was not far away.
Petty politics and personal squabbles were overshadowed by the new imperial crisis brought on by passage of the Sugar Act in 1764. In a desperate search for revenues, Parliament had reduced the duty on molasses but had made it clear that the new tax would be collected. Otis, Adams, and their radical friends perceived Britain's miscalculation. While Adams began agitation in the popular press, Otis wrote a stirring defense of colonial rights in "The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved," arguing that even Parliament could not violate the law of nature. His appeal to "a higher authority" shifted the colonial argument to unassailable ground, as Otis saw it, and thousands of colonial Americans agreed. He also urged that America be granted parliamentary representation, without which the colonists were being "taxed without their consent."
A Popular Hero
The pamphlet made Otis a popular hero in America. At this stage, he was inconsistent but still brilliant. He shocked friends by advocating that his archenemy Thomas Hutchinson be sent to England to present the colony's side in the Sugar Act quarrel. However, the appointment of Otis's father as chief justice of the Common Pleas Court set tongues wagging. For a time, Otis's ambivalence cost him some popularity.
When the Stamp Act was announced, in March 1765, colonial tempers soared. The Sugar Act had hurt New England, but the Stamp Act struck at the pocket of every newspaper reader, lawyer, litigant, and businessman—in short—at nearly every adult in all 13 colonies. Otis served on a committee that urged a united colonial front of resistance, and he headed the Massachusetts delegation to the resulting Stamp Act Congress. Here he impressed fellow delegates as a forceful speaker and able committee member.
Otis again turned pamphleteer, and his "A Vindication of the British Colonies" and "Considerations on Behalf of the Colonies" were read by patriots and quoted as unanswerable. In these works he ridiculed the English notion of "virtual representation" in Parliament and attacked the philosophy of the Navigation Acts, which stifled American manufactures. Otis professed a sincere attachment to the empire, however, and insisted that a true rupture with England would lead only to anarchy.
Repeal of the Stamp Act brought a temporary respite to these tensions, but Otis continued to be at odds with the Crown's officials in Boston. When Otis was elected Speaker of the legislature in May 1767, Governor Bernard vetoed the election. Privately, Bernard and Hutchinson blamed most of their problems on the Otis-Adams coterie. The Otis-Adams "Circular Letter" of 1768, urging a general congress for coordinated economic boycotts, further increased friction between governor and legislature. When Bernard demanded that the letter be recalled, Otis informed him that the House stood by its first action by a vote of 92 to 17. Clearly, Otis and Adams were not isolated troublemakers.
The seizure of John Hancock's vessel, the Liberty, in 1768 increased tension in Boston and led to a direct clash between Crown officials and a mob. Otis was moderator of the town meeting called to consider effectual ways of preventing another such incident, and he counseled prudent measures. With his influence on the wane, Governor Bernard, trying to have the last word before his recall in 1769, blamed Otis and Adams, "Chiefs of the Faction," for much of the damage done to imperial harmony.
End of a Career
A tragic incident in September 1769 ended Otis's career as a leader of the Boston patriots. He satirized the local commissioners of customs in the Boston Gazette, and one of them, John Robinson, confronted Otis the following day. Tempers flared, and Otis was struck in the head. He sued and was awarded £2,000 in damages, but when Robinson offered a public apology, Otis declared that he was satisfied.
Perhaps the blow had only hastened a mental deterioration already begun. Whatever its cause, Otis was thereafter bothered by severe mental lapses, although he was reelected to the General Court. In 1781 an old friend took Otis to Andover, where his mind only occasionally returned to its former brilliance. He was killed by a bolt of lightning on May 23, 1783.
A standard work on Otis remains William Tudor, Life of James Otis (1823). Personal comments in the forthcoming Papers of John Adams, edited by Lyman Butterfield, should be enlightening. See also Charles F. Mullett, Fundamental Law and the American Revolution (1933), and Edmund S. and Helen M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis (1953; rev. ed. 1963).
Galvin, John R., Three men of Boston, New York: Crowell, 1976. □
OTIS, JAMES. (1725–1783). Patriot politician, publicist, and orator. Massachusetts. Otis, born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts on 2 February 1725, graduated in 1743 from Harvard, which he hated. He then studied law under Jeremiah Gridley, a prominent Boston attorney, after which he established his own practice in Boston in 1750. In 1755 Otis married the weathy Ruth Cunningham. Within a few years, Otis was considered one of the leading lawyers in the province. He was an expert in common, civil, and admiralty law, in addition to being a scholar whose Rudiments of Latin Prosody (1760) became a Harvard text. In 1761 he resigned his lucrative office as king's advocate general of the vice admiralty court at Boston rather than argue for the Writs of Assistance, unlimited search warrants that allowed the authorities to search anywhere they pleased. Instead, Otis took the side of the Boston merchants in opposing the writs, which the royal customs collectors were seeking in order to find evidence of the violation of the Sugar Act of 1733.
In his famous speech against the writs, delivered on 24 February 1761, Otis gave one of the earliest statements of the doctrine that a law that violates "Natural Law" is void. He decried the writs as an exercise of arbitrary power and, as such, contrary to the British constitution. No formal record of his argument exists, but young John Adams took notes and, 60 years later, recalled: "Otis was a flame of fire!… He hurried away everything before him. American independence was then and there born" (Adams, vol. 10, p. 247). Otis lost the case to Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson, who argued that the Massachusetts Superior Court had the same power as British courts, which had been granted the authority to issue such writs by Parliament. In 1766 the British vacated Hutchinson's ruling on the grounds that this act of Parliament did not apply to Massachusetts. Otis's arguments against the writs of assistance did not circulate widely, but exerted great intellectual influence among the emerging patriot leadership.
Some scholars have questioned Otis's motivation in opposing British authority, finding personal causes in his resignation from his post as advocate general in 1760. It is known that Otis blamed Governor Francis Bernard and then-Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson for violating an agreement to elevate the senior James Otis to the Superior Court. Much to the shock of the two James Otises, Hutchinson was himself made chief justice (13 November 1760), even though he continued to serve as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. The younger Otis denied that his opposition to arbitrary government was motivated by a desire to avenge frustrated family ambitions.
In May 1761, two months after his famous speech against the writs, Otis became one of Boston's four representatives to the provincial legislature. His father was re-elected as speaker of the House, and the two Otises formed a popular bloc of Boston and rural interests to oppose the crown officials. In 1762 Otis wrote his first pamphlet, "A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives," in which he put forth the proposition that the legislature had complete power of the purse; the executive could spend no funds without their approval. In 1764 he wrote "The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved," putting forth the increasingly popular idea that there could be no taxation without representation, and the following year published "A Vindication of the British Colonies," mocking the British principle of virtual representation.
Yet even as Otis put forth a series of radical political positions, he cautioned moderation in resistance. Otis was made head of the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence in 1764, and the next year he made a proposal that resulted in the Stamp Act Congress. He considered the Virginia resolves of Patrick Henry treasonable, and on 26 November 1765 wrote that he preferred "dutiful and loyal Addresses to his Majesty and his Parliament, who alone under God can extricate the Colonies from the painful Scenes of Tumult, Confusion, & Distress." At the Stamp Act Congress he argued for petitions rather than resistance. Even when British troops landed at Boston in 1768, Otis persisted in his insistence that no action beyond petitioning and letter writing was appropriate.
Though he stood still while political affairs accelerated away from him, Otis continued to play a key role in Massachusetts through 1770. Elected to the General Court in the spring of 1766, he formed a triumvirate with Samuel Adams and Joseph Hawley that led the legislative attack against the embattled Governor Francis Bernard and his deputy, Hutchinson. Otis presided over the town meeting that revived the nonimportation movement (28 October 1767), and, with Samuel Adams produced the Massachusetts circular letter, leading the majority that voted not to rescind it. Throughout these activities, which caused British authorities to threaten Adams and Otis with trial for treason, Otis viewed the idea of independence with abhorrence and repeatedly opposed what he saw as mob violence. Although his confederates worried about the violence of Otis's tongue, it was he who time and again stopped them from actions that would have provoked a crisis. He organized and moderated the town meeting of 12-13 September 1768 that quashed Samuel Adams's calls for armed resistance against the British regulars coming to establish the Boston Garrison.
Otis fell from leadership under unusual circumstances. On the evening of 5 September 1769 he charged into the British Coffee House and loudly demanded an apology from some officials who had accused him of provoking disloyalty. In a brawl that followed, John Robinson laid Otis's head open with a sword. The blow, aggravated by heavy drinking, drove Otis over the brink of madness, and although his reason returned from time to time he was finished as a public figure. He sued Robinson, was awarded damages of £2,000, and then refused any restitution beyond his legal and medical costs. In 1771 he seemed so completely restored that he returned to the general court, but in December he was declared legally insane. With a borrowed musket he rushed into the Battle of Bunker Hill, 17 June 1775, and emerged unscathed. Early in 1778 he was able, during one of his periodic lucid intervals, to argue a case in Boston, but he found the physical exertion too much and the darkness descended. Although he sometimes became violent and had to be tied down, during most of his final years he was harmless. The end came dramatically to this man who could have been the protagonist of a classical tragedy. Otis had always predicted that he would be killed by lightning, and on 23 May 1783 he was struck by lightening while standing on a friend's doorstep.
Mullet, Charls F., ed. "Political Writings of James Otis." In University of Missouri Studies, vol. 4 (1929).
Waters, John J., Jr. The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
Otis Jr., James (1725-1783)
James Otis Jr. (1725-1783)
Lawyer, statesman, and writer
Assessment. James Otis Jr., a Massachusetts lawyer, legislator, and writer, took an active role in opposing the king and the provincial governor on a continuing basis from 1760 until the beginning of the Revolution. A powerful orator and a prolific writer, he was a prominent spokesman for the revolutionary cause. (His sister, Mercy Otis Warren, wrote several famous propaganda plays in the 1770s.) Whether his motive at any one instant was patriotic, a mere personal vendetta, or a manifestation of mental illness is still the matter of debate.
Early Years. Otis was born on 5 February 1725 in Barnstable, Massachusetts, the first of thirteen children of James and Mary Otis. Otis’s father, James, a politically active businessman, became a lawyer and county court judge in Barnstable. He gained the rank of colonel in the militia and wore the title proudly until his death in 1778. James Jr. attended Harvard College from 1739 to 1743, then spent a year studying literature and philosophy. He apprenticed himself to Jeremiah Gridley, a prominent Boston lawyer. In 1748 he began practicing law in Plymouth but was not able to develop his practice; he moved to Boston in 1750 and was more successful. He married Ruth Cunningham, the daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, in 1755.
Family Feud. In 1749 Thomas Hutchinson (then a member of the governor’s council) introduced a paper-money bill in the legislature. The bill was passed, in large part thanks to the efforts of Otis’s father (then the Speaker of the House). The senior Otis expected a significant political favor in exchange for his support, and he understood that he would get a seat on the superior court when one became available. In 1760 Chief Justice Stephen Sewall of the superior court died, and Colonel Otis thought he would finally get his seat on that court. James Jr. lobbied Hutchinson, who was then lieutenant governor, on his father’s behalf. However, Francis Bernard, the new royal governor, felt pressure from London to name someone who would be sure to carry out the new, tighter trade rules. He named Hutchinson (who kept his positions as lieutenant governor, governor’s councilor, and probate judge). The Otises thought that Hutchinson had betrayed them, a personal grievance that would have profound political consequences.
Writs of Assistance. In 1760 the customs commissioner applied to the superior court for a new writ of assistance. A writ of assistance was a court order similar to a modern search warrant although it was one of general and ongoing application—it did not require a customs officer to assert any probable cause before he searched a property or seized any suspected goods. A writ of assistance, once issued, was valid for as long as the reigning king lived, plus six months. King George II had died in October 1760, so a new writ was needed. Otis agreed to represent a group of Boston merchants to argue against the issuance of any new writs. Otis presented a strong political and philosophical argument but also referred to Hutchinson’s accumulation of offices. His ringing oratory, in which he denounced the writs as violations of fundamental law and therefore unconstitutional, brought him immediate fame and led to his election to the assembly a few months later.
Legislature. Almost immediately upon election Otis joined his father (still Speaker of the House) in opposing the governor’s proposal on a coinage bill. His opposition was both on the subject matter and also as a personal attack on Hutchinson. The irony of the situation was that twelve years earlier Colonel Otis had supported a similar bill proposed by Hutchinson. The younger Otis, in arguing against the proposal, avoided any reference to his father’s change of position or to the political feud that flowed from that bill and the colonel’s claim to the superior court seat. For the next ten years Otis alternated between leading the opposition to the administration’s programs (always intertwined with the personal attack on Hutchinson) and, on occasion, providing key support. Judge Peter Oliver, a friend of Hutchinson’s, once wrote about Otis: “He will one time say of the Lieutenant Governor, that he had rather have him than any man he knows, in any one office, and the next hour will represent him as the greatest tyrant, and most despicable creature living.”
Writings. In 1762 the governor asked the legislature to approve a small military expenditure that he had authorized while the assembly had been in recess. Otis voiced a vigorous protest, defending the legislature’s prerogatives over money matters. He compared the governor’s action to one that, if done by the king when Parliament was not in session, would be the act of a tyrant. He wrote an essay, “A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives,” to explain his opposition and to defend himself from charges that his remarks had amounted to treason. In 1764 and 1765 he wrote several long essays about the Stamp Act, first denying Parliament’s power to tax the colonies but later acknowledging that power.
Insanity. His behavior in the legislature was erratic. He frequently took a strong stand on one side of an issue and then abruptly, for no apparent reason, reversed his position. The question of whether Parliament had the power to enact the Stamp Act was the most noteworthy example of this change. Similarly he maintained an ongoing personal vendetta against Hutchinson though, at least once a year, reached a reconciliation with him. This unpredictable behavior hinted of insanity. Several times in the late 1760s he made speeches in the House that were described as the rantings of a madman. In September 1769 he accosted the customs commissioner John Robinson in the British Coffee House. In the ensuing brawl Otis received a severe gash on his head. After that point many people, including John Adams, said that Otis was “not in his perfect mind.” He apparently cracked in 1770 and in a mad rage broke several windows in Boston’s town hall. His family took him to the countryside for a month. Thereafter, Otis faded in and out of sanity. Nevertheless he continued in the legislature, alternating between support for and opposition to the Crown. He opposed independence at first and later supported it. Otis was struck by lightning and died on 23 May 1783.
John R. Galvin, Three Men of Boston (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976);
Peter Shaw, American Patriots and the Rituals of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981).