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.
Further Reading on James Otis Jr
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).
Additional Biography Sources
Galvin, John R., Three men of Boston, New York: Crowell, 1976.