Part 1 out of 3
Great Americans of History
JAMES OTIS THE PRE-REVOLUTIONIST
BY JOHN CLARK RIDPATH, LL.D. AUTHOR OF A "Cyclopaedia of
Universal History," "Great Races of Mankind," "Life and Times of
William E. Gladstone," etc., etc.
THE CHARACTER OF JAMES OTIS BY CHARLES K. EDMUNDS, Ph.D.
WITH AN ESSAY ON THE PATRIOT BY G. MERCER ADAM Late Editor
"Self-Culture" Magazine, Etc., Etc.
TOGETHER WITH ANECDOTES, CHARACTERISTICS, AND CHRONOLOGY
Near the northeast corner of the old Common of Boston a section
of ground was put apart long before the beginning of the
eighteenth century to be a burying ground for some of the heroic
dead of the city of the Puritans. For some quaint reason or
caprice this acre of God was called "The Granary" and is so
called to this day. Perhaps the name was given because the dead
were here, garnered as grain from the reaping until the bins be
opened at the last day's threshing when the chaff shall be driven
from the wheat.
Here the thoughtless throng looking through the iron railing may
see the old weather-beaten and time-eaten slabs with their
curious lettering which designate the spots where many of the men
of the pre-revolutionary epoch were laid to their last repose.
The word cemetery is from Greek and means the little place where
I lie down.
In the Granary Burying Ground are the tombs of many whom history
has gathered and recorded as her own. But history looks in vain
among the blue-black slabs of semi-slate for the name of one who
was greatest perhaps of them all; but whose last days were so
strangely clouded and whose sepulchre was so obscure as to leave
the world in doubt for more than a half century as to where the
body of the great sleeper had been laid. Curiosity, whetted by
patriotism, then discovered the spot. But the name of another
was on the covering slab, and no small token was to be found
indicative of the last resting place of the lightning-smitten
body of James Otis, the prophetic giant of the pre-revolutionary
days. He who had lived like one of the Homeric heroes, who had
died like a Titan under a thunderbolt, and had been buried as
obscurely as Richard the Lion Hearted, or Frederick Barbarossa,
must lie neglected in an unknown tomb within a few rods of the
spot where his eloquence aforetime had aroused his countrymen to
national consciousness, and made a foreign tyranny forever
impossible in that old Boston, the very name of which became
henceforth the menace of kings and the synonym of liberty.
Tradition rather than history has preserved thus much. In the
early part of the present century a row of great elms, known as
the Paddock elms, stood in what is now the sidewalk on the west
side of Tremont Street skirting the Granary Burying Ground.
These trees were cut away and the first section of the burial
space was invaded with the spade. Tomb No. 40, over which the
iron railing now passes, was divided down as far as where the
occupants are lying. Within the sepulchre were several bodies.
One was the body of Nathaniel Cunningham, Sr. Another was Ruth
Cunningham, his wife. The younger members of the family were
also there in death.
When the lid of one coffin in this invaded tomb was lifted, it
was found that a mass of the living roots of the old strong elm
near by had twined about the skull of the sleeper, had entered
through the apertures, and had eaten up the brain. It was the
brain of James Otis which had given itself to the life of the elm
and had been transformed into branch and leaf and blossom, thus
breathing itself forth again into the free air and the Universal
The body of the patriot had been deposited in this tomb of his
father-in-law, the Nathaniel Cunningham just referred to, and
had there reposed until the searching fibres of another order of
life had found it out, and lifted and dispensed its sublimer part
into the viewless air. Over the grave in which the body was laid
is still one of the rude slabs which the fathers provided, and on
this is cut the name of "George Longley, 1809," he being the
successor of the Cunninghams in the ownership of Tomb No. 40.
Here, then, was witnessed the last transformation of the
material, visible man called James Otis, the courageous herald
who ran swinging a torch in the early dawn of the American
The pre-revolutionists are the Titans of human history; the
revolutionists proper are only heroes; and the
post-revolutionists are too frequently dwarfs and weaklings.
This signifies that civilization advances by revolutionary
stages, and that history sends out her tallest and best sons to
explore the line of march, and to select the spot for the next
camping-ground. It is not they who actually command the
oncoming columns and who seem so huge against the historical
background--it is not these, but rather the hoarse forerunners
and shaggy prophets of progress who are the real kings of men--
the true princes of the human empire.
These principles of the civilized life were strongly illustrated
in our War of Independence. The forerunners of that war were a
race of giants. Their like has hardly been seen in any other
epoch of that sublime scrimmage called history. Five or six
names may be selected from the list of the early American
prophets whose deeds and outcry, if reduced to hexameters, would
be not the Iliad, not the Jerusalem Delivered, but the Epic of
The greatest of these, our protagonists of freedom, was Benjamin
Franklin. After him it were difficult to name the second. It is
always difficult to find the second man; for there are several
who come after. In the case of our forerunners the second may
have been Thomas Jefferson; it may have been Samuel Adams; it may
have been his cousin; it may have been Thomas Paine; it may have
been Patrick Henry; it may have been James Otis, the subject of
It is remarkable to note how elusive are the lives of many great
men. Some of the greatest have hardly been known at all. Others
are known only by glimpses and outlines. Some are known chiefly
by myth and tradition. Nor does the effort to discover the
details of such lives yield any considerable results. There are
great names which have come to us from antiquity, or out of the
Middle Ages, that are known only as names, or only by a few
striking incidents. In some cases our actual knowledge of men
who are believed to have taken a conspicuous part in the drama of
their times is so meagre and uncertain that critical disputes
have arisen respecting the very existence of such personages.
Homer for example--was he myth or man? The Christ? Where was
he and how did he pass his life from his twelfth year to the
beginning of his ministry? What were the dates of his birth and
death? Shakespeare? Why should not the details of his life, or
some considerable portion of the facts, compare in plenitude and
authenticity with the events in Dr. Johnson's career?
It seems to be the law of biography that those characters who are
known to the world by a few brilliant strokes of genius have as a
rule only a meagre personal history, while they whose characters
have been built up painfully and slowly out of the commonplace,
like the coral islands of the Atlantic, have a great variety and
multitude of materials ready for the hands of the biographer.
James Otis belonged to the first of these classes. There is a
measure of elusiveness about his life. Our lack of knowledge
respecting him, however, is due in part to the fact that near the
close of his life, while he was oscillating in a half-rational
condition between Andover and Boston, with an occasional visit to
Plymouth, he fell into a fit of pessimism and despair during
which he spent two days in obliterating the materials for his
biography, by destroying all his letters and manuscripts. He did
as much as he could to make impossible any adequate account of
his career or any suitable revelation of his character as
developed in his correspondence. Over and above this, however,
the materials of his life are of small extent, and fragmentary.
It is to his formal publications and the common tradition of what
he did, that we must turn for our biographical and historical
estimate of the man. In this respect he is in analogy with
Patrick Henry who appears only fitfully in history, but with
meteoric brilliancy; or with Abraham Lincoln the narrative of
whose life for the first forty-five years can be adequately
written in ten pages.
The American Otises of the seventeenth century were of English
descent. The emigration of the family from the mother country
occurred at an early day when the settlements in New England were
still infrequent and weak. The Otis family was among the first
to settle at the town of Hingham. Nor was it long until the name
appeared in the public records, indicating official rank and
leadership. From Hingham, John Otis, who was born in 1657,
ancestor of the subject of this sketch, removed to Barnstable,
near the center of the peninsula of Massachusetts, and became one
of the first men of that settlement. He was sent to the
Legislature and thence to the Council of the Colony in which he
had a seat for twenty-one years. During this period he was
promoted to the place of Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and
while holding this important place he was also judge of the
Probate Court. The family rose and flourished in reputation.
In 1702, James Otis, son of Judge John Otis, was born. He
followed in his father's footsteps becoming a lawyer and colonial
publicist, afterwards a colonel of the militia, a judge of the
Common Pleas, a judge of the Probate Court, and a member of the
Council of Massachusetts. Just after reaching his majority
Colonel Otis took in marriage Mary Alleyne, and of this union
were born thirteen children. The eldest was a son, and to him
was given his father's name. It was to this child that destiny
had assigned the heroic work of confronting the aggressions of
Great Britain on the American colonists, and of inspiring the
latter to forcible resistance.
James Otis, Junior, was born at a place called Great Marshes, now
known as West Barnstable, on the 5th of February, 1725. He
inherited from his father and grandfather not only a large
measure of talents but also a passion for public life which
impelled him strongly to the study and solution of those
questions which related to the welfare of the American colonies,
and to the means by which their political independence might be
The character and intellect of Colonel Otis of Barnstable were
transmitted to other members of his family also. The daughter
Mercy, oldest sister of James Otis, was married to James Warren
who made his home at Plymouth. This lady had her brother's
passion for politics--an enthusiasm which could hardly be
restrained. She wrote and conversed in a fiery manner on the
revolutionary topics of the day. Almost coincidently with the
Battle of Bunker Hill she composed and published (without her
name, however,) a biting satire on the colonial policy of Great
Britain, calling her brochure "The Group." Fifteen years
afterwards she published a volume of poems, mostly patriotic
pieces, and finally in 1805 a brief "History of the American
Revolution," which was considered a reputable work after its
Samuel Alleyne Otis, youngest brother of James, outlived nearly
all the other members of the family, and was recognized as a
prominent political leader. He, also, had the strong patriotic
and revolutionary bent of the family, was popular and
influential, and was honored with a long term of service as
Secretary of the Senate of the United States. In this capacity
he participated, April 30, 1789, in the inauguration of
Washington, holding the Bible on which the Father of his Country
took the oath of office. The other brothers and sisters were of
less conspicuous ability, and were not so well known to their own
and other times.
In New England in the first half of the eighteenth century the
sentiment of education was universal. Among the leading people,
the sentiment was intense. Colonel Otis, of Barnstable, was
alert with respect to the discipline and development of his
children. He gave to them all, to the sons especially, the best
advantages which the commonwealth afforded. James Otis was
assigned to the care of Reverend Jonathan Russell, the minister
at Barnstable, who prepared the youth for college. By the middle
of his fifteenth year he was thought to be ready for
matriculation. He was accordingly entered as a freshman at
Harvard, in June, 1739.
Of the incidents of his preceding boyhood, we know but little. A
tradition exists that he was more precocious than diligent; that
his will was strong; that his activities were marked with a
reckless audacity, which, however, did not distinguish him much
from the other promising New England boys of his age. Something
of these characteristics are noticeable in his college career.
At Harvard he showed an abundance of youthful spirits; a strong
social disposition, and a well-marked discrimination between his
friends and his enemies. At times he applied himself
assiduously, and at other times mused and read rather than
studied. On the whole he did not greatly distinguish himself as
a student. His passion for literature was marked, and he became
conspicuous for his forensic abilities. Towards the end of his
course, his character as a student was intensified, and he was
not often seen away from his books. Out of term time, he would
return to his father's home taking his books with him. At such
times he was rarely seen by his former companions of Barnstable,
because of his habit of secluding himself for study.
It is narrated that at this period of his life, young Otis gave
strong evidence of the excitable temperament with which he was
endowed. In the intervals of his study his nervous system, under
the stimulus of games or controversial dispute, would become so
tense with excitement as to provoke remark. Nor may we in the
retrospect fail to discover in this quality of mind and temper
the premonitions of that malady which finally prevailed over the
lucid understanding, and rational activities of James Otis.
The youth did not much effect social accomplishments. He had a
passion for music and learned to play the violin. With this
instrument he was wont to entertain himself in the intervals of
study. Sometimes he would play for company. It was one of his
habits to break off suddenly and rather capriciously in the midst
of what he was doing. Thus did he with his music. It is
narrated that on a certain occasion while playing by invitation
for some friends, he suddenly put aside the instrument, saying in
a sort of declamatory manner as was his wont--
"So fiddled Orpheus and so danced the brutes."
He then ran into the garden, and could not be induced to play the
Young Otis passed through the regular classes at Harvard and was
graduated in 1743. On that occasion he took part in a
disputation which was one of the exercises of his class.
Otherwise his record at the college is not accented with any
special work which he did. At the time of his graduation he was
in his nineteenth year. It had been his father's purpose and his
own that his profession should be the law. It does not appear,
however, that his college studies were especially directed to
this end. At any rate, he did not devote himself at once to the
law, but assiduously for two years (1743-45) to a general course
of study chosen and directed by himself with a view to the
further discipline of his mind and the widening of his
information. It was an educational theory with Otis that such an
interval of personal and spontaneous application should intervene
between a young man's graduation and the beginning of his
professional career. Having pursued this course with himself he
insisted that his younger brother, Samuel Alleyne Otis, should
take the same course. In one of his letters to his father--a
communication fortunately rescued from the holocaust of his
correspondence--he discusses the question and urges the
propriety of the young man's devoting a year or two to general
study before taking up his law books. An extract from the letter
will prove of interest. The writer says: "It is with sincerest
pleasure I find my brother Samuel has well employed his time
during his residence at home. I am sure you don't think the time
long he is spending in his present course of studies; since it is
past all doubt they are not only ornamental and useful, but
indispensably necessary preparatories for the figure I hope one
day, for his and your sake, as well as my own, to see him make in
the profession he is determined to pursue. I am sure the year
and a half I spent in the same way, after leaving the academy,
was as well spent as any part of my life; and I shall always
lament I did not take a year or two further for more general
inquiries in the arts and sciences, before I sat down to the
laborious study of the laws of my country.
"My brother's judgment can't at present be supposed to be ripe
enough for so severe an exercise as the proper reading and well
digesting the common law. Very sure I am, if he would stay a
year or two from the time of his degree, before he begins with
the law, he will be able to make better progress in one week,
than he could now, without a miracle, in six. Early and short
clerkships, and a premature rushing into practice, without a
competent knowledge in the theory of law, have blasted the hopes,
and ruined the expectations, formed by the parents of most of the
students in the profession, who have fallen within my observation
for these ten or fifteen years past."
The writer of this well-timed communication then adds in proof of
his position, the names of several distinguished jurists who
postponed the beginning of their legal studies, or at least their
legal practice, to a time of life quite beyond the conventional
student period. Mr. Otis then declares his conviction that a
young man may well procrastinate his legal studies until he shall
have attained the age of thirty or even of forty years. He
declares his belief that such postponement will as a rule lead to
better result than can be attained by a youth who begins at
twenty, however brilliant his genius may be.
This view of the case was with James Otis both theory and
practice. He began his legal studies in 1745. In that year he
became a law student under the tuition of Jeremiah Gridley who at
that time was already regarded as one of the most able and
accomplished lawyers in Massachusetts. Preceptor and student
were at the first in accord in their political and social
principles. At the time of the young man's law course, Gridley
was a member of the General Court of Massachusetts. He belonged
to the party called Whig; for the political jargon of Great
Britain had infected the Americans also, and they divided
according to the names and principles of the British partisans of
Judge Gridley, while he remained on the bench, took sides with
the colonists in their oncoming contention with the mother
country. Afterwards, however, by accepting the appointment of
Attorney General he became one of the king's officers, and it was
in this relation that he was subsequently brought face to face
with his distinguished pupil in the trial of the most remarkable
case which preceded the Revolutions.
Mr. Otis devoted two years of time to his legal studies before
beginning the practice of his profession. The study of law at
that time was much more difficult than at the present day. The
student was obliged to begin de novo with the old statutes and
decisions, and to make up the science for himself by a difficult
induction, which not many young men were able to do successfully.
Law text-books were virtually unknown. Otis did not even have
access to "Blackstone's Commentaries." No authoritative works on
evidence or pleading existed in the English language.
The student must get down his Acts of Parliament, his decisions
of the King's Bench, his Coke, his black-letter dissertations on
the common law, and out of these construct the best he could a
legal system for himself. To this work Mr. Otis devoted himself
from 1745 to 1747, after which he left the office of Judge
Gridley and went to Plymouth, where he applied for admission to
the bar, and was accepted by the court. He began to practice in
1748--the year of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, when the
political and historical status of Europe was again fixed for a
The young attorney almost immediately took rank at the Plymouth
bar. The old records of the court at that place still show the
frequent appearance of Otis for one or the other of the parties.
In this manner were passed the years 1748 and 1749. It does not
appear that at this time he concerned himself very much with the
affairs of the town or the larger affairs of the commonwealth.
The tax records show his name with an entry to the effect that in
1748 he estimated his personal estate at twenty pounds besides
his "faculty," by which was meant, his professional value.
A few incidents of this period in Otis's life have come down by
tradition. He soon made a favorable impression on the court and
bar. He gained the good opinion of his fellows for both ability
and integrity of character. This reputation he carried with him
to Boston, whither he removed early in the year 1750. He had
already acquired sufficient character to bring his services into
requisition at places somewhat distant from Plymouth.
His reception in Boston was accordingly favorable. Beyond the
limits of the colony he became known as an advocate. He was sent
for in important cases, and showed such signal ability as to
attract the admiring attention of both court and people. Already
at the conclusion of his twenty-fifth year he was a young man of
note, rising to eminence.
There was good ground for this reputation in both his principles
of conduct and his legal abilities. From the first he avoided
the littleness and quibble which are the bane of the bar. He had
a high notion of what a lawyer should be and of the method and
spirit in which he should conduct his cases. He had as much
dignity as audacity, a sense of justice as keen as the purpose
was zealous in pursuing it.
It came to be understood in the courts of Boston when Otis
appeared as an advocate that he had a case and believed in it.
He avoided accepting retainers in cases, of the justice of which
he was in doubt. Pursuing this method, he was sometimes involved
in law-suits in which he was constrained to turn upon his own
The story goes of one such instance in which he brought suit for
the collection of a bill. Believing in his client and in the
justice of the claim, he pressed the matter in court and was
about to obtain a judgment when he accidentally discovered, among
his client's papers, a receipt which the plaintiff had signed for
the very claim under consideration. Through some mistake the
receipt had again got back into the man's possession, and he had
taken advantage of the fact to institute a suit for the
collection of the claim a second time.
Seeing through the matter at once, Otis took the plaintiff aside,
confronted him with the receipt and denounced him to his face as
a rascal. The man gave down and begged for quarter, but Otis was
inexorable; he went back to the bar and stated to the court that
reasons existed why the case of his client should be dismissed.
The court, presided over by Judge Hutchinson, afterward
Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, expressed
its surprise at the turn of affairs, complimented Otis for his
honorable course as an advocate, commended his conduct to the
bar, and dismissed the case.
With the spread of his reputation Mr. Otis was summoned on legal
business to distant parts. On one occasion he was called to
Halifax to defend some prisoners under arrest for piracy;
believing them to be innocent he convinced the court in an
eloquent plea and secured the acquittal of the prisoners.
On another occasion he was summoned to Plymouth to defend some
citizens of that town who had become involved in a riot on the
anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. It was the custom in the New
England towns to observe this day with a mock procession, in
which effigies representing the Pope, the Old Bad One, and James
the Pretender, were carried through the streets to be consigned
at the end to a bonfire. In this instance violence was done by
some of the participants; windows were smashed, gates were broken
down, etc. Mr. Otis conducted the defense, showing that the
arrested persons taking part in a noisy anniversary, and
committing acts that were innocent in spirit, if not innocent per
se, ought not to be adjudged guilty of serious misdemeanor. This
plea prevailed and the young men were acquitted.
It is to be greatly regretted that the legal pleas and addresses
of James Otis have not been preserved. A volume of his speeches
would reveal not only his style and character, but also much of
the history of the times. The materials, however, are wanting.
He kept a commonplace book in which most of his business letters
of the period under consideration were recorded. But these give
hardly a glimpse at the man, the orator, or his work. Tradition,
however, is rife with the myth of his method and manner. He was
essentially an orator. He had the orator's fire and passion;
also the orator's eccentricities--his sudden high flights and
transitions, his quick appeals and succession of images.
To these qualities of the orator in general Otis added the power
of applying himself to the facts; also the power of cogent
reasoning and masterful search for the truth which gained for him
at length the fame of first orator of the revolution. The
passion and vehemence of the man made him at times censorious and
satirical. His manner towards his opponents was at times hard to
bear. His wit was of that sarcastic kind which, like a hot wind,
withers its object.
All of these dispositions seemed to increase his power and to
augment his reputation, but they did not augment his happiness.
His character as an advocate and as a man came out in full force
during the first period of his Boston practice; that is, in the
interval from 1750 to 1755.
On attaining his thirtieth year Mr. Otis came to the event of his
marriage. He took in union, in the spring of 1755, Ruth
Cunningham, daughter of a Boston merchant. From one point of
view his choice was opportune, for it added to his social
standing and also to his means. From another aspect, however,
the marriage was less fortunate.
The Cunningham family was not well grounded in the principles of
patriotism. The timid commercial spirit showed itself in the
father, and with this the daughter sympathized. The sharp line
of division between patriotism and loyalty had not yet been drawn
--as it was drawn five years afterward. But it began to be drawn
very soon after the marriage with serious consequences to the
domestic peace of the family.
It appears that beside this general cause of divergence, the
staid and unenthusiastic character of Mrs. Otis rather chilled
the ardor of the husband, and he, for his part, by his vehemence
and eccentricity, did not strongly conciliate her favor. There
were times of active disagreement in the family, and in later
years the marriage was rather a fact than a principle.
The result of Mr. Otis's marriage was a family of one son and two
daughters. The son, who was given his father's name, showed his
father's characteristics from childhood, and certainly a measure
of his genius. The lad, however, entered the navy at the
outbreak of the Revolution, became a midshipman, and died in his
eighteenth year. The oldest daughter, Elizabeth, went wholly
against her father's grain and purpose. Just before the
beginning of the Revolution, but after the case had been clearly
made up, she was married to a certain Captain Brown, at that time
a British officer in Boston, cordially disliked, if not hated, by
James Otis. Personally, Brown was respectable, but his cause was
odious. He was seriously wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Afterwards he was promoted and was given a command in England.
Thither his wife went with him, and Mr. Otis discarded them both,
if not with anathema at least with contempt.
It would appear that his natural affection was blotted out. At
least his resentment was life-long, and when he came to make his
will he described the circumstances and disinherited Elizabeth
with a shilling. The fact that Mrs. Otis favored the unfortunate
marriage, and perhaps brought it about--availing herself as it
is said, of one of Mr. Otis's spells of mental aberration to
carry out her purposes--aggravated the difficulty and made her
husband's exasperation everlasting.
The younger daughter of the family shared her father's
patriotism. She was married to Benjamin Lincoln, Jr., a young
lawyer of Boston, whose father was General Benjamin Lincoln of
revolutionary fame. The marriage was a happy one, but ultimately
clouded with honorable grief. Two promising sons were born, but
each died before reaching his majority. The father also died
when he was twenty-eight years old. The wife and mother resided
in Cambridge, and died there in 1806.
The second period in James Otis's life may be regarded as
extending from 1755 to 1760; that is, from his thirtieth to his
thirty-fifth year. It was in this period that he rose to
eminence. Already distinguished as a lawyer, he now became more
distinguished as a civilian and a man of public affairs.
He caught the rising interest as at the springing of the tide,
and rose with it until it broke in lines of foam along the shores
of New England. He gained the confidence of the patriot party,
of which he was the natural leader. His influence became
predominant. He was the peer of the two Adamses, and touched
hands right and left with the foremost men of all the colonies.
It surprises us to note that at this time James Otis devoted a
considerable section of his time to scholastic and literary
pursuits. He was a student not only of men and affairs but of
books. Now it was that the influence of his Harvard education
was seen in both his studies and his works. We are surprised to
find him engaged in the composition of a text-book which is still
extant, and, however obsolete, by no means devoid of merits. The
work was clearly a result left on his mind from his student days.
He composed and, in the year 1760, published, by the house of B.
Mecom in Boston, a 72 page brochure entitled "The Rudiments of
Latin Prosody with a Dissertation on Letters and the Principles
of Harmony in Poetic and Prosaic Composition, collected from some
of the best Writers."
The work is primarily a text in Latin Prosody in which the author
thought himself to improve on the existing treatises on that
subject. The afterpart of the pamphlet is devoted to a curious
examination of the qualities of the letters of the Greek and
In this he attempts to teach the distinction between quantity and
accent in the Greek language, but more particularly to describe
the position and physiological action of the organs of speech in
producing the elementary sounds in the languages referred to.
The author declares his conviction that the growth of science had
been seriously impeded by the inattention of people to the
correct utterance of elementary sounds. He also points out the
great abuses in the prevailing methods and declares that these
abuses have so impeded the work of education "that many have
remained children all their days."
Having written and published his work on Latin prosody, Mr. Otis
next produced a similar work on the prosody of Greek. This,
however, he did not publish, and he is said to have destroyed the
manuscript at the time of burning his correspondence near the end
of his life.
A conversation of James Otis is narrated by Francis Bowen, in
Jared Sparks's "American Biography" in which the orator is
represented, in speaking of the bad literary taste prevalent
among the boys of the time, as saying, "These lads are very fond
of talking about poetry and repeating passages of it. The poets
they quote I know nothing of; but do you take care, James, [Otis
was addressing James Perkins, Esq., of Boston] that you don't
give in to this folly. If you want to read poetry, read
Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Pope and throw all the rest into
the fire; these are all that are worth reading." In this brief
comment the severity of Otis's literary taste is indicated and
also something of the rather abrupt and dogmatic character of his
mind. His criticism, though true, can hardly be said to be
In order to understand the part which James Otis played in the
great work of revolution and independence it is now necessary to
note with care the conditions into which he was cast and with
which he was environed at that period of his life when the
man-fire flames highest and the audacity of the soul bounds
furthest into the arena of danger.
Every man is the joint product of himself and his environment.
His life is the resultant of the two forces by which he is held
and balanced. At the time when James Otis reached his
thirty-fifth year a condition had supervened in the American
colonies which reacted upon his passionate and Patriotic nature
so powerfully as to bring into full play all of his faculties and
to direct the whole force of his nature against the tyrannical
method of the mother country.
Let us look for a moment at the course of events which had
preceded and which succeeded the crisis in James Otis's life, and
made him the born leader of his countrymen in their first
conflict for independence.
Great Britain had aforetime permitted the American colonists to
plant themselves where, when, and as they would. Almost every
colonial settlement had been an adventure. The emigrants from
the other side of the Atlantic had been squeezed out by the hard
discipline of church and state. In America they settled as they
"And England didn't look to know or care."
In the language of one of the bards of this age,
"That is England's awful way of doing business."
She permitted her persecuted children to brave the intolerable
ocean in leaking ships, to reach the new world if they could, and
survive if they might.
Notwithstanding this hard strain on the sentiment of the
Pilgrims, the Cavaliers, and the Hugenots, they remained loyal to
the mother country. They built their little states in the
wilderness and were proud to christen their towns and villages
with the cherished names of the home places in England. They
defended themselves as well as they could against the
inhospitality of nature, the neglect of the mother country, and
the cruelty of savage races.
It was only when they grew and multiplied and flourished that our
little seashore republics attracted the attention of the mother
land and suggested to the ministers of the crown the possibility
of plucking something from the new states which had now
demonstrated their ability to exist and to yield an increase.
Meanwhile, for six generations, the colonists had developed their
own social affairs and managed their own civil affairs according
to the exegencies of the case and the principles of democracy.
Their methods of government were necessarily republican.
The military necessities which were ever at the door had taught
our fathers the availability of arms as the final argument in the
debate with wrong. The conflicts with the Indians and the
experiences of the French and Indian war had shown that the
Americans were able to hold their own in battle.
Under these conditions there was a natural growth of public
opinion in the colonies tending to independence of action, and to
indignant protest against foreign dictation. In the sixth decade
of the eighteenth century many of the leading young men of
America talked and wrote of independence as a thing desirable and
In 1755, when James Otis was thirty years of age, his young
friend, John Adams, sitting one day in his school house in
Connecticut, wrote this in his diary: "In another century all
Europe will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us
from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us."
We thus note natural conditions as tending to produce a rebellion
of the American colonies; also the inherited disposition of the
colonists under the discipline of their times; also the growth of
public opinion among the leading spirits--to which we must add
the character of the reigning king and of the ministers to whom
he entrusted his government as the general conditions antecedent
to the revolutionary movement of our fathers.
But there were more immediate and forceful causes which operated
to the same end. Among these should be mentioned as a prevailing
influence the right of arbitrary government claimed by Great
Britain and at length resisted by the colonists. The right of
arbitrarily controlling the American states was shown in a number
of specific acts which we must here discuss.
The first of these was the old Navigation Act of 1651. The
measure adopted by the government of Cromwell had never been
strenuously enforced. It was the peculiarity of all the early
legislation of Great Britain relative to the colonies that it was
either misdirected or permitted to lapse by disuse.
The colonies thus literally grew, with little home direction.
After the navigation act had been nominally in force for
eighty-two years it was revived and supplemented by another
measure known as the Importation Act.
This statute, dating from the year 1733, was intended to be an
actual device for controlling the commercial relations with the
colonies. By the terms of the Act heavy duties were laid on all
the sugar, molasses, and rum which should be imported into the
colonies. The customs were exorbitant and were from the first
evaded as far as possible by the American merchants.
This may be regarded as the first actual breach of justice on the
one side and good faith on the other, as between the home
government and the American dependencies of Great Britain.
The reader will note that the question at issue was from the
first commercial. It was a question of taking something from the
colonists and of giving no equivalent, either in value or
political rights. Had the American colonists been willing to be
taxed and searched without an equivalent, then would there have
been no revolution.
It will be noted from the nature of the question that the issue,
since it was a matter of the merchants, was also a matter of the
cities. For the merchant and the city go together. With the
country folk of the pre-revolutionary era, the faultfinding and
dispute related always to political questions proper--to
questions of rights as between the king and his subjects; to
questions of institutional forms, the best method of governing,
All of these matters, however, could have been easily adjusted,
and if there were an "if" in history they would have been
adjusted without revolution and without independence. The
commercial question, however, involving money rights, and
implying the privilege and power of the Mother Country to take
from the Colonists their property, however small the amount,
could but engender resistance, and if the claim were not
relinquished could but lead to war and disruption.
The neglected growth of the Colonies had in the meantime
established in the seaboard towns of America, usages and customs
which were repugnant to British notions of regular and orderly
government. The commercial life had taken a form of its own.
The Americans had built ships and warehouses. They had engaged
in commerce as they would. They had made their trade as free as
possible. They had ignored the old Navigation Act, and when the
Importation Act was passed, it confronted a condition in America.
It applied to a state of affairs that already existed.
The American ship, trading with the West Indies and bringing back
to Boston a cargo of molasses or rum, was met at custom house
with an exorbitant requisition. The officer acting under the
Importation Act, virtually said, "Stand and deliver."
If it were a British ship the resistance to the duty would be
offered by the land merchants rather than by the sea traders; for
the merchants did not desire that the cost of the merchandise to
themselves and their customers should be doubled without some
equivalent advantage. No equivalent advantage was either visible
or invisible. What, therefore, should they do but first evade
and then openly resist?
There was an epoch of evasion. This covered a period of about
seventeen years, extending from 1733 to 1750. In the latter year
an act was passed by Parliament forbidding the erection of iron
works in America. The manufacture of steel was especially
interdicted. The measure which was in reality directed against
shipbuilding included a provision which forbade the felling of
pines outside of enclosures. It was thus sought by indirection
to prevent the creation of a merchant marine by the American
Colonists and to limit their commerce to British ships. This
measure like the Importation Act was also ignored and resisted.
For eleven years the Americans persisted in their usual course,
making iron, cutting pine timber and building ships, importing
molasses and rum, evading the duties, and thus getting themselves
into the category of smugglers.
It was this precise condition of affairs which led to a still
more stringent measure on the part of the home government. It
was determined in Parliament to put an end to the evasion and
resistance of the American merchants and importers with respect
to the existing laws. The customs should be collected. It was
deemed best, however, that the new measure should issue from the
An appeal was made to the Court of Exchequer in England for the
granting of search warrants to be issued in America by the king's
officers for the purpose of ferreting out contraband goods.
These warrants granted by the Court of Exchequer were the Writs
of Assistance, the name of which appears so frequently and with
so much odium in the colonial history of the times. These writs
were granted by the court under pressure of the ministry in the
The Writs of Assistance were directed to the officers of the
customs in America. But any officer could arm one of his
subordinates, or indeed any other person whom he should
designate, with one of the writs, and the person so appointed
might act in the name of the king's officer.
The thing to be done was the examination of any place and all
places where contraband goods might be supposed to be lodged.
Whether there were evidence or no evidence, the case was the
same. The document was a writ of arbitrary search.
Any house, public or private, might be entered at any time; any
closet or any cellar might be opened. Neither the bridal chamber
nor the room of the dead was sacred on the approach of any petty
customs constable or deputy in whose hands a Writ of Assistance
had been placed. The antecedent proceedings required no
affidavit or any other legal formality. The object was to lay
bare the whole privacy of a people on sheer suspicion of
It could hardly be supposed that our fathers would tamely submit
to such an odious and despotic procedure. To have done so would
have been to subscribe to a statute for their own enslavement.
Nor may we pass from the consideration of these writs and the
resistance offered thereto by the patriots of all our colonies
without noticing the un-English character of these laws.
Of a certainty Englishmen in whatever continent or island of this
world would never tolerate such a tyrannical interference with
their rights. This was demonstrated not only in America, but in
The issuance in England of just such illegal and arbitrary
warrants was one of the causes that led to the tremendous
agitation headed by John Wilkes. The excitement in that
controversy grew, and notwithstanding the repeated arrests of
Wilkes and his expulsions from Parliament, his reelection was
repeated as often, and his following increased until not only the
ministry but the throne itself was shaken by the cry of "Wilkes
and Liberty." Nor did this well-timed ebullition of human rights
subside until the arbitrary warrants were annulled by a decision
of the King's Bench.
It was the trial of this issue in America that brought on the
Revolution. It was a great cause that had to be pleaded, and the
occasion and the city and the man, were as great as the cause.
The parties to it were clearly defined, and were set in sharp
On the one side were the king's officers in the province, headed
by the governor. This following included the officers of the
customs in particular. It also included the not inconsiderable
class of American respectabilities who were feeble in American
sentiments, and who belonged by nature and affiliation to the
established order. These were the loyalists, destined to be
designated as Tories, and to become the bete noire of patriotism.
On the other side was a whole phalanx of the common people--a
phalanx bounded on the popular side by the outskirt of society
and on the high-up side by the intellectual and philosophical
patriots who were as pronounced as any for the cause of their
country, and with better reason than the reason of the many.
The officers of the province elected by the home folks were all
patriots, but the appointed officers of the crown were quite
unanimous for the prerogative of the crown, holding severe
measures should be taken with the resisting colonists, and in
particular that the Writs of Assistance were good law and correct
We should here note the particular play of the personal forces in
the year 1760. There were two notable deaths--the one notable
in Massachusetts and the other in the world. The first was that
of Chief Justice Stephen Sewall of Massachusetts, and the other
was that of His Majesty George II, the
"Snuffy old drone from the German hive,"
as he is described by the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." The
first was succeeded in office by Thomas Hutchinson,
Lieutenant-Governor of the province under Sir Fraucis Bernard,
who was appointed governor in this notable year 1760 as the
successor of Thomas Pownall, who had succeeded Governor William
Hutchinson--to use the adjective which John Adams was wont to
apply to himself and other patriots to the manner born--was a
Massachusettensian. He had sympathized with the people, but he
now turned against them. Before Judge Sewall went away it was
said and believed that Governor Shirley had promised the place of
Chief Justice, when the same should be vacant, to no other than
Colonel James Otis of Barnstable, father of the subject of this
But Governor Bernard, Shirley's second successor in office, took
another view of the matter and appointed Lieutenant-Governor
Hutchinson to the high office of Chief Justice.
It was the belief and allegation of the King's party that this
appointment and this disappointment--the first of Hutchinson and
the second of Colonel Otis--bore heavily on all the Otises, and
indeed converted them from royalism to patriotism.
Chief Justice Hutchinson himself is on record to this effect. In
his "History of Massachusetts," speaking of his own appointment
to the judicial office, he says:
"The expected opposition ensued. Both gentlemen (that is,
Colonel Otis and James Otis, Jr.) had been friends to the
government. From this time they were at the head of every
measure in opposition, not merely in those points which concerned
the Governor in his administration, but in such as concerned the
authority of Parliament; the opposition to which first began in
this colony, and was moved and conducted by one of them, both in
the Assembly and the town of Boston. From so small a spark, a
great fire seems to have been kindled."
The statement of a partisan, especially if he be a beneficiary,
must be taken with the usual allowance of salt.
It may be that the patriotic trend of the Otises was intensified
a little by a personal pique in the matter referred to. But that
either father or son was transferred from the king's party to the
people's party by the failure of Colonel Otis to be appointed
Chief Justice is not to be believed. Other stories are to be
dismissed in the same manner.
One slander prevalent about the Custom House ran to the effect
that James Otis had declared that he would set the province on
fire even if he had to perish in the flames. The art of
political lying was known even among our fathers.
Such was the situation of affairs when the sycophants of the
foreign government in Boston undertook to enforce the Writs of
Assistance. They soon found that they needed more assistance to
do it. The banded merchants, and the patriots generally, said
that the acts were illegal, and that they would not submit to the
officers. The governor and his subordinates and the custom-house
retinue in particular, said that the writs were legal, and that
they should be enforced. The matter came to a clash and a trial.
The case as made up presented this question: Shall the persons
employed in enforcing the Acts of Trade have the power to invoke
generally the assistance of all the executive officers of the
This issue was, in February of 1761, taken into court in the old
Town House, afterwards the old State House, of Boston. There
were sitting the five Judges of the Superior Court of the
province. Chief Justice Hutchinson, still holding the office of
Lieutenant-Governor, his membership in the Council, and his
position of Judge of Probate, presided at the trial. Perhaps
there was never in America an instance in which a high official
so nearly fulfilled the part of "Pooh Bah."
The trial evoked an attendance of all who could be admitted, and
of many more. The officers of the crown were out in full force,
and resolute patriotism completed the crowd. John Adams was one
of the spectators.
Another element in the dramatic situation was the fact that James
Otis had, in the meantime, received the appointment to the crown
office of Advocate General, to which an ample salary was
attached. In this relation it would be his especial duty to
support the petition of the custom-house officers in upholding
the Writs of Assistance and in constraining the executive
officers of the province to support them in doing so.
This contingency brought out the mettle of the man. When the
revenue officers came to him with the request that he defend
their case, he at once resigned his office, and this being known
the merchants immediately sought his services as counsel to
uphold their protest against the Writs. For his assistant they
selected Mr. Oxenbridge Thatcher.
Otis accepted the invitation without a fee. His action involved
the loss of his official position as well as his means of living.
It chanced at this time that his old law preceptor, Jeremiah
Gridley, was selected as King's Attorney, and it fell to his lot
to take the place which Otis would not accept. Thus master and
pupil were brought face to face at the bar in the hottest legal
encounter which preceded our rupture with the mother country.
The trial that ensued has been described by John Adams, an eye
witness of the whole proceedings. He gives in his works a
description of the conduct of the case as it was presented for
and against the crown, and also notes of Otis's argument.
After the pleas were presented and other preliminary matters
arranged, Mr. Gridley addressed the court in support of the
government's position. He defended the petition of the
custom-house officials as both legal and just. Two statutes of
the time of Charles II, empowering the court of Exchequer to
issue writs such as those which were now denied, were adduced.
He then cited the statute of the sixth year of Queen Anne, which
continued to inforce the processes which had been authorized in
the twelfth and fourteenth years of the reign of Charles.
Still more to the point were the statutes of the seventh and
eighth years of William III, which authorized the collection of
revenue "in the British plantations" by officers who might search
both public and private houses to find goods that had evaded the
duty. These statutes Mr. Gridley claimed as a warrant for the
like usage in America.
In answer to Gridley, Oxenbridge Thatcher, himself a lawyer of
no mean abilities, spoke for the counter petitioners. His plea
was a strong confutation of Gridley's arguments. After this
brief address Mr. Otis rose to continue the plea for the people.
Of the speech which followed we have no complete record or wholly
satisfactory summary. It is to John Adams, and to the notes
which he made on the occasion, that we must look for our opinion
of what was, if we mistake not, the greatest and most effective
oration delivered in the American colonies before the Revolution.
Such was the accepted belief of those who heard Otis, and
witnessed the effect of his tremendous oratory.
Making all allowance for exaggeration, it seems to have been one
of those inspired appeals by which History and Providence at
critical epochs make themselves known to mankind. John Adams,
then twenty-five years of age, passing from his notes of
Thatcher's speech, says of the greater actor:
"But Otis was a flame of fire; with a promptitude of classical
allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical
events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic
glance of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid torrent of
impetuous eloquence, he hurried away all before him. American
Independence was then and there born. The seeds of patriots and
heroes, to defend the Non sine diis animosus infans, to defend
the vigorous youth, were then and there sown. Every man of an
immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did,
ready to take arms against Writs of Assistance. Then and there
was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the
arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child
Independence was born. In fifteen years, that is in 1776, he
grew up to manhood, and declared himself free."
We may allow a little for the enthusiasm of a young patriot such
as Adams, but there can be no doubt that his unmeasured eulogy
was well deserved. Such was the description of Otis's speech.
As to the speech itself we have only a second-hand and inadequate
report. Minot, in his "History of Massachusetts," presents what
purports to be a tolerably full outline of the great address.
Mr. Otis spoke for five hours, during which time with his rather
rapid utterance he would perhaps deliver an oration of 30,000
words. Minot's report appears to have been derived from Adams'
notes done into full form by an unknown writer, who probably put
in here and there some rather florid paragraphs of his own. At a
subsequent period, Adams took up the subject and corrected
Minot's report, giving the revised address to William Tudor, who
used the same in his biography of James Otis. From these sources
we are able to present a fair abstract of what were the leading
parts of Otis's speech. In the beginning he said:
"May it please your Honors:
"I was desired by one of the court to look into the books, and
consider the question now before them concerning Writs of
Assistance. I have accordingly considered it, and now appear,
not only in obedience to your order, but likewise in behalf of
the inhabitants of this town, who have present another petition,
and out of regard to the liberties of the subject. And I take
this liberty to declare, that, whether under a fee or not (for in
such a cause as this I despise a fee), I will to my dying day
oppose, with all the powers and faculties God has given me, all
such instruments of slavery on the one hand, and villainy on the
other, as this Writ of Assistance is.
"It appears to me the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the
most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental
principles of law, that was ever found in an English law-book. I
must, therefore, beg your Honors' patience and attention to the
whole range of an argument, that may, perhaps, appear uncommon in
many things, as well as to points of learning that are more
remote and unusual, that the whole tendency of my design may the
more easily be perceived, the conclusions better descend, and the
force of them be better felt.
"I shall not think much of my pains in this case, as I engaged in
it from principle. I was solicited to argue this case as
advocate-general; and because I would not, I have been charged
with desertion from my office. To this charge I can give a very
sufficient answer. I renounced that office, and I argue this
case, from the same principle; and I argue it with the greater
pleasure, as it is in favor of British liberty, at a time when we
hear the greatest monarch upon earth declaring from his throne,
that he glories in the name of Briton, and that the privileges of
his people are dearer to him than the most valuable prerogatives
of his crown; and it is in opposition to a kind of power, the
exercise of which, in former periods of English history, cost one
king of England his head, and another his throne.
"I have taken more pains in this case than I ever will take
again, although my engaging in this and another popular case has
raised much resentment. But I think I can sincerely declare,
that I cheerfully submit myself to every odious name for
conscience' sake; and from my soul I despise all those whose
guilt, malice or folly, has made them my foes.
"Let the consequences be what they will, I am determined to
proceed. The only principles of public conduct, that are worthy
of a gentleman or a man, are to sacrifice estate, ease, health
and applause, and even life, to the sacred calls of his country.
"These manly sentiments, in private life, make the good citizen;
in public life, the patriot and the hero. I do not say that,
when brought to the test, I shall be invincible. I pray God I
may never be brought to the melancholy trial; but if ever I
should, it will then be known how far I can reduce to practice
principles which I know to be founded in truth. In the meantime,
I will proceed to the subject of this writ."
After this introductory part we are obliged to fall back on the
summary given by Mr. Adams. According to his report, Otis in the
next place went into fundamentals and discussed the rights of man
in a state of nature. In this part, the argument ran in an
analagous vein to that of Rousseau in the Contrat Social that is,
man in the first place is a sovereign subject only to the higher
laws revealed in his own conscience. In this state he has a
right to life, to liberty, to property.
Here the speaker fell into the manner of Jefferson in the opening
paragraphs of the Declaration. It is to be noted that Otis
presented the truth absolutely; he including negroes in the
common humanity to whom inalienable rights belong.
Mr. Otis next took up the social compact, and showed that society
is the individual enlarged and generalized. This brought him to
the question before the court; for the conflict now on was a
struggle of society, endowed with inalienable rights, against
arbitrary authority and its abusive exercise.
The abusive exercise was shown in the attempts to enforce the
Acts of Trade. Of this kind was the old Navigation Act, and of
like character was the Importation Act. It was to enforce these
that the Writs of Assistance had been devised. Mr. Otis then
"Your Honors will find, in the old books concerning the office of
a justice of the peace, precedents of general warrants to search
suspected houses. But, in more modern books, you will find only
special warrants to search such and such houses, specially named,
in which the complainant has before sworn, that he suspects his
goods are concealed; and will find it adjudged, that special
warrants only are legal. In the same manner, I rely in it, that
the writ prayed for in this petition, being general, is illegal.
It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands
of every petty officer.
"I say, I admit that special Writs of Assistance, to search
special places, may be granted to certain persons on oath; but I
deny that the writ now prayed for can be granted; for I beg leave
to make some observations on the writ itself, before I proceed to
other acts of Parliament.
"In the first place, the writ is universal, being directed to
'all and singular justices, sheriffs, constables, and all other
officers and subjects;' so that, in short, it is directed to
every subject in the King's dominions. Every one, with this
writ, may be a tyrant in a legal manner, and may control,
imprison, or murder, any one within the realm.
"In the next place it is perpetual; there is no return. A man is
accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign
secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation
around him, until the trump of the archangel shall excite
different emotions in his soul.
"In the third place, a person with this writ, in the daytime, may
enter all houses, shops, etc., at will, and command all to assist
"Fourthly, by this writ, not only deputies, etc., but even their
menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. What is this
but to have the curse of Canaan with a witness on us? To be the
servant of servants, the most despicable of God's creation?
"Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is
the freedom of one's house. A man's house is his castle; 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, may break locks, bars, and every
thing in their way; and whether they break through malice or
revenge, no man, no court, can inquire. Bare suspicion, without
oath, is sufficient.
"This wanton exercise of this power is not a chimerical
suggestion of a heated brain. I will mention some facts. Mr.
Pew had one of these writs, and, when Mr. Ware succeeded him, he
endorsed this writ over to Mr. Ware; so that these writs are
negotiable from one officer to another; and so your Honors have
no opportunity of judging the persons to whom this vast power is
delegated. Another instance is this:
"Mr. Justice Walley had called this same Mr. Ware before him, by
a constable, to answer for a breach of the Sabbath-day acts, or
that of profane swearing. As soon as he had finished, Mr. Ware
asked him if he had done. He replied, 'Yes.' 'Well, then,' said
Mr. Ware, 'I will show you a little of my power. I command you
to permit me to search your house for uncustomed goods;' and went
on to search the house from the garret to the cellar; and then
served the constable in the same manner.
"But to show another absurdity in this writ, if it be
established, I insist upon it, every person, by the 14th of
Charles the Second, has this power, as well as the custom-house
officers. The words are, 'It shall be lawful for any person, or
persons, authorized,' etc. What a scene does this open. Every
man prompted by revenge, ill-humor, or wantonness, to inspect the
inside of his neighbor's house, may get a Writ of Assistance.
Others will ask it from self-defence; one arbitrary exertion will
provoke another, until society be involved in tumult and in
This extract may serve to show the Demosthenic power of James
Otis as an orator. We cannot within our limits present many
additional paragraphs from his great plea in the cause of his
To the next division of his argument he confuted the position
taken by Gridley with respect to the alleged legal precedents for
the Writs of Assistance. He showed that the writs were wholly
different from those provided for in the time of Charles II.
Even if they had not been so, the epoch and the manner of King
Charles had passed away. Neither could the Writs be justified by
inferences and constructions deduced from any previous statutes
Besides, such odious Writs could never be enforced. They could
never be enforced in the City of the Pilgrims. If the King of
England should himself encamp with twenty thousand soldiers on
the Common of Boston, he could not enforce such laws. He
assailed the sugar tax with unmeasured invective. And over and
above all, this despotic legislation was in direct conflict with
the Charter of Massachusetts.
Here the orator broke forth in his most impassioned strain
declaring that the British King, the British Parliament and the
British nation, were all guilty of ingratitude and oppression in
attempting to impose tyrannical enactment on the people of
America. Thus he concluded his argument appeal.
Those who heard the oration were convulsed with excitement. The
King's party was enraged. The patriots were inspired and
defiant. It was in every respect a critical and a historic hour.
What would the court do with the case? The action of that body
was obscure and double. There seems to have been a disposition
of the Associate Judges to decide for the counter-petitioners;
but Chief Justice Hutchinson induced them to assent to his policy
of withholding a decision. He accordingly announced that the
court would decide the case at the ensuing session. He then
wrote to the home government, and the records show that the
decision was rendered for the petitioners. That is, for the
Custom House officials, and in favor of the Writs.
The Chief Justice is also on record to the effect that he
continued to issue the Writs; but if so, no officer of the king
ever dared to present one of them in Boston! The famous (and
infamous) Writs of Assistance were as dead as the mummies of
It is from this point of view that the character and work of
James Otis appear to the greatest historical advantage. There
can be no doubt that his was the living voice which called to
resistance, first Boston, then Massachusetts, then New England
and then the world! For ultimately the world heard the sound
thereof and was glad. The American Colonies resisted, and at
length won their independence. The sparks fell in France, and
the jets of flame ran together in a conflagration the light of
which was seen over Europe, and if over Europe, then over the
world. The Pre-revolutionist had cried out and mankind heard
him. Resistance to tyranny became obedience to God.
We shall here sketch rapidly and briefly the unsteady way and
unfortunate decline of James Otis down to the time of the eclipse
of his intellect and his tragic death.
Three months after he had, according to John Adams; "breathed
into the nation the breath of life," he was chosen to represent
Boston in the legislature of the Commonwealth. All of his
colleagues were patriots. Boston was in that mood.
There runs a story that when he was entering upon his duties he
was counselled by a friend to curb his impetuosity and to gain
leadership by the mastery of self--advice most salutary to one
of his temperament. But it was much like advising General Putnam
to be calm at Bunker Hill! Otis promised, however, that if his
friends would warn him when his temperature was rising, he would
It is also narrated that his friends did attempt to pluck him by
the coat, but he turned upon them demanding to know if he was a
school boy to be called down!
At this time the relations between Governor Bernard and the
Legislature were greatly strained. Otis rather increased the
tension. A question arose about a financial measure whereby gold
was to be exported and silver money retained as the currency of
the colony--the former at less than its nominal value--in a
manner to juggle the people into paying their obligations twice
over. The argument became hot and the Council taking the side of
the administration was opposed by the legislative assembly.
Chief Justice Hutchinson and James Otis got into a controversy
which was bitter enough, and which may be illustrated with the
following letter which James Otis addressed to the printer of a
"Perhaps I should not have troubled you or the public with any
thoughts of mine, had not his Honor the Lieutenant-Governor
condescended to give me a personal challenge. This is an honor
that I never had vanity enough to aspire after, and I shall ever
respect Mr. Hutchinson for it so long as I live, as he certainly
consulted my reputation more than his own when he bestowed it. A
general officer in the army would be thought very condescending
to accept, much more to give, a challenge to a subaltern. The
honor of entering the lists with a gentleman so much one's
superior in one view is certainly tempting; it is at least
possible that his Honor may lose much; but from those who have
and desire but little, but little can possibly be taken away.
"I am your humble servant,
"JAMES OTIS, JR."
This controversy continued for some time, and it is thought that
to it must be attributed much of the animosity displayed by the
Chief Justice towards Otis in the "History of Massachusetts Bay."
Mr. Otis continued his aggressive policy in the session of the
assembly held in 1762. It was at this session that the
government in the hope of getting a sum of money adopted the ruse
of creating an alarm relative to a French invasion of
Newfoundland. But the patriots would have none of it. They went
so far as to say that if arbitrary government was to be
established in America, it made no difference whether the
Americans should have King Stork or King Log. To this effect ran
a resolution offered by James Otis:
"No necessity can be sufficient to justify a House of
Representatives in giving up such a privilege; for it would be of
little consequence to the people, whether they were subject to
George or Louis, the King of Great Britain or the French King; if
both were arbitrary, as both would be, if both could levy taxes
It is said that when this resolution was offered a loyalist
member cried out in the Virginian manner, "Treason, treason." It
was in this way that Mr. Otis gained the undying enmity of the
King's party in America.
It was in the period following his legislative service that James
Otis prepared his powerful pamphlet entitled "A Vindication of
the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of
the Massachusetts Bay." In this work he traverses and justifies
the course pursued by the patriot legislature during the sessions
of his attendance.
Great was the joy of the American Colonies at the conclusion of
the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris in February of
1763 conceded Canada to Great Britain and insured the
predominance of English institutions in the New World.
The animosities of the Americans towards the mother country
rapidly subsided. Meetings were held in the principal towns to
ratify the peace. At the jubilee in Boston, James Otis presided.
He made on the occasion one of his notable addresses. He
referred with enthusiasm to the "expulsion of the heathen"--
meaning the French, and then expressed sentiments of strong
affection for Great Britain and appreciation of the filial
relations of the American Colonies to her.
In these utterances Otis reflected the sentiment of the
Bostonians and of the whole people. The General Assembly of
Massachusetts took up the theme and passed resolutions of
gratitude and loyalty. At this particular juncture the Americans
did not anticipate what was soon to follow.
The English Ministry was already preparing a scheme for the
raising of revenue in America: The question of the right of
taxation suddenly obtruded itself. The Americans claimed the
right as Englishmen to tax themselves. The English ministers
replied that Parliament, and not the Colonial Assemblies, was the
proper body to vote taxes in any and all parts of the British
Empire. The Americans replied that they were not represented in
Parliament. Parliament replied that many of the towns, shires,
and boroughs in England were not represented. If they were not
represented, they ought to be, said the Americans;--and thus the
case was made up.
By the beginning of 1764 it was known that the Ministers had
determined to make a rigorous enforcement of the Sugar Act. Than
this, nothing could be more odious to America.
In the spring of the year just named, the citizens of Boston held
a great meeting to protest against the impending policy of the
crown. As a member of the Assembly and as chairman of a
committee Mr. Otis made a report which was ordered to be sent to
the agent of the government along with the copy of Otis's recent
pamphlet, "The Rights of the British Colonies asserted and
At this time Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson was about to become
the representative of the Colony in its contention with the crown
and for some reason, not very apparent, Mr. Otis favored his
appointment. Governor Bernard, however, opposed the measure, and
Hutchinson declined the appointment. Otis's course was censured
by the patriots and his popularity was for the while impaired.
However, he took strong grounds against the Sugar Act, and soon
afterward still more strenuously opposed the Stamp Act.
He regained the impaired confidence of the people and at the
close of the session of the Assembly he was appointed chairman of
a committee to correspond with the other Colonies, and thus to
promote the common interest of all. This, after the
intercolonial conference which Franklin had promoted, was perhaps
the first step towards the creation of the Continental Congress.
Mr. Otis's letter to the provincial agent went to England, though
it was sent in the name of the Lower House only. In this
document the writer said:
"Granting the time may come, which we hope is far off, when the
British Parliament shall think fit to oblige the North Americans,
not only to maintain civil government among themselves, for this
they have already done, but to support an army to protect them,
can it be possible, that the duties to be imposed and the taxes
to be levied shall be assessed without the voice or consent of
one American in Parliament? If we are not represented, we are
This document was one of the few American papers which was read
and criticized in the British Parliament. The merits of Mr.
Otis's pamphlet were actually debated in the House of Lords by
Lord Littleton and Lord Mansfield. The latter in the course of
his remarks said:
"Otis is a man of consequence among the people there. They have
chosen him for one of their deputies at the Congress, and general
meeting from the respective governments. It is said the man is
mad. What then? One madman often makes many. Massaniello was
mad, nobody doubts; yet for all that, he overturned the
government of Naples. Madness is catching in all popular
assemblies, and upon all popular matters. The book is full of
wildness. I never read it till a few days ago, for I seldom look
into such things."
It was in the course of this pamphlet that the Mr. Otis spoke so
strongly on taxation and representation. "The very act of
taxing," said he, "exercised over those who are not represented,
appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential
rights; and, if continued seems to be, in effect, an entire
disfranchisement of every civil right. For what one civil right
is worth a rush, after a man's property is subject to be taken
from him at pleasure, without his consent?"
In this was the germ of the stern resistance offered by the
Americans to the Stamp Act. No man in the colonies did so much
to confute the principles on which the Stamp Act rested as did
When the General Assembly of Massachusetts met in May of 1765,
Governor Bernard urged in his address the duty of submission to
Parliament as to the "conservators of liberty." It was this
recommendation which being referred to a Committee, of which Otis
was a member, led to the adoption of a resolution for the holding
of a Colonial Congress in New York.
Nine colonies accepted the invitation of Massachusetts, and James
Otis headed the delegation of three members chosen to represent
the mother colony in that prophetic body.
The story of the contest of the Americans with the home
government on the subject of the Stamp Act is well known. The
controversy resulted on the 18th of March, 1766, in the repeal of
the Act by Parliament. But the repeal was accompanied with a
salvo to British obduracy in the form of a declaration that
Parliament had "the right to bind the colonies in all cases
Notwithstanding this hateful addendum, the repeal of the Act was
received in America with the greatest joy. During the excitement
antecedent to the repeal, mobs had surged through the streets of
Boston, building bonfires and burning effigies of officers and
other adherents of the king's party. In one of these
ebullitions, the house of Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson was
attacked and pillaged. The better people had nothing to do with
it. Many were arrested and imprisoned.
Governor Bernard was so much alarmed that he declared himself to
be a governor only in name. The partisans of the crown started a
story that James Otis was the instigator of the riots. There is
a hint to this effect in Hutchinson's "History of Massachusetts
Bay." But it is evident that the charge was unfounded--except
in this, that in times of public excitement the utterances of
orators are frequently wrested from their purpose by the ignorant
and made to do service in the cause of anarchy.
Meanwhile on the first of November, Mr. Otis returned from the
Congress in New York, laid a copy of the proceedings before the
Assembly, and was formally thanked for his services.
During the Stamp Act year, Mr. Otis found time to compose two
pamphlets setting forth his views on the great questions of the
day. There had recently appeared a letter written by a Halifax
gentleman and addressed to a Rhode Island friend. The latter
personage was unknown; the former was ascertained to be a certain
Mr. Howard. The so-called "Letter" was written with much ability
and in a bitter spirit.
To this Otis replied with great asperity, and with his power of
invective untrammeled. He called his pamphlet "A Vindication of
the British Colonies against the Aspersions of the Halifax
Gentleman, in his Letter to a Rhode Island Friend." A single
passage from the work may serve to show the cogency of the
writer's style and especially his anticipation of the doctrines
of the Declaration of Independence.
"Is the gentleman," said he, "a British-born subject and a
lawyer, and ignorant that charters from the crown have usually
been given for enlarging the liberties and privileges of the
grantees, not for limiting them, much less for curtailing those
essential rights, which all his Majesty's subjects are entitled
to, by the laws of God and nature, as well as by the common law
and by the constitution of their country?
"The gentleman's positions and principles, if true, would afford
a curious train of consequences. Life, liberty, and property
are, by the law of nature, as well as by the common law, secured
to the happy inhabitants of South Britain, and constitute their
primary, civil, or political, rights."
The other pamphlet bearing date of September 4, 1765, was
entitled "Considerations on Behalf of the Colonists, in a Letter
to a Noble Lord." In this the writer discusses the question of
Taxation and in particular the specious claim of the British
Ministry that the home government might justly tax the colonists
to defray the expenses of the French and Indian War.
In answer to this Otis says, in a manner worthy of an American
patriot in the year 1898, "The national debt is confessed on all
hands to be a terrible evil, and may in time ruin the state. But
it should be remembered, that the colonies never occasioned its
increase, nor ever reaped any of the sweet fruits of involving
the finest kingdom in the world in the sad calamity of an
enormous, overgrown mortgage to state and stock-jobbers."
The period here under consideration was that in which the Stamp
Act was nominally in force. The law required all legal business
to be done on stamped paper. Therefore no legal business was
Hutchinson in his History says: "No wills were proved, no
administrations granted, no deeds nor bonds executed." Of course
matters could not go on in this manner forever. Governor Bernard
was induced to call the legislature together. When that body
convened an answer to the Governor's previous message was adopted
by the House, and the answer was the work of James Otis. An
extract will show the temper of the people at that juncture:
"The courts of justice must be open, open immediately, and the
law, the great rule of right, in every county in the province,
executed. The stopping the courts of justice is a grievance
which this House must inquire into. Justice must be fully
administered through the province, by which the shocking effects
which your Excellency apprehended from the people's
non-compliance with the Stamp Act will be prevented."
Meanwhile the public agitation continued; the newspapers teemed
with controversy. The administration was firm, but patriotism
was rampant. The party of the people adopted the policy of
embarrassing the government as much as possible. Then came the
news of the repeal of the act, and the jubilation of the people
to which we have already referred came after.
When the legislature met in May of 1767, James Otis was chosen
speaker; but his election was vetoed by the Governor. The House
was obliged to submit, which it did in sullen temper, and then
chose Thomas Cushing for its presiding officer. The other
elections indicated the patriotic purpose of the House.
There was almost a deadlock between the legislative and executive
departments. Governor Bernard addressed the representatives in a
supercilious and dogmatic manner, which they for their part
resented with scant courtesy.
On one occasion they said (the language being Otis's) in a
concluding paragraph: "With regard to the rest of your
Excellency's speech, we are sorry we are constrained to observe,
that the general air and style of it savor much more of an act of
free grace and pardon, than of a parliamentary address to the two
Houses of Assembly; and we most sincerely wish your Excellency
had been pleased to reserve it, if needful, for a proclamation."
The state papers on affairs--at least that portion of them
emanating from the legislative department--were, up to the year
1769, nearly all prepared by Mr. Otis; but it was generally
necessary to tone down the first drafts of his work. For this
duty the speaker (Thomas Cushing) and Samuel Adams were generally
selected. It was reckoned necessary to put the damper on the
The popular tendency at this time was illustrated in a
proposition made by Mr. Otis to open the gallery of the House to
such of the people as might wish to hear the debates.
Otis continued his correspondence, a great deal of which was
official. His style and spirit suited the temper of the
representatives, and they kept him occupied as chairman of a
committee to answer messages from the Government, and, indeed,
messages from anybody who might assail the patriot party.
In the meantime the animosity between him and the Governor of the
province waxed hot. The Governor constantly charged the patriot
leader with being an incendiary, and the latter replied in a
manner to convict Governor Bernard of despotic usages and a
spirit hostile to American liberty.
The next measure adopted by Parliament inimical to the colonies
was the act of 1767 imposing duties on glass, paper, painters'
colors, and tea, and appointing a commission for the special
purpose of collecting the revenues. The commissioners so
appointed were to reside in the colonies.
This measure, hardly less odious than the Stamp Act, was
strangely enough resisted with less vehemence. Several of the
popular leaders were disposed to counsel moderation. Among these
was Otis himself. But nearly all outside of the official circles
were united against the new act. They formed associations and
signed agreements not to use any of the articles on which the
duty was imposed. This was equivalent to making the act of no
In the legislative assembly of 1768, Mr. Otis was appointed with
Samuel Adams to prepare an important paper on the state of public
affairs. This they did by drawing up a petition which has been
regarded as one of the ablest of its kind.
There is some controversy as to who actually wrote this famous
paper, but it appears to have been done mostly by Mr. Otis,
though the refining hand of Samuel Adams may be clearly seen in
the style. The publication of the paper still further strained
the relations between Governor Bernard and the representative
Meanwhile, the news of the assembling of the Colonial Congress in
New York had produced a sensation in England, and the petition of
the Massachusetts legislature added to the temper of the
ministry. In May of 1768, Bernard sent to the assembly a
requisition that that body should rescind the resolution which
they had passed for sending a circular letter to the other
To this Mr. Otis, acting for the assembly, prepared a reply
which, while it was not less severe, was more respectful and
concessive than were most of his communications. At the
conclusion he says:
"We have now only to inform your Excellency, that this House have
voted not to rescind, as required, the resolution of the last
House; and that, upon a decision on the question, there were
ninety-two nays and seventeen yeas."
In this manner the controversy dragged on through the years
1768-69, but in the summer of the former year an event occurred
which roused the people to a high pitch of excitement. Some of
the custom-house officers seized a vessel belonging to John
Hancock. For this they were assailed by a mob which burned the
boat of the collector of customs. The officers fled to the
castle. It was for this business that a body of British soldiers
was first sent to Boston.
On the 12th of September, 1768, a great meeting was held in
Faneuil Hall, but the crowd was such as to make necessary and
adjournment to Sewall's Meeting-house. James Otis was moderator
of the meeting. The presence of British soldiers, evidently sent
to Boston to enforce the decrees of an arbitrary government, was
sufficient to bring into play all the elements of patriotism.
The British soldier's coat in the old town was of the same color
as the scarf which the picador shakes in the face of the enraged
animal! The effect in either case was the same.
At the meeting just mentioned, Mr. Otis presided and spoke. A
report of what occurred was written (presumptively by some enemy
of the patriots), and was sent as a report to the British
ministry. In this Otis was charged with saying, "In case Great
Britain is not disposed to redress our grievances after proper
application, the people have nothing more to do, but to gird the
sword on the thigh and shoulder the musket." Doubtless this
report was a perversion of the truth.
Other meetings were held, and resolutions were the order of the
day. On the 22nd of June, Faneuil Hall was again crowded. James
Otis, Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock were
selected as representatives to meet Committees of other towns in
a convention. At this meeting it was voted that the people
should arm themselves. The convention met with delegates present
from nearly ninety towns. The movement against the ministerial
scheme had already become revolutionary.
Meanwhile in 1768, the general assembly was unceremoniously
prorogued by Governor Bernard, but in May of the following year,
the body was re-convened. On the meeting day the building was
surrounded with British troops.
Otis made an address, declaring that free legislation would be
impossible in the presence of an armed soldiery. He moved the
appointment of a committee to remonstrate with the Governor, and
to request the withdrawal of the soldiers. To this the Governor
replied evasively that he had not the authority to order the
withdrawal of the military. Otis in answer reported that the
Governor's reply was according to English law, more impossible
than the thing which the Assembly had petitioned for.
The matter resulted in the adjournment of the body to meet at
Cambridge, in the chapel of Harvard College. Assembled at that
place the legislature was addressed by Otis with impassioned
eloquence. The people as well as the legislators were gathered.
"The times are dark and trying," said the speaker. "We may soon
be called on in turn to act or to suffer." "You," he continued,
"should study and emulate the models of ancient patriotism. To
you your country may one day look for support, and you should
recollect that the noblest of all duties is to serve that
country, and if necessary to devote your lives in her cause."
The House soon prepared a paper to be sent to the British
Ministry denouncing the administration of Governor Bernard and
protesting against the further presence of a British Soldiery in
Boston. On the 27th of June, 1769, the representatives went
further and prepared a petition, praying for the removal of
Bernard from the government. This they might well do for the
king had already recalled him!
The Governor went away in such odor as the breezes of the Old Bay
have hardly yet dissipated. He went away, but in the fall added
his compliments to the Americans by the publication of sundry
letters in which they were traduced and vilified. To this James
Otis and Samuel Adams, were appointed a committee to reply. They
did so in a pamphlet entitled "An Appeal to the World, or a
Vindication of the Town of Boston," etc.
It was in these tumultuous and honorable labors and excitements
extending over a period of fully ten years that the intellect of
James Otis became overstrained and, at length, warped from its
We may regard his rational career as ending with the year 1769.
In September of this year it was noticed that he had become
excitable, and that his natural eccentricity was accented at
times to the extent of rendering his conduct irrational.
It was at this time that he published in the Boston "Gazette"
what he called an advertisement, in which he placarded the four
commissioners of customs, on the ground that they had assailed
his character, declaring that they had formed a confederacy of
villainy, and warning the officers of the crown to pay no
attention to them.
On the evening of the following day, Mr. Otis went into a
coffee-house where John Robinson, one of the commissioners whom
he had lampooned, was sitting. On entering the room, Mr. Otis
was attacked by Robinson who struck him with his cane. Otis
struck back. There was a battle. Those who were present were
Robinson's friends. The fight became a melee.
A young man named Gridley undertook to assist Otis, but was
himself overpowered and pitched out of the house. Mr. Otis was
seriously wounded in the head, and was taken to his house,
bleeding and exhausted. The principle wound appeared to be
inflicted with a sword; it was in the nature of a cut, and an
empty scabbard was found on the floor of the room in which the
On the morrow, Boston was aflame with excitement. Otis was
seriously injured; in fact he never recovered from the effects of
the assault. He brought suit against Robinson, and a jury gave a
judgment of two thousand pounds damages against the defendant.
The latter arose in court with a writing of open confession and
apology, and hereupon the spirited and generous Otis refused to
avail himself of the verdict.
Could he have thrown off the effects of the injury in like
manner, his last years might have been a happier sequel to a
useful and patriotic life.
During the sessions of the Assembly, in the years 1770 and 1771,
James Otis retained his membership, but the mental disease which
afflicted him began to grow worse, and he participated only at
intervals (and eccentrically) in the business of legislation.
In May of 1770, a town meeting was held in Boston, and a
resolution of thanks was passed to the distinguished
representative for his services in the General Assembly. This
was on the occasion of his retirement into the country, in the
hope of regaining his health. At the close, the resolution
"The town cannot but express their ardent wishes for the recovery
of his (Mr. Otis's) health, and the continuance of those public
services, that must long be remembered with gratitude, and
distinguish his name among the Patriots of America."
From this time forth the usefulness of James Otis was virtually
at an end. In the immortal drama on which the curtain was rising
--the drama of Liberty and Independence--he was destined to take
no part. The pre-revolutionist in eclipse must give place to
the Revolutionist who was rising. John Adams came after, not
wholly by his own ambition, but at the call of inexorable
History, to take the part and place of the great Forerunner.
What must have been the thoughts and emotions of that Forerunner
when the minute men of Massachusetts came firing and charging
after the British soldiers in full retreat from Concord Bridge
and Lexington? With what convulsion must his mind, in
semi-darkness and ruin, have received the news of the still
greater deed at Bunker Hill? History is silent as to what the
broken Titan thought and said in those heroic days.
The patriot in dim eclipse became at times wholly rational, but
with the least excitement his malady would return. In
conversation something of his old brilliancy would return in
flashes. For the rest, the chimes in that high soul no longer
played the music of reason, but gave out only the discords of
insanity. He was never reduced to serious delirium or to violent
frenzy, but he was an insane man; and under this shadow he walked
for the greater part of ten years, during which Independence was
declared and the Revolution fought out to a victorious end.
It was in this period of decline and obscuration that James Otis
witnessed through the gathering shadows the rise to distinction
and fame of many of the patriots whom he had led in the first
campaigns for liberty. John Adams and Hancock were now at the
fore battling for independence. Among those who rose to eminence
in the immortal eighth decade was Samuel Alleyne Otis, who in
1776 was elected a representative in the great Congress of the
Revolution. James did not live to see his brother become speaker
of the House, but he witnessed in 1780 his service as a member of
the Constitutional Convention of Massachusetts. Afterward, in
1787, he was a commissioner to negotiate a settlement with the
participants in Shay's Rebellion. With the organization of the
new national government he became Secretary of the Senate of the
United States, and served in that capacity until his death, April
In 1781, Mr. Otis was taken by his friend, Colonel Samuel Osgood,
to the home of the latter in Andover. There the enfeebled
patriot passed the remainder of his life. He became very obese,
and his nervous excitability to an extent subsided.
He was amiable and interesting to his friends. His health was in
some measure restored, but his intellectual strength did not
return. He thought of going back to Boston, and in one instance
he accepted and conducted a case in the court of Common Pleas;
but his manner was that of a paretic giant.
The favorable turn in Mr. Otis's condition was at length arrested
by an attempt on his part to dine with Governor Hancock. At the
dinner he was observed to become first sad and then to waver into
mental occultation. He was taken by his brother, Hon. Samuel
Alleyne Otis, to Andover. The event convinced the sufferer that
the end of his life was not distant.
Strange, strange are the foregleams of the things to come! On
one occasion he said to his sister, Mrs. Warren, "I hope when God
Almighty in his Providence shall take me out of time into
eternity, it will be by a flash of lightning!" The tradition
goes that he frequently gave expression to this wish. Did the
soul foresee the manner of its exit?
A marvelous and tragic end was indeed at hand. On the 23d of
May, 1783, only a few months before the Briton left our shores
never to return but by the courtesy of the Republic, a
thundercloud, such as the season brings in New England, passed
James Otis stood against the lintel of the door watching the
commotion of the elements. There was a crash of thunder. The
lightning, serpent-like, darted from heaven to earth and passed
through the body of the patriot! Instantly he was dead.
There was no mark upon him; no contortion left its snarling twist
on the placid features of him who had contributed so much of
genius and patriotic fire to the freedom and future greatness of
his country--so much to the happiness of his countrymen.
On the 24th of the month the body of Mr. Otis was taken to Boston
and was placed in modest state in his former home. The funeral
on the 25th was conducted by the Brotherhood of Free and Accepted
Masons to which Mr. Otis belonged. The sepulture was made, as
narrated in the first pages of this monograph, in the Cunningham
tomb in the Old Granary Burying Ground. In that tomb, also was
laid six years afterwards, the body of Ruth Cunningham Otis, his
wife. Out of this brief narrative of a great life, let each
reader for himself deduce as he may, the inspiration and purpose,
without which American citizenship is no better that some other.
Since the first pages of this monograph were written (in March
1898,) the Sons of the American Revolution have marked the grave
of James Otis with a bronze reproduction of their armorial badge,
and a small tablet, as seen in the Illustration on this page.
 John Adams attempts to classify the pre-revolutionary orators
of New England according to their ardor and influence. "The
characters," says he, "the most conspicuous, the most ardent and
influential, from 1760 to 1766, were first and foremost, above
all and over all, James Otis; next to him was Oxenbridge
Thatcher, next to him Samuel Adams; next to him, John Hancock,
then Doctor Mayhew."--Works of John Adams, Vol. X, p. 284.
If we should insert in this list the name of John Adams himself
his place would be between his cousin and Hancock.
 In a further discussion of the prerogatives of the crown Mr.
Otis said: "When the Parliament shall think fit to allow the
colonists a representation in the House of Commons, the equity of
their taxing the colonists will be as clear as their power is, at
present, of doing it if they please."
THE CHARACTER OF JAMES OTIS BY CHARLES K. EDMUNDS, PH. D.
In viewing Washington as the "Father" of our country, as he
certainly was in a sense which we of to-day are coming more and
more to appreciate, in classing Hamilton and Jefferson as
brothers of Washington in his great work, and in ascribing to
Franklin even a greater share in establishing "The United States
of America" than to any of these three, we are apt to forget
those patriots who did so much to keep alive the spirit of
liberty and justice in our land during the troublesome times
preceding the actual rupture between England and her American
Colonies. While we ascribe great and merited praise to those who
not only helped to lay the foundation but also actually began to
build the superstructure of our nationhood, let us not forget
those who by reason of the slightly earlier day in which they
strove needed even a clearer vision to follow the same plans.
They labored before the day had dawned, and yet they held ever
before them the same high-minded general principles of liberty
and justice which actuated the lives of those who took up their
work after them, when the light of Independence was fast breaking
on our shores. Among these pre-revolutionists there is none
more worthy of remembrance and admiration than James Otis, the
foremost advocate of his time in the Colonies. Very vigorously
he toiled in sowing seed the fruits of which he himself was not
to see, but which under the nurture of other able hands and in
the providence of the God of Nations budded at last into "The
Great Republic." Thus it becomes the purpose of this article to
recall briefly the most striking characteristics of him whose
name must always be intimately associated with the ardent debates
and the troublesome events which foreshadowed the great struggle
between the greatest of colonizing nations and her greatest
The exigency of these times was great; and men of courage and
capacity, wise in council and prompt in action rose to meet it.
They were not men ennobled merely by their appearance on the
stage at the time when great scenes were passing. They took a
part in those scenes with a degree of aptness and energy
proportional to the magnitude of the occasion and throughout
displayed high qualities of character.
Otis's part was played not so much in the revolution itself, as
in the agitations and controversies by which it was heralded and
its way prepared. "Admirably fitted by his popular talents, legal
acquirements, and ardent temperament, to take an active share in
the discussion respecting the comparative rights of the Colonies
and the British Parliament, and in preparing the minds of his
countrymen for the great step of a final separation from England,
and having exhausted, as it were, his mental powers in this
preparatory effort, his mind was darkened when the contest really
came, and he remained an impotent spectator of the struggle, by
which the liberties of his native land were at last permanently