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James Otis The Pre-Revolutionist by John Clark Ridpath

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The Life of James Otis as narrated by William Tudor is one of the
most pleasant and instructive in the whole range of American
biographies, and leaves few particulars in the personal life of
Otis to be gathered by the subsequent investigator. The sketch
by Francis Bowen in Jared Sparks' Library of American Biography
furnishes additional and valuable illustrations of the character
and services of Otis, which were secured from the third volume of
Thomas Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts, (first published
after Tudor's Life of Otis appeared), from the copies of papers
in the office of the English Board of Trade relating to the
colonial history of Massachusetts, and from the private
correspondence of Governors Bernard and Hutchinson with the
English Ministry, during the time of Otis's public career. These
sources throw much light on the conduct of Otis as the chief
political opponent of the these two colonial executives.

It is the purpose of the present article merely to emphasize the
three striking traits of his character,--his impetuosity and
earnestness, his high integrity and devotion to truth and
justice, and his marked ability as an advocate before the bar.

In reading the memoirs of James Otis one is struck from first to
last with the impetuosity, the earnestness, the ardent temper of
his nature. This was at once the secret of a great measure of
his power and also the partial source of his mental undoing. As
a student at Harvard, the last two years of his college life were
marked with great assiduity in study, and while at home during
the vacations in this period, he devoted himself so closely to
his books, that he was seldom seen by his friends, and often it
was not known that he had returned, till he had been in his
father's house for some days. Such severe application doubtless
served to sow the first seeds of mental derangement, which
falling on the fertile soil of his feverish disposition and
nutured by the constant and intense argumentative strife of his
later political career, finally found their fruition in the
mental collapse which so distressingly darkened his latter days.
When participating in the common amusements of youth he exhibited
all the vivacity of an excitable temperament.

The earnestness of his nature led him to resign a lucrative
office, renounce the favor of government, abandon the fairest
prospects of professional emolument and distinction, and to
devote himself to the service of his country with unflinching
courage, quenchless zeal, and untiring energy.

As an orator the impetuosity of his speech and the earnestness of
his voice and manner were so impressive, that they forced
conviction upon his hearers even when his arguments did not reach
their judgment. Such was the fluency and animation of his
language, whether written or spoken, that though it was sometimes
coarse and defective in taste, it was always, as will be seen
from the examples quoted in this paper, extremely effective.

In political controversy the impetuosity of his nature led him to
be irascible and harsh towards his opponents and sometimes hasty
in judgment. But towards those whom he liked he was equally
effusive in expressions of regard, and was generous,
high-spirited and placable.

The fiery and impetuous temper of Otis is well illustrated
by the following anecdote given by Tudor, who, however, does not
vouch for its authenticity. Upon first taking his seat in the
house, a friend sitting near, said: "Mr. Otis, you have great
abilities, but are too warm, too impetuous; your opponents,
though they cannot meet you in argument, will get the advantage
by interrupting you, and putting you in a passion." "Well,"
said Otis, "if you see me growing warm, give me a hint, and I'll
command myself." Later on when a question of some importance
arose, Otis and this friend were on the Boston seat together.
Otis said he was going to speak, and his companion again warned
him against being irritated by interruptions from the opposition.

He soon rose, and was speaking with great fluency and powerful
logic, when Timothy Ruggles interrupted him; he grew warm in
reply, and his friend pulled his coat slightly. Otis scowled as
he turned round, but taking the hint moderated his tone. Soon
afterwards, Mr. Choate, of Ipswich, broke in on him again. This
aroused his temper, and his coat was pulled a second time;
turning round quickly he said in an undertone to his monitor,
"Let me alone; do you take me for a schoolboy?" and continuing
his address with great impetuosity he overwhelmed his opponent
with sarcasm and invective.

Without doubt James Otis was a strong man,--a man of strong and
positive character, whose friends and enemies were equally strong
in their feelings of like and dislike. The men who were ranged
as his enemies have for the most part been relegated to a second
place on the page of history (this does not apply to Thomas
Hutchinson, who in his official capacity was Otis's chief
political opponent, but who did not exhibit the personal enemity
of Bernard and others); while those who were his friends stand
out boldly among the notable characters of the past. As Otis
himself remarked concerning Charles Lee, we are not at a loss to
know which is the highest evidence of his virtues--the greatness
and number of his friends, or the malice and envy of his foes.
But friends and foes alike agree in ascribing to him a very
ardent temperament, though with the latter it is unjustly
regarded as violent. There is a great contrast between the
estimate of Otis given by Hutchinson (quoted below) and that
exhibited in the following extract from a long letter written by
Governor Bernard to Lord Shelburne, near the end of the year
1766, which is entirely filled with a review of Otis's career and
character, and is a curious specimen of studied calumniation.
The introductory remarks show sufficiently well the spirit of the
whole. "I would avoid personalities, but in the present case it
is impossible. The troubles in this country take their rise
from, and owe their continuance to, one man, so much, that this
history alone would contain a full account of them. This man,
James Otis, Esq., was a lawyer at Boston when I first came to the
government. He is by nature a passionate, violent, and desperate
man, which qualities sometimes work him up to an absolute
frenzy.--I say nothing of him, which is not known to be his
certain character, confirmed by frequent experience."

While sympathy for Otis made the public commonly ascribe the
alienation of his reason chiefly to the injuries received during
his encounter with Robinson in the British Coffee House, it is
fairly certain that the commencement of the disease dates further
back, and that the blows on the head hastened and aggravated an
already incipient malady superinduced by very different causes.

In the ardor and assiduity of his devotion to the colonial cause
Otis had overtaxed his mental powers. His fine faculties that
had been exerted so strenuously, and with such striking effect,
in the service of his country, were sinking under the excitement
and the effort which had sustained them in the heat of action.
For ten years he had abandoned the ordinary practice of his
profession and renouncing all recreation had given his entire
time and thought, himself, verily, to the "great argument" which
involved the welfare of the Colonies, and as we now see it, of
the world. To allow one idea exclusive occupancy of the mind and
constantly to ponder a single topic, is a very frequent and
almost sure cause of mental distress. It was his highest merit
and at the same time his greatest misfortune, that Otis permitted
this political controversy to have such an absorbing and despotic
command of his attention that melancholy consequences gradually
appeared and left little hope of his final restoration. His
excitable and passionate temperament allowed the fire to be soon
kindled, and nourished the flame in which his intellect, strong
as it had been, was ultimately destroyed.

Otis's mental malady first appeared in a form which was mistaken
for mere eccentricity of humor, and some time elapsed before his
oddities of fancy and conduct deepened into acknowledged
insanity. An incident which might have aroused the suspicions of
his friends occurred during the legislative session of 1769, when
at the close of a powerful and ingenious speech by Brigadier
Ruggles in which he had made a deep impression, Otis at once
arose and in an impassioned tone and manner which struck awe upon
all those present, exclaimed, "Mr. Speaker, the liberty of this
country is gone forever, and I'll go after it;" and turning round
immediately left the House. Some members stared, some laughed,
but none seemed to suspect the true cause of this odd behavior.

How, after the encounter with Robinson, this mental disease made
inroads on his fine powers, we best know from John Adams, who on
September 3, 1769, wrote: "Otis talks all; he grows the most
talkative man alive; no other gentleman in company can find space
to put in a word. He grows narrative like an old man." On
September 5th occurred the encounter with Robinson, one of the
Commissioners of Customs, at the British Coffee House, which
greatly aggravated his mental disorder. From this time on he was
a subject of some perplexity to the Whig leaders, though the
spell with which he influenced the people was long in breaking.
On January 16, Adams again wrote: "Otis is in confusion yet; he
loses himself; he rambles and wanders like a ship without a helm;
attempted to tell a story which took up almost all the evening. *
* * In one word, Otis will spoil the club. He talks so much, and
takes up so much of our time, and fills it with trash,
obsceneness, profaneness, nonsense, and distraction, that we have
none left for rational amusements or inquiries. * * * I fear, I
tremble, I mourn, for the man and for his country; many others
mourn over him with tears in their eyes."

In connection with Otis's charge against Hutchinson as to
rapacious office-seeking the following extract from John
Adams's diary is of curious interest. After detailing certain
detractions of which he had been the victim, the diarist breaks
out testily: "This is the rant of Mr. Otis concerning me. * * *
But be it known to Mr. Otis I have been in the public cause as
long as he, though I was never in the General Court but one year.

I have sacrificed as much to it as he. I have never got my
father chosen Speaker and Counselor by it; my brother-in-law
chosen into the House and chosen Speaker by it; nor a
brother-in-law's brother-in-law into the House and Council by it;
nor did I ever turn about in the House, and rant it on the side
of the prerogative for a whole year, to get a father into a
Probate office first Justice of a Court of Common Pleas, and a
brother into a clerk's office. There is a complication of
malice, envy, and jealousy in this man, in the present disordered
state of his mind, which is quite shocking." (Oct. 27, 1772.)

In this incapacity of Otis, who at last had to seek confinement,
Samuel Adams came to the front of the opposition to Hutchinson as
representing the government policy, and in nothing did he show
more adroitness than in the manner in which he humored and
exploited the colleague, whom, though sick, the people would not
suffer to be withdrawn, as is shown by the following resolution:


"The Honorable James Otis having, by advice of his physician,
retired into the country for the recovery of his health; Voted,
That thanks of the town be given to the Honorable James Otis for
the great and important services, which, as a representative in
the General Assembly through a course of years, he has rendered
to this town and province, particularly for his undaunted
exertions in the common cause of the Colonies, from the beginning
of the present glorious struggle for the rights of the British
consituation. At the same time, the town cannot but express
their ardent wishes for the recovery of his health, and the
continuance of those public services, that must long be
remembered with gratitude, and distinguish his name among the
patriots of America."

During short periods of sanity, or of only partial aberration,
Otis's wit and humor, rendered more quaint and striking by the
peculiarities of his mental condition, made him the delight of a
small circle of friends. The following anecdote, admirably told
by President Adams, presents in a very graphic manner the
peculiarities of his character:

"Otis belonged to a club, who met on evenings; of which club
William Molineux was a member. Molineux had a petition before
the legislature, which did not succeed to his wishes, and he
became for several evenings sour, and wearied the company with
his complaints of services, losses, sacrifices, etc., and said,
'That a man who has behaved as I have, should be treated as I am,
is intolerable,' etc. Otis had said nothing; but the company
were disgusted and out of patience, when Otis rose from his seat,
and said, 'Come, come, Will, quit this subject, and let us enjoy
ourselves; I also have a list of grievances; will you hear it?'
The club expected some fun, and all cried out, 'Ay! ay! let us
hear your list.'

"'Well, then, Will; in the first place, I resigned the office of
the Advocate-General, which I held from the crown, that produced
me--how much do you think?' 'A great deal, no doubt,' said
Molineux. 'Shall we say two hundred sterling a year?' 'Ay, more
I believe,' said Molineux. 'Well, let it be two hundred; that
for ten years, is two thousand. In the next place, I have been
obliged to relinquish the greatest part of my business at the
bar. Will you set that at two hundred more?' 'O, I believe it
much more than that.' 'Well, let it be two hundred; this, for
ten years, is two thousand. You allow, then, I have lost four
thousand pounds sterling?' 'Ay, and much more, too,' said

"'In the next place, I have lost a hundred friends; among whom
were the men of the first rank, fortune, and power, in the
province. At what price will you estimate them?' 'D--n them,'
said Molineux; 'at nothing: you are better without them than
with them.' A loud laugh. 'Be it so,' said Otis.

"'In the next place, I have made a thousand enemies; among whom
are the government of the province and the nation. What do you
think of this item?' 'That is as it may happen,' said Molineux.

"'In the next place, you know, I love pleasure; but I have
renounced all amusement for ten years. What is that worth to a
man of pleasure?' 'No great matter,' said Molineux; 'you have
made politics your amusement.' A hearty laugh.

"'In the next place, I have ruined as fine health, and as good a
constitution of body, as nature ever gave to man.' 'This is
melancholy indeed,' said Molineux; 'there is nothing to be said
on that point.'

"'Once more,' said Otis, holding his head down before Molineux;
'look upon this head!' (Where was a scar in which a man might
bury his finger.) 'What do you think of this? And, what is
worse, my friends think I have a monstrous crack in my skull.'

"This made all the company very grave, and look very solemn. But
Otis, setting up a laugh, and with a gay countenance, said to
Molineux, 'Now, Willy, my advice to you is, to say no more about
your grievances; for you and I had better put up our accounts of
profit and loss in our pockets, and say no more about them, lest
the world should laugh at us.'"

This whimsical dialogue put all the company, including Molineux,
in a good humor, and they passed the rest of the evening very

One of the few fragments in Otis' handwriting now extant, is a
memorandum made during the two years of transient sanity just
preceding his tragic death. Returning one Sunday from public
worship, he wrote: "I have this day attended divine service, and
heard a sensible discourse; and thanks be to God, I now enjoy the
greatest of all blessings, mens sana in copore sano" (a sound
mind in a sound body). But this gleam of reason was as transient
as others that had preceded, and with Bowen we willingly draw a
veil over the sad record of this most terrible misfortune of our
hero. "To be among men, and yet not of them; to preserve the
outward form and lineaments of a human being, while the spirit
within is wanting, or is transformed into a wreck of what it has
been; is surely one of the most impressive and affecting
instances of the ills to which mortality is exposed. It enforces
with melancholy earnestness the moral lesson, that the only
objects of the affections are the character and the intellect;
and when these are destroyed, we look upon the external shape and
features only as on the tomb in which the mortal remains of a
friend repose. We even long for the closing of the scene, and
think it would be far better if the now tenantless and ruined
house were levelled with the ground."

A nice sense of honor was perhaps the second most striking point
in Otis's energetic and strongly-marked character. Called by
reason of his fame as an advocate to the management of suits even
at a distance from home, and receiving the largest fees ever
given to an advocate in the province, he yet disdained to suffer
the success of any of his cases to rest on any petty arts or
undue evasions. Conscious of possessing eminent abilities and
sufficient learning he undertook to advocate no cause that he did
not truly and fully believe in. His ardent pleading and the
fairness of his dealing before the courts was the result of his
firm belief in the justice of his cause. Nothing but truth could
give him this firmness; but plain truth and clear evidence can be
beat down by no ability in handling the quirks and substitutes of
the law.

It was from this source as from no other that Otis drew his power
as a pleader. He was as John Adams records concerning his speech
on the "Writs of Assistance," "a flame of fire," but he was a
flame of fire set burning to consume the dross of injustice and
to purify and rescue the gold of liberty and fair-dealing.
Thomas Hutchinson, before whom Otis often pleaded and whose
testimony is of the greatest weight when we remember that Otis
was his political opponent, has said that he never knew fairer or
more noble conduct in a pleader than in Otis; that he always
disdained to take advantage of any clerical error or similar
inadvertence, but passed over minor points, and defended his
causes solely on their broad and substantial foundations. In
this regard Otis seems to satisfy Emerson's definition of a great
man, when in his essay on the "Uses of Great Men" the latter
declares: "I count him a great man who inhabits a higher sphere
of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty;
he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light, and in
large relations; whilst they must make painful corrections, and
keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error."

Indeed, it can be said of Otis as Coleridge said of O'Connell,
"See how triumphant in debate and action he is. And why?
Because he asserts a broad principle, acts up to it, rests his
body upon it, and has faith in it." The world is upheld, as
Emerson says, by the veracity of good men; and so the great power
of Otis as an advocate before the civil bar in the minor cases of
his career, and as an advocate of the people in the larger court
in the great case of his life, for the liberty of opposing
arbitrary power by speaking and writing the truth, arose almost
entirely from his absolute integrity and fairmindedness.
Clarendon's portrait of Falkland applies equally as well to Otis,
--"He was so severe an adorer of the truth that he could as
easily have given himself leave to steal as to dissemble." In
short, Otis acted aright, and feared not the consequences, and
thus became a power in the community because of his personal

The great popularity that he immediately acquired he used for no
sinister or selfish ends. He stooped to none of the arts of the
demagogue; he was never carried away by a blind spirit of
faction. He opposed the arbitrary design of the English ministry
with great spirit and firmness, though with some indiscretion;
but he was no advocate of turbulent dissensions or causeless
revolt. He allowed himself to be ruled by the greater moderation
and prudence of his associates, while he inspired them with his
own resistless energy and determination.

No imputation can justly be thrown on the sincerity of his
patriotism, although the attempt was made by some of his

When in 1764, Otis, as chairman of a committee of the Assembly
appointed to consider the status of the Sugar Act, favored the
commission of Hutchinson as a special agent of the Colony to go
to England and present the claims of the colonists, he was
accused of inconsistency in opinion and action, and of
dereliction of duty as the acknowledged leader of the patriotic
party. Combined with the extraordinary appointment of
Hutchinson, which however never took effect owing to the
opposition of Governor Bernard, Otis was also charged with a too
absolute recognition of the supremacy of Parliament in his
pamphlet on the Rights of the Colonies. As his father had
recently received a judicial appointment, of no great importance,
however, some persons went so far as to suspect Otis's fidelity
to the cause, among whom was John Adams, as we see from his diary
quoted elsewhere in this paper. People talked of a compromise in
which he was supposed to be engaged for gradually withdrawing all
resistance to the proceedings of the ministry.

Such charges, however, were but the indications of the
unsteadiness and injustice of fickle popular favor. The
sacrifices which Otis made for the cause, as told of by himself
in the narrative given in this paper, were far too heavy for his
patriotism to be doubted for an instant, and any remaining doubt
must certainly be removed by a glance at the official
correspondence of Governor Bernard in which he is from first to
last regarded as the chief opponent of the prerogative and is
subjected to much calumny on that account.

The selection of Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson as the special
agent of the Colony, though appearing at first sight somewhat
strange, is easily explained and appears as the best possible
choice. He was a native of the province, and as such thoroughly
acquainted with its interests and desirous of promoting them. A
few years before he had given sound advice to both Houses in
relation to the very matter of the Sugar Act, counselling them
not to apply for a reduction of the duty, lest they should appear
as indirectly consenting to pay it under any circumstances;
advice which had prevailed against the preconceived opinion of a
majority of both branches of the legislature. Moreover,
Hutchinson's attachment to the interests of the crown, and his
intimate relations with the ministry, would enable him to
prosecute the suit of the province to great advantage, whereas a
known leader of the popular party in Massachusetts would not be
received with much favor at the Board of Trade, whatever his

As to Otis's rather unstinted recognition of the prerogatives of
the crown and the right of Parliament to tax the Colonies, we
remark that he had undoubtedly the same ends in view as the other
popular leaders, but he differed from them in the choice of the
means, the selection of arguments, and the proper mode of
conducting the controversy. All certainly desired to be exempt
from taxation and to secure freedom of trade; the question was
how best attain these ends and reconcile their pretensions with
the acknowledged principles of English law? Otis opposed both
the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act on the same broad principle on
which Hampden in England resisted the payment of ship-money,
namely, that neither measure was sanctioned by the
representatives of the people on whom these contributions for the
support of the government were to be levied. He was too good a
lawyer to question openly the abstract supremacy of Parliament,
or to deny the technical "right" of this body to tax America, or
to do anything else. But he affirmed that he could not
justifiably exercise this right unless representatives elected by
America were admitted to sit in the House of Commons. "When
Parliament," said he, "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." These opinions did not
coincide with the sentiments of the greater part of the people at
this period, and they were displeased with the explicit and
comprehensive terms in which Otis acknowledged the authority of
Parliament; they did not care to be reminded of their subjection
in such positive language. Otis's incautious use of words may
have led him to exaggerate the sovereignty of England over her
Colonies, but the course which he pursued was undoubtedly the
most judicious one for the interests of America.

That this criticism and disaffection concerning Otis was of short
duration, and justly so, is shown by the fact that at the end of
the legislative session he was appointed chairman of the
committee charged with securing the co-operation of the other
Colonies in a united effort of opposition to the scheme for
taxing America. That he was sufficiently alive to the true
interests of the Colonies and watchful of any imposition upon
their rights as subjects under the English Constitution, we may
cite one or two brief extracts from the letter of instructions to
the provincial agent in England, written by him and adopted by
the representatives. "The silence of the province," he says in
regard to the Sugar Act, "should have been imputed to any cause,
even to despair, rather than be construed into tacit cession of
their rights, or an acknowledgment of a right in the Parliament
of Great Britain to impose duties and taxes upon a people, who
are not represented in the House of Commons." "Ireland is a
conquered country, which is not the case with the northern
Colonies, except Canada; yet no duties have been levied by the
British Parliament on Ireland. No internal or external taxes
have been assessed on them, but by their own Parliament."

"Granting that 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 slaves."

The charge that Otis turned from his support of the government
policy because his father failed to receive the desired
appointment as Chief Justice is as unfounded as it is improbable.

The office of Chief Justice was worth not over a hundred and
twenty pounds sterling a year, and as Colonel Otis's practice at
the bar was worth much more than this, and his seat in the
legislature gave him all the power and reputation he needed, the
loss of the Chief Justiceship could not have been a very great
concern to him. On the other hand one of the first measures of
Otis in coming into public life was to resign his office as
Advocate-General which was worth twice as much as the seat on the
bench. Of course a person of his fiery disposition felt keenly
the insult involved in the rejection of his father, and doubtless
the event imbittered his language towards Hutchinson; but it
would hardly be likely to shape his whole political career when
public questions of such great moment were at stake.

There was no trace of meanness or selfishness in his disposition.

To be sure, Otis's admitted superiority over his legal associates
and the natural impetuosity of his nature sometimes made him
excessively dogmatic, and his manner though courteous even to a
fineness towards those whom he liked was imperious and even
unguarded toward his political enemies. At one time, having
cited Dormat (the noted French jurist, 1625-1696, author of "The
Civil Laws in their Natural Order," 1689) in the course of an
argument, Governor Bernard inquired "who Dormat was." Otis
answered that "he was a very distinguished civilian, and not the
less an authority for being unknown to your excellency." Yet
notice the high-minded courtesy exhibited in the following
incident: When Charles Lee was in command of the left wing of
the army with his headquarters at Winter Hill, in what is now
Somerville, he refused to have an interview and conference with
his old friend Burgoyne, then lately arrived in Boston, looking
toward the restoration of an amicable understanding between the
colonies and the mother country. Four months later, a letter
came from the Old World containing a warning that Lee was not a
man of trustworthy character. Otis was at that time the
executive head of the provisional government which had been
formed in Massachusetts, during one of the last of his lucid
intervals. On behalf of the government he sent a letter to Lee,
quite touching for its fairminded simplicity. The council had
come into possesssion of a letter from Ireland making very
unfavorable mention of Lee. It produced no impression upon the
council. "On the contrary," says Otis, "we are at a loss to
know which is the highest evidence of your virtues--the
greatness and number of your friends, or the malice and envy of
your foes." This was a most delicate and effective way of
offering good advice.

When he had suffered so cruelly at the hands of Commissioner
Robinson and his companions at the British Coffee House, and had
been awarded damages by the court, Otis's high spirit revolted at
the idea of receiving pecuniary compensation for a personal
insult; and Robinson's release drawn up by Otis himself is to be
found in the files of the Supreme Judicial Court of
Massachusetts, along with Robinson's written acknowledgment and

Next to his impetuous devotion to the true relations of things,
the source of Otis's power lay in his adequate preparation for
the life of an advocate. Bred to the law at a time long before
the pathway had been smoothed by the multiplication of elementary
works and other modern improvements, he yet fully mastered that
abstruse science, which perhaps does more to quicken and
invigorate the understanding than many of the other kinds of
learning put together. As a sufficient foundation for his later
legal studies he had pursued at Harvard, the foremost college in
the colonies, not only the regular undergraduate classical
course, but also the three years of work required for the
Master's degree. Moreover, in conformity with his views on the
necessity of a generous and comprehensive culture of the mind as
a means of success at the bar, or in any professional career,
Otis did not plunge at once from his collegiate courses into the
routine of the legal office; but allowed himself two years of
self-directed general study with a view toward further
disciplining his mind and widening his information. The subjects
thus pursued and the general culture which he acquired served to
open and to liberalize his mind in nearly the same proportion as
the assiduous study of the law was next to invigorate and quicken
it. In conversation with his brother he remarked, "that
Blackstone's Commentaries would have saved him seven years' labor
pouring over and delving in black letter." He appears to have
formed a very correct judgment respecting the nature of
professional education and the best means of mastering its
abstruse details. He constantly inculcated upon the young men
who came to study in his office the maxim, "that a lawyer ought
never to be without a volume of natural or public law, or moral
philosophy, on his table or in his pocket."

After two years of practice in Plymouth, he removed to Boston
(1750), where he found the larger field which was demanded by his
superior training and abilities; and he very soon rose to the
front rank of his profession.

The regard which he entertained for his master in the law is well
shown by his conduct as the opposing advocate during the hearing
on the Writs of Assistance, when Otis having resigned his post of
Advocate-General of the Province in order to champion the
people's cause, the vacancy was filled by the appointment of
Gridley. Otis held the character and abilities of his former
teacher in very high respect, and allowed this differential
feeling to appear throughout the trial. "It was," says John
Adams, who was present on this occasion, and from whom nearly all
the details of the course of this affair are derived, "it was a
moral spectacle more affecting to me than any I have ever seen
upon the stage, to observe a pupil treating his master with all
the deference, respect, esteem, and affection of a son to a
father, and that without the least affectation; while he baffled
and confounded all his authorities, confuted all his arguments,
and reduced him to silence." Nor was a suitable return wanting
on the part of Mr. Gridley, who "seemed to me to exult inwardly
at the glory and triumph of his pupil."

Though he made no pretensions to scholarship, some of his
writings showed a cultivated taste and a love of literary
pursuits, which were gratified so far as his numerous engagements
in public service would permit. With a literary taste formed and
matured by the study of Latin and Greek prosidy as constituted in
the best models of antiquity, it is not surprising that his
opinions on matters of criticism and scholarship were those of
the Odd school, and that he decried all the forms of innovation
in letters which had begun to show themselves in his day, and
which he regarded as affectations. His constant advice to young
people was if you want to read poetry, read Shakespeare, Milton,
Dryden, and Pope; throw all the rest in the fire. And with the
addition of but one or two names which have appeared since his
time, such counsel is judicious advice even to-day.

His abilities were, perhaps, somewhat overrated in the admiring
judgment of his contemporaries. His style as a writer was
copious and energetic; but it was sometimes careless, coarse and
even incorrect. His eloquence was better adapted to popular
assemblies than to the graver occasions of legislative debate; in
the halls of justice, it produced a greater effect on the jury
than on the judge. "The few fragments of his speeches that were
reported and are now extant give no idea of the enthusiasm that
was created by their delivery. The elevation of his mind, and
the known integrity of his purposes, enabled him to speak with
decision and dignity, and commanded the respect as well as the
admiration of his audience." While his arguments were sometimes
comprehensive and varied, they generally related only to a few
points which they placed in a very clear and convincing light.
His object was immediate effect. He had studied the art of clear
expression and forcible argument in order to act with facility
and force upon the minds of others to such an extent as to
convince them, and then to convert their conviction into action.
He employed the facility and the power thus gained not for any
personal agrandizement, but to advocate political reform for the
good of the whole people.

In the latter part of his speech on the Writs of Assistance, he
discussed the incompatibility of the acts of trade as lately
adopted by the English Ministry with the charter of the colony.
In so doing "he reproached the nation, Parliament, and King,"
says John Adams, "with injustice, illiberality, ingratitude, and
oppression, in their conduct towards the people of this country,
in a style of oratory that I never heard equalled in this or any
other country." As to the effect of this oration in increasing
the courage of the colonists, inciting them to scrutinize more
closely and resist more strenuously, the claims of the British
Ministry and Parliament, we have Adams's significant statement,--
"I do say in the most solemn manner that Mr. Otis's oration
against Writs of Assistance breathed into this nation the breath
of life."

The longest and most elaborate production from his pen is the
pamphlet on the "Rights of the Colonies." It affords a fair
specimen of his impetuous and inaccurate rhetoric, his rapid and
eager manner of accumulating facts, arguments, and daring
assertions, and the "glowing earnestness and depth of patriotic
feeling with which all his compositions are animated." It is not
surprising that a book written in this style caused the author to
be suspected of wildness and even of madness. But there was, as
Bowen remarks, a method and a good deal of logical power in his

The pamphlet was reprinted, circulated, and read in Great Britain
and even attracted the attention of the House of Lords. In
February, 1766, during a debate in that body on the disturbances
in America, Lord Littleton made some allusion to the peculiar
opinions of Mr. Otis, and spoke slightingly of his book. Lord
Mansfield replied, "With respect to what has been said, or
written, upon this subject, I differ from the noble Lord, who
spoke of Mr. Otis and his book with contempt, though he
maintained the same doctrine in some points, although, in others,
he carried it further than Otis himself, who allows everywhere
the supremacy of the crown over the colonies. No man on such a
subject is contemptible. 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 was said the man is mad. What then? One madman
often makes many. Massaniello was mad, no body 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."

In some of his arguments he lays down general principles with a
quaint extravagance which marks the peculiar humor of the man.
"No government has the right to make hobby-horses, asses, and
slaves of the subject; nature having made sufficient of the two
former, for all the lawful purposes of man, from the harmless
peasant in the field to the most refined politician in the
cabinet; but none of the last, which infallibly proves that they
are unnecessary." "The British constitution of government as now
established in his Majesty's person and family, is the wisest and
best in the world. The King of Great Britain is the best as well
as the most glorious monarch upon the globe, and his subjects the
happiest in the universe. The French King is a despotic,
arbitrary prince, and, consequently, his subjects are very
miserable." The last specimen which we shall quote comes from
his defence of the objectionable passage in the remonstrance
drawn up by Otis on behalf of the Assembly of 1762 against
Governor Bernard's conduct in increasing the expenses of the
colony without previously obtaining the consent of the
Legislature. This passage was as follows: "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 without Parliament."
Afterwards in commenting on this passage he made the following
defense of its apparent unpatriotic sentiment. "It may be
objected, that there are some differences between arbitrary
princes, in this respect, at least, that some are more rigorous
than others. It is granted; but, then, let it be remembered,
that the life of man is a vapor that soon vanisheth away, and we
know not who may come after him, a wise man or a fool; though the
chances, before and since Solomon, have ever been in favor of the
latter."--"That I should die very soon after my head should be
struck off, whether by a sabre or a broadsword, whether chopped
off to gratify a tyrant by the Christian name of Tom, Dick, or
Harry, is evident. That the name of the tyrant would be of no
more avail to save my life, than the name of the executioner,
needs no proof. It is, therefore, manifestly of no importance
what a prince's Christian name is, if he be arbitrary, any more,
indeed, than if he were not arbitrary. So the whole amount of
this dangerous proposition may, at least in one view, be reduced
to this, viz.: It is of little importance what a king's
Christian name is. It is, indeed, of importance, that a king, a
governor, and all good Christians, should have a Christian name;
but whether Edward, Francis, or William, is of none, that I can

A passage ascribed to Otis during a session of the legislature at
Cambridge gives some idea of the character of his invective. It
had been said in defence of some measure that it had been taken
by the advice of Council, when Otis exclaimed, "Ay, by the advice
of Council, forsooth! And so it goes, and so we are to be
ruined! The Council are governed by his Excellency, his
Excellency by Lord Hillsborough, Lord Hillsborough by his
Majesty, his Majesty by Lord Bute, and Lord Bute by the Lord
knows who. This recalls to mind what used to be said when I was
a student in this place. It was observed at that time, that the
President directed the scholars how they should act, madame
directed the President, Titus, their black servant, governed
madame, and the devil prompted Titus."

The most comprehensive and just appreciation of the character and
work of Otis is given us by Francis Bowen in Jared Spark's
Library of American Biography. In part he says: "The services
which Mr. Otis rendered to this country were so conspicuous and
important, that it is difficult to form an estimate of his
character with the impartiality that history requires.
Gratitude might justly efface the memory of his faults from the
minds of those who have profited so largely by his patriotism and
his virtues. But it is not necessary thus to seek excuses for
his failings, or reasons for covering up the errors that he
committed. The defects of his temperament and conduct may be
freely mentioned, for they are not such as materially lessen our
respect for him as a man.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"As the vindicator of American rights, during the period of
colonial subordination, as the acknowledged leader, in
Massachusetts, of the constitutional opposition to ministerial
influence and parliamentary usurpation, the services of Mr. Otis
cannot be too highly appreciated.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"He was not permitted to witness the grand result of his labors.
He did not live to enjoy the final triumph; he can hardly be said
to have survived till the opening of the struggle. But the
historian who searches into the causes of this great event, and
seeks to determine the comparative merits of the men who achieved
it, will dwell long upon the services, and pay a just tribute of
admiration and respect to the memory of James Otis."

Burke, 0tis and Wilkes. By Charles K. Edmunds, Ph.D.

It is the honor of England that she had deposited in the virgin
soil of her colonies the germ of freedom. Nearly all at their
foundation, or shortly after, received charters which conferred
the franchises of the mother country on the colonists. These
charters were neither a vain show nor a dead letter, but really
did establish and allow powerful institutions which impelled the
colonists to defend their liberty, and to control the power by
participating in it as constituted in the grant of supplies, the
election of public councils, trial by jury, and the right of
assembling to discuss the general affairs. To us of to-day these
appear as common-sense or logically necessary rights; but we must
remember that in those early days of colonization they were
distinct privileges accorded in power to the colonists. And it
is in these very privileges that we behold the germinating
principle which was ultimately to bring to life the new republic
then as yet unborn. For as Thomas Jefferson afterward wrote,
"where every man is a sharer in the direction of his
town-republic, and feels that he is a participator in the
government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the
year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the State
who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or
small, he will let the heart be torn out of his body sooner than
allow his power to be wrested from him by a Caesar or a
Bonaparte. How powerfully did we feel the energy of this
organization in the case of the embargo!"

Notwithstanding the widely different origin of the various
colonists, the circumstances in which they were placed were so
similar, that the same general form of personal character must
inevitably have developed itself, and produced a growing
consciousness of power and impatience of foreign imposition. The
proximate independence of America need not have been a certainty,
however, had the eyes of English statesmen not been blinded to
the truth of the principles urged by such men as Otis in America
and Burke in England. The causes which were to produce a final
rupture were, to be sure, already at work (their full operation
being delayed by the lack of union among the different
provinces), but there was at the same time a warm hereditary
attachment to the parent country, under whose wings the provinces
had grown up, by whose arms they had been shielded, and by whose
commerce, in spite of jealous restrictions, they had been

Indeed life in the Colonies was so closely related to that in the
mother country that in a very marked degree, the history of the
Colonies is only the more practical and laborious development of
the spirit of liberty flourishing amid the conditions of life in
the new country under the standard of the laws and traditions of
the old country. As the eminent philosophical historian, M.
Guizat, has said, "It might be considered the history of England
herself." The resemblance is the more striking when we remember
that the majority of the American Colonies and the more important
of them were founded or increased the most rapidly at the very
epoch when England was preparing to sustain, and in part already
sustaining, those fierce conflicts against the pretensions of
absolute power which were to obtain for her the honor of giving
to the world the first example of a great nation free and well

How similarly the state of affairs appeared, in the eyes of those
who were not blinded by self-interest, on both sides of the
Atlantic, is shown by the following extracts from Burke and Otis.

In 1770 Burke thus described the social and political conditions
both at home and in the Colonies: "That the government is at
once dreaded and contemned; that the laws are despoiled of all
their respected and salutary terrors; that their inaction is a
subject of ridicule and their enforcement of abhorrence; that
rank, and office, and title, and all the solemn plausibilities of
the world, have lost their reverence and effect; that our foreign
politics are as much deranged as our domestic economy; that our
dependencies are slackened in their affection and loosened from
their obedience; that we know neither how to yield nor how to
enforce; that hardly anything above or below, abroad or at home,
is sound and entire; but that disconnection and confusion, in
office, in parties, in families, in parliament, in the nation,
prevail beyond the disorders of any former time, these are facts
universally admitted and lamented."

When in 1768 troops were sent to Boston to prevent a repetition
of the disturbances which had resulted from the arbitrary and
insulting manner in which the commissioners of customs exercised
their office, Otis was chosen moderator of the town meeting held
in protest, and is reported to have declared "That in case Great
Britain was not disposed to redress their grievances after proper
applications, the inhabitants had nothing more to do, but to gird
the sword to the thigh, and shoulder the musket." Another
account presents a somewhat more temperate tone, representing
Otis as "strongly recommending peace and good order, and the
grievances the people labored under might in time be removed; if
not, and we were called on to defend our liberties and
privileges, he hoped and believed we should, one and all, resist
even unto blood; but at the same time, he prayed Almighty God it
might never so happen."

The change from favorable conditions both in England and in the
Colonies to the state of unrest depicted by these passages from
Burke and Otis, had been brought about by the attempt to use
strong measures, enforced with no just regard for the welfare of
the whole people. The English Ministry failed to realize that it
is of the utmost importance not to make mistakes in the use of
strong measures; that firmness is a virtue only when it
accompanies the most perfect wisdom. Their course of political
conduct, combined with the establishment of a system of
favoritism both at home and abroad like that adopted by Henry the
Third of France, produced results of the same kind as the latter.

Members of parliament for the most part were practically
convinced that they did not depend on the affection or opinion of
the people for their political being, and gave themselves over,
with scarcely the appearance of reserve, to the influence of the
court. There was thus developed both a ministry and parliament
unconnected with the people, and we have the deplorable picture
of the executive and legislative parts of a government attempting
to exist apart from their true foundation--the opinion of the
people. How signally such attempts have always failed is a
matter of historical record. And the steadfast belief that they
always will so fail constitutes the great force of public opinion

Had the English Ministry and the Colonial Governors, in
particular Governor Bernard of Massachusetts, recognized certain
cardinal principles of individual and national liberty, which
were so strongly advocated by Burke and Otis, the course of
events in their dealing with the colonists would in all
probability have been greatly different from that actually
developed. Burke declared that as long as reputation, the most
precious possession of every individual, and as long as opinion,
the great support of the state, depend entirely upon the voice of
the people, the latter can never be considered as a thing of
little consequence either to individuals or to governments. He
pointed out that nations are governed by the same methods, and on
the same principles, by which an individual without authority is
often able to govern those who are his equals or even his
superiors, namely, by a knowledge of their temper, and by a
judicious management of it; that is, when public affairs are
steadily and quietly conducted, not when government descends to a
continued scuffle between the magistrate and the multitude, in
which sometimes the one and sometimes the other is uppermost;
each alternately yielding and prevailing in a series of
contemptible victories and scandalous submissions. "The temper
of the people amongst whom he presides ought, therefore, to be
the first study of a statesman. And the knowledge of this temper
it is by no means impossible for him to attain, if he has not an
interest in being ignorant of what it is his duty to learn."

Of course it will not do to think that the people are never in
the wrong. They have frequently been so, both in other countries
and in England; but in all disputes between them and their
rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favor of the
people. History justifies us in going even further, for when
popular discontents have been very prevalent something has
generally been found amiss in the constitution, or in the conduct
of the government. As Burke declares, "the people have no
interest in disorder. When they do wrong, it is their error, and
not their crime. But with the governing part of the state it is
far otherwise. They certainly may act ill by design, as well as
by mistake. * * * If this presumption in favor of the subjects
against the trustees of power be not the more probable, I am sure
it is the more comfortable speculation; because it is more easy
to change an administration than to reform a people."

Very much the same ideas are presented by Otis in his article on
the "Rights of the Colonists," and the passage bearing on this
present topic will be given for comparison with Burke's
treatment. The pamphlet is divided into four parts, treating
respectively of the origin of government, of colonies in general,
of the natural rights of colonists, and of the political and
civil rights of the British colonists. The writer maintains,
that government is founded not as some had supposed on compact,
but as Paley afterwards affirmed, on the will of God. By the
divine will, the supreme power is placed "originally and
ultimately in the people; and they never did, in fact, freely,
nor can they rightfully, make an absolute, unlimited renunciation
of this divine right. It is ever in the nature of a thing given
in trust; and on a condition the performance of which no mortal
can dispense with, namely, that the person or persons, on whom
the sovereignty is conferred by the people, shall incessantly
consult their good. Tyranny of all kinds is to be abhorred,
whether it be in the hands of one, or of the few, or of the many.

The colonies were not at all unwilling to pay revenue to the home
government, if the manner of payment was just and right. They
were so far from refusing to grant money that the Assembly of
Pennsylvania resolved to the following effect: "That they always
had, so they always should think it their duty to grant aid to
the crown, according to their abilities, whenever required of
them in the usual constitutional manner." This resolution was
presented by Franklin, who was a member of the Pennsylvania
Assembly, to the Prime Minister of England, Mr. Grenville, before
the latter introduced the Stamp Act into Parliament. Other
colonies made similar resolutions, and had Grenville instead of
the Stamp Act, applied to the King for proper requisitional
letters to be circulated among the colonies by the Secretary of
State, it is highly probable that he would have obtained more
money from the colonies by their voluntary grants than he himself
expected from the stamps. Such at any rate is the claim of
Franklin, who was surely in a position to feel the pulse of the
colonies better than any other one man. "But he (Grenville)
chose compulsion rather than persuasion, and would not receive
from their good-will what he thought he could obtain without it.
Thus the golden bridge which the Americans were charged with
unwisely and unbecomingly refusing to hold out to the minister
and parliament, was actually held out to them, but they refused
to walk over it."

The action of the English Ministry in the matter of the tea tax
in particular, and of the whole question of American taxation in
general, is thus spoken of by Burke in his famous address in the
House of Commons:

"There is nothing simple, nothing manly, nothing ingenious, open,
decisive, or steady, in the proceeding, with regard either to the
continuance or the repeal of the taxes. The whole has an air of
littleness and fraud. * * * There is no fair dealing in any part
of the transaction."
* * * * * * * * * * *
"No man ever doubted that the commodity of tea could bear an
imposition of three-pence. But no commodity will bear
three-pence, or will bear a penny, when the general feelings of
men are irritated, and two millions of people are resolved not to
pay. The feelings of the colonists were formerly the feelings of
Great Britain. Theirs were formerly the feelings of Mr. Hampden
when called upon for the payment of twenty shillings. Would
twenty shillings have ruined Mr. Hampden's fortune? No, but the
payment of half twenty shillings, on the principle it was
demanded, would have made him a slave. * * * It is then upon the
principle of this measure, and nothing else, that we are at
* * * * * * * * * * *
"I select the obnoxious colony of Massachusetts Bay, which at
this time (but without hearing her) is so heavily a culprit
before parliament--I will select their proceedings even under
circumstances of no small irritation. For, a little imprudently,
I must say, Governor Bernard mixed in the administration of the
lenitive of the repeal no small acrimony arising from matters of
a separate nature. Yet see, Sir, the effect of that lenitive,
though mixed with these bitter ingredients; and how this rugged
people can express themselves on a measure of concession.

"'If it is not in our power,' (say they in their address to
Governor Bernard), "in so full a manner as will be expected, to
show our respectful gratitude to the mother country, or to make a
dutiful and affectionate return to the indulgence of the king and
parliament, it shall be no fault of ours; for this we intend, and
hope we shall be able fully to effect.'

"Would to God that this tender had been cultivated, managed, and
set in action; other effects than those which we have since felt
would have resulted from it. On the requisition for compensation
to those who had suffered from the violence of the populace, in
the same address they say, 'The recommendation enjoined by Mr.
Secretary Conway's letter, and in consequence thereof made to us,
we will embrace the first convenient opportunity to consider and
act upon.' They did consider; they did act upon, it. They
obeyed the requisition. I know the mode has been chicaned upon,
but it was substantially obeyed, and much better obeyed than I
fear the parliamentary requisition of this session will be,
though enforced by all your rigour, and backed with all your
power. In a word, the damages of popular fury were compensated
by legislative gravity. Almost every other part of America in
various ways demonstrated their gratitude. I am bold to say,
that so sudden a calm recovered after so violent a storm is
without parallel in history. To say that no other disturbance
should happen from any other cause, is folly. But as far as
appearances went, by the judicious sacrifice of one law, you
procured an acquiescence in all that remained. After this
experience, nobody shall persuade me, when a whole people are
concerned, that acts of lenity are not means of conciliation."

"0PP0SITI0N T0 ARBITRARY POWER," By John Wilkes, 1763.

While Otis and other patriots were opposing the arbitrary
measures of the English Ministry in their dealings with the
Colonies, certain men in England were equally as ardent in their
opposition to such a course whether pursued at home or abroad.
Most prominent among these were Edmund Burke and John Wilkes,
both members of Parliament. In this connection the following
extracts frown Wilkes' article on "Opposition to Arbitrary Power"
will be of interest. This article appeared in the famous No. 45
of "The North Briton," edited by Wilkes, who was very clever but
somewhat profligate.

* * * "In vain will such a minister (referring to Lord Bute), or
the foul dregs of his power, the tools of corruption and
despotism, preach up in the speech that spirit of concord, and
that obedience to the laws, which is essential to good order.
They have sent the spirit of discord through the land, and I will
prophesy, that it will never be extinguished, but by the
extinction of their power. Is the spirit of concord to go hand
in hand with the Peace and Excise, through this nation? Is it to
be expected between an insolent Excisemen, and a peer, gentleman,
freeholder, or farmer, whose private houses are now made liable
to be entered and searched at pleasure? The spirit of concord
hath not gone forth among men, but the spirit of liberty has, and
a noble opposition has been given to the wicked instruments of
oppression. A nation as sensible as the English, will see that a
spirit of concord when they are oppressed, means a tame
submission to injury, and that a spirit of liberty ought then to
arise, and I am sure ever will, in proportion to the weight of
the grievance they feel. Every legal attempt of a contrary
tendency to the spirit of concord will be deemed a justifiable
resistance, warranted by the spirit of the English constitution.

"A despotic minister will always endeavor to dazzle his prince
with high-flown ideas of the prerogative and honor of the
crown, which the minister will make a parade of firmly
maintaining. I wish as much as any man in the kingdom to see the
honor of the crown maintained in a manner truly becoming Royalty.

* * * * The prerogative of the crown is to exert the
constitutional powers entrusted to it in a way not of blind favor
and partiality, but of wisdom and judgment. This is the spirit
of our constitution. The people too have their prerogative, and
I hope the fine words of Dryden will be engraven on our hearts:
'Freedom is the English Subject's Prerogative.'"


Governor Bernard's bad temper and bad taste in dealing with the
legislature may justly be ranked among the principal causes which
gradually, but effectually, alienated the affections of the
people of Massachusetts, first from the persons immediately
charged with the government of the province, and finally, from
the royal authority and whole English dominion. "With an
arrogant and self-sufficient manner, constantly identifying
himself with the authority of which he was merely the
representative, and constantly indulging in irritating personal
allusions, he entirely lost sight of the courtesy and respect due
to a co-ordinate branch of the government, and made himself
ridiculous, while he was ruining the interests of the sovereign
whom he was most anxious to serve. Even Hutchinson, as we learn
from the third volume of his History, though he was attached to
the same policy, and favored the same measures, censures the tone
of Bernard's messages as ungracious, impolitic, and offensive."

Popular animosity against Governor Bernard waxed exceedingly
strong during the controversy concerning the circular letter sent
by the Massachusetts Assembly to each House of Representatives in
the thirteen Colonies, in which the Colonies were urged to
concert a uniform plan for remonstrance against the government
policy. Bernard sent advices to England declaring that stringent
measures were imperative. Among those who were particularly
vehement in their denunciation of Bernard's character and conduct
was Joseph Warren, a young physician of twenty-seven years,
Otis's brother-in-law, for some time a writer for the papers,
who was even more drastic than Otis in his arraignment of
Bernard's tactics as governor, and who caused somewhat of a
sensation by publishing the following in the "Boston Gazette" of
February 29, 1768. (Warren was killed while serving as a
volunteer aide at the battle of Bunker Hill.)

"We have for a long time known your enmity to this Province. We
have had full proof of your cruelty to a loyal people. No age
has, perhaps, furnished a more glaring instance of obstinate
perseverance in the path of malice. * * * Could you have reaped
any advantage from injuring this people, there would have been
some excuse for the manifold abuses with which you have loaded
them. But when a diabolical thirst for mischief is the alone
motive of your conduct, you must not wonder if you are treated
with open dislike; for it is impossible, how much soever we
endeavor it, to feel any esteem for a man like you. * * *
Nothing has ever been more intolerable than your insolence upon a
late occasion when you had, by your jesuitical insinuations,
induced a worthy minister of state to form a most unfavorable
opinion of the Province in general, and some of the most
respectable inhabitants in particular. You had the effrontery to
produce a letter from his Lordship as a proof of your success in
calumniating us. * * * We never can treat good and patriotic
rulers with too great reverence. But it is certain that men
totally abandoned to wickedness can never merit our regard, be
their stations ever so high.

'If such men are by God appointed, The Devil may be the Lord's
anointed.' A TRUE PATRIOT.

Hutchinson tried to induce the grand jury to indict Warren for
libel on account of this intemperate attack. The jury, however,
returned "ignoramus," and the Governor had to bear the affront,
which was but one of a series directed against him during his
remaining days in America.

On the other hand, direct attacks were also made against Otis,
and some were marked by scurrility and coarseness of language,
which could not fail to arouse a man of his temper and fine sense
of honor. How he did regard them appears from the following
extract from a letter to his sister, Mrs. Warren:

"Tell my dear brother Warren to give himself no concern about the
scurrilous piece in Tom Fleet's paper. It has served me as much
as the song did last year. The tories are all ashamed of this,
as they were of that; the author is not yet certainly known,
though I think I am within a week of detecting him for certain.
If I should, I shall try to cure him once for all, by stringing
him up, not bodily, but in such a way as shall gibbet his memory
in terrorem. It lies between Bernard, Waterhouse, and Jonathan
Sewall. The first, they say, has not wit enough to write
anything; the second swears off; and the third must plead guilty
or not guilty as soon as I see him. Till matters are settled in
England, I dare not leave this town, as men's minds are in such a
situation, that every nerve is requisite to keep them from
running to some irregularity and imprudence; and some are yet
wishing for an opportunity to hurt the country."


Otis defended the rights of his countrymen by vindicating their
enjoyment of English liberty, not by asserting the demand for
American independence. He, however, sowed the seed without
knowing what kind of harvest it was to produce, for his writings
and speeches did more than those of any other man toward
preparing the minds of others for the final separation from
England. That such was his purpose he steadfastly repudiated,
and the following quotations from his pen exhibit full well his
attachment to the mother country and to the principles of her

When in January, 1763, the joyful news was received at Boston
that the preliminaries of peace between Great Britain and France
had been signed, and that Canada was permanently annexed to the
former country, the colonists justly rejoiced, and a town meeting
was held of which Otis was chosen moderator. In the course of
his speech, Otis declared in his usual earnest way that "the true
interests of Great Britain and her plantations are mutual, and
what God in his providence united, let no man dare attempt to
pull asunder." Similar sentiments expressed by other leaders
among the various Colonies might be quoted. We give one more
from Otis's pamphlet on the "Rights of the Colonies," published
in 1765. In speaking of the colonists, he says: "Their loyalty
has been abundantly proved, especially in the late war. Their
affection and reverence for their mother country are
unquestionable. They yield the most cheerful and ready obedience
to her laws, particularly to the power of that august body, the
Parliament of Great Britain, the supreme legislative of the
kingdom and its dominions. These, I declare, are my own
sentiments of duty and loyalty." He angrily repels the charge
that the Colonies were seeking for independence, insisting that
the people had a "natural and almost mechanical affection for
Great Britain which they conceive under no other sense, and call
by no other name, than that of home. We all think ourselves
happy under Great Britain. We love, esteem, and reverence our
mother country, and adore our King. And could the choice of
independency be offered the colonies or subjection to Great
Britain on any terms above absolute slavery, I am convinced they
would accept the latter."

In 1769 he wrote: "The cause of America is, in my humble
opinion, the cause of the whole British empire; an empire which,
from my youth, I have been taught to love and revere, as founded
in the principles of natural reason and justice, and upon the
whole, best calculated for general happiness of any yet risen in
the world. In this view of the British empire, my Lord, I
sincerely pray for its prosperity, and sincerely lament all
adverse circumstances. Situated as we are, my Lord, in the
wilderness of America, a thousand leagues distant from the
fountains of honor and justice, in all our distresses, we pride
ourselves in loyalty to the King, and affection to the mother


Otis was not much given to general speculations upon the future;
but there is something very striking in the following language,
taken from his pamphlet "The Rights of the Colonies," if we
consider how soon after there occurred the two great crises in
the world's affairs, the American and French revolutions. "I
pretend neither to the spirit of prophecy, nor to any uncommon
skill in predicting a crisis; much less to tell when it begins to
be nascent, or is fairly midwived into the world. But I should
say the world was at the eve of the highest scene of earthly
power and grandeur, that has ever yet been displayed to the view
of mankind. The cards are shuffling fast through all Europe.
Who will win the prize is with God. This, however, I know, detur
digniori. The next universal monarchy will be favorable to the
human race; for it must be founded on the principles of equity,
moderation, and justice."

JAMES OTIS. [1725 - 1783.] By G. Mercer Adam[3]

The character and life-work of few men belonging to the
pre-Revolutionary era are better worth studying than are those of
James Otis, the patriot-orator of Massachusetts, who took so
prominent a part in opposing England's obnoxious Stamp Act and in
arousing the American Colonies to a sense of the outrage done
them by the issue of the arbitrary Writs of Assistance. Though
the records of his personal life are somewhat meagre, sufficient
is known of Otis's public career to interest students of his
country's history and entitle him to the admiration of all, as
one of the most earnest and eloquent advocates of Liberty in the
Nation's youth-time, and a sturdy and noble defender of its cause
at the critical era of England's injustice and oppression. No
man of the period, it may be hazarded, did more yeoman service
than Otis did in the cause of American Freedom, or was more
sensible of the rights of the Colonists and of the injustice done
them by the Motherland in her assaults on their civil and
political status in the years preceding the Revolution. Not only
was he one of the most fearless asserters of the great principles
for which our forefathers fought and bled, but few men better
than he saw more clearly the malign character of the arbitrary
acts imposed upon the Colonies that brought about separation and
laid the foundation of American independence. In resisting the
enforcement of these Acts, Otis was actuated not only by
disinterested and patriotic motives, but by a statesmanlike
discernment of their unconstitutional character and the wrong
they would inflict, in being inconsistent with the foundation
charter of the Massachusetts Colony. Like many of the
Revolutionary fathers, Otis was not at heart a rebel, or from the
outset disloyal to the Crown in its administration of the affairs
of the Colonies. His occupancy of the Crown post of
Advocate-General and his own well-known integrity and
conscientiousness forbid that idea, not to speak of his pride in
the fact that his ancestors were English and for generations had
held high judicial offices and militia appointments in the gift
of the King and the ministry of the period. But though by
tradition and training, at the outset of his career, a subject of
monarchy and a true man in his official relations with England,
Otis was at the same time ardent in his interests for the
wellbeing of the Colonies and zealous for their rights and
privileges. When these came into conflict, the stand he took was
staunchly patriotic, even to the sacrifice of his office and its
emoluments; while in espousing the popular cause against the King
and the ministry he stood forth, as John Adams expressed it, as
"a flame of fire," full of consuming zeal for his country and an
ardent upholder of its rights and prerogatives. In assuming this
attitude, that Otis's zeal and energy were at times unrestrained
and his language occasionally unguarded and overvehement, is
doubtless true; but this was certainly excusable in a man of his
ardent temperament and strength of character; while the situation
of affairs was such as to call not only for patriotic enthusiasm,
but for righteous indignation and heated denunciation, in a cause
that stirred to the depths the heart and brain of an impetuous
and commanding orator. Nor do we well to forget what this
consuming, patriotic passion and heated vindication of his
country's rights cost Otis, in the responsibility he felt and the
solicitation he manifested, especially in the middle and later
stages of his strenuous career, for the cause he had so keenly at
heart. Pathetic is the story of the ailment that clouded his
closing years; and only exculpatory can be the judgment now
passed upon the man and his work when we consider what the strain
was that he had long and anxiously borne and that revealed its
effects in periods of sad mental alienation and incipient
madness. To speak and write strongly on taxation and its
injustice, in the case of the Colonies, might well, however,
disturb the mental equilibrium of even a strong man, and the more
so when actively protesting, as Otis long continued to protest,
against unlawful encroachments upon the liberties of the Colonies
and the other arbitrary acts that then characterized the
administration of the Crown. Whatever it cost Otis personally to
engage in this defence, the result, as we all now know and admit,
was only and wholly beneficent--in the defeat of an unrighteous
autocracy, and the emancipation of a Continent from a fettering
and baleful administration.

This herald of and actor in the great drama of his time was born
at West Barnstable, formerly known as the Great Marshes, in
Massachusetts, on the 5th of February, 1723. He was one of
thirteen children, his father being Colonel James Otis (born in
1702), the son of Judge John Otis, whose immediate ancestor had
emigrated from England in the preceding century and settled in
New England at the town of Hingham, calling the region after the
old home of the family in the Motherland. This John Otis, who
was born in A.D. 1657, became a prominent man in the Settlement,
was a member of the Council of the Colony, and ultimately became
Chief-Justice of the Common Pleas and Probate Court. Otis's own
father (Colonel James Otis) likewise became a lawyer and
publicist, a colonel in the local militia, and rose to a high
post in the judiciary and was a member of the Council of
Massachusetts. He married Mary Alleyne and transmitted to the
future patriot, the subject of this sketch, the talents and many
of the characteristics of his progenitors. A brother of our
hero, Samuel Alleyne Otis, rose to prominence in the politics of
the State and as Secretary of the Senate administered to
Washington the oath of office as President, holding the Bible on
which he was sworn as honored chief of the future nation. A
sister, Mercy, an ardent and loyal patriot, married the notable
republican, James Warren of Plymouth, and lived herself to write
a compend of the "History of the American Revolution," together
with a collection of patriotic verse.

James Otis, whom we know as one of the most eloquent orators of
the Revolutionary era and an ardent promoter of American
independence, was educated for his career at Harvard, which
institution he entered as a freshman in 1739, having previously
been prepared for college by the Rev. Jonathan Russell. His
university course, so far as can be gathered from any account of
it that has come down to us, was not a notable one, though he had
a fair scholastic career and graduated at the age of nineteen in
1743. While popular after a fashion at college, he was a bit of
a recluse and a diligent student of literature, with a
predilection, it is said, for music, playing well on the violin.
After graduating, he wisely spent two years in general reading
before entering upon the study of the law, which he did in 1745
under James Gridley, a prominent jurist of Massachusetts and
sometime Crown Attorney-General. Three years later, he was
admitted to the bar, and in 1748 began to practice his profession
at Plymouth, Mass. In 1750, he removed to Boston, and there
became known as an advocate of note and high promise, actuated by
nice professional instincts, with a fine sense of honor, and
keenly appreciating, it is recorded, his responsibilities in his
relations with his clients, which led him to accept only such
cases as he could conscientiously defend and take retainers from.

This characteristic scruple in the lawyer gave him a high
standing in his profession, and naturally led to success at the
bar, besides winning for him the respect and admiration of troops
of warm and attached friends.

About this time he appears to have developed uncommon gifts as an
orator, and his rather irascible nature gave scope to his keen
wit and powers of sarcasm. His extensive reading and ultimate
study of good literary models naturally bore fruit in the
practice of the forensic art and gave him prestige at the bar, as
well as, later on, in taking to public life and to the advocacy
of the rights of the Colonists in the controversy with the Crown.

In 1755, when he had attained his thirtieth year, Otis married
Ruth Cunningham, the daughter of an influential Boston merchant.
The lady, from all accounts, was undemonstrative and devoid of
her husband's patriotic ardor, traits that did not tend to
domestic felicity or lead, on the wife's part, to a commanding
influence over her vehement and somewhat eccentric husband. The
fruit of the union was one son and two daughters. The son
entered the navy, but unhappily died in his eighteenth year. One
of the daughters, the elder of the two, probably under the
mother's influence, angered her father by espousing the English
cause and marrying a Captain Brown, a British officer on duty at
Boston. The marriage was a source of irritation and unhappiness
to Otis, who, after his son-in-law had fought and been wounded at
Bunker Hill, withdrew with his wife to England, and was there
disowned and cut off by the irate patriot, whose affection was
also dried up for the erring daughter. The younger daughter, on
the other hand, was a devoted and patriotic woman, who shared her
father's enthusiasm for the popular cause. She married Benjamin
Lincoln of Boston, but early became a widow.

By this time, Otis had become not only a man eminent in his
profession in Boston, but a powerful factor in the public life of
the city. The New England commonwealth was then beginning to be
greatly exercised over the aggressions of the Motherland, and
this was keenly watched by Otis, who took a lively and patriotic
interest in Colonial affairs. Beyond his profession, which had
closely engrossed him, he had heretofore taken little part in
public life; his leisure, indeed, he had employed more as a
student of books rather than of national affairs, as his work on
the "Rudiments of Latin Prosody," published in 1760, bears
witness. As the era of a conflict with England neared, he
however altered in this respect, and became a zealous advocate of
non-interference on the part of the Crown in the affairs of the
Colonies and an ardent protester against English oppression and
injustice. Soon grievances arose in the relations between the
Colonies and England which gave Otis the right to denounce the
Motherland and excite dissaffection among the people of the New
World. These grievances arose out of the strained commercial
relations between the two countries and the attempt of England to
devise and enforce irritating schemes of Colonial control. Of
these causes of outcry in the New World the two chief were the
revival and rigid execution of the English Navigation Acts,
designed to limit the freedom of the American Colonies in trading
with West Indian ports in American built vessels, and the
insistence, on the part of the Crown and the British government,
that the Colonies should be taxed for the partial support of
English garrisons in the country. In the development of trade in
the New World, the Colonies reasonably felt that they should not
be harassed by the mother country, and so they permitted commerce
to expand as it would; and when this was enjoined by England they
naturally resented interference by her and began to evade the
laws which she imposed upon the young country and bid defiance to
the Crown customs officers in the measures resorted to in the way
of restriction and imposed penalty. This attitude of the
Colonists in ignoring or defying English laws was soon now
specially emphasized when the Crown resorted to more stringent
measures to curb Colonial trade and impose heavy customs duties
on articles entering New World ports. Flagrant acts of evasion
followed, and defiant smuggling at length brought its legal
consequences--in the issue by the English Court of Exchequer of
search warrants, or Writs of Assistance, as they were called, by
which it was sought to put a stop to smuggling, by resorting to
humiliating arbitrary measures sure to be resented by the
Colonies. These Writs of Assistance empowered the King's
officers, or others delegated by them, to board vessels in port
and enter and search warehouses, and even the private homes of
the Colonists, for contraband goods and all importations that had
not paid toll to His Majesty's customs. This attempted rigid
execution of the Acts of Trade, together with other arbitrary
measures on the part of the Crown which followed, such as the
imposition of the Stamp Act, and the coercive levy of taxes to
pay part of the cost of maintaining English troops in the
Colonies, was soon to cost England dear and end in the loss of
her possessions in America and the rise of the New World

One of the most active men in the Colonies to oppose this
Colonial policy of England was, as we know, the patriot James
Otis, at the time Advocate-General of the Crown, who took
strong ground against the Writs of Assistance, arguing that they
were not only arbitrary and despotic in their operation, but
unconstitutional in their imposition on the Colony, since they
were irreconcilable with the Colonial charters and a violation of
the rights and prerogatives of the people. Rather than uphold
them as a Crown officer, Otis resigned his post of
Advocate-General, and became a fervent pleader of the popular
cause and denouncer of the legal processes by which the Crown
sought to impose, with its authority, its obnoxious trammellings
and restrictions without the consent of and in defiance of the
inalienable rights of the American people. Otis not only
resisted the enforcement by the King's officers of the odious
warrants and denounced their arbitrary character, but inveighed
hotly against English oppression and all attempts of the Crown
and its deputy in the province, the Lieutenant-Governor of
Massachusetts, to restrict the liberties of the people and impose
unconstitutional laws upon the Colony. The Writs of Assistance
were, of course, defended by the representatives of the Crown in
the Colony, and on the plea that without some such legal process
the laws could not be executed, and that similar writs were in
existence in England and made use of there on the authority of
English statutes. The pleas against them advanced by Otis took
cognizance of the fact that the Writs were irreconcilable with
the charter of the Massachusetts Colony, that English precedent
for their enforcement had no application in America, and that
taxation by the Motherland and compulsory acts of the nature of
the Writs did open violence to the rights and liberties of the
people and were inherently arbitrary and despotic, being imposed
without the consent of the Colonies and to their grave hurt and
detriment. In pleading the Colonial cause against the Writs,
Otis struck a chord in the heart of the people which tingled and
vibrated, while stirring up such opposition to them that the
authorities were fain to hold their hand and await instructions
from the English ministry as to their withdrawal or enforcement.
The response of the home government was that they should be
enforced, but little advantage was taken of this mandate in the
Colonies, since opposition to the Writs had, thanks to the
patriot Otis's denunciation of them, became almost universal;
while the people had been roused to a sharp sense of their
situation, in view of the tyrannous attitude of England towards
the Colonies, and the next step taken by the Crown, under Prime
Minister Grenville, in threatening them with the no less hated
Stamp Tax. This new fiscal infatuation on the part-of the
English ministry strained the relations of the Colonies toward
the Crown to almost the point of rupture. It was, moreover, an
unwise exhibition of English stubbornness and impolicy, since it
revealed the mistake which England fell into at the time of
considering the Settlements of the New World as Colonial
possessions to be held solely for the financial benefit of the
mother country, rather than for their own advancement and
material well-being. It is true, that the Seven Years' War,
which had been waged chiefly for the protection of the American
dependencies of the Crown, had left a heavy burden of debt upon
England which she naturally looked to the Colonies in some
measure to repay. But the Colonies had ready their argument--
they objected to being taxed without their consent, and without
representation in the British Parliament, besides being, as they
thought, sufficiently oppressed by the burden of customs' duties
already imposed upon them. The spirit of resistance therefore
grew, and was ere long to take a more determined and, to England,
fatal form, for the Stamp Act, though later on repealed, was
passed, in spite of the protests of the Colonial Assemblies and
the increasing soreness of feeling in America against the mother

The like service James Otis did for the community of the New
World in opposing the Writs of Assistance he also did in opposing
the enforcement of the Stamp Act--remonstrances suggested by the
patriot's love of independence, and which, besides numberless
letters, speeches and addresses, drew from the
pre-Revolutionist's trenchant pen several able pamphlets, one
vindicating the action of the Massachusetts House of
Representatives, of which Otis was now a member, in protesting
against England's intolerance in laying grievous taxation on the
Colonies, and the others upholding the rights of the Colonies in
resisting the Crown's misgovernment, as well as its purpose to
tax the Colonies to defray some of the cost England had incurred
in prosecuting the French and Indian war. In these patriotic
services and labors, Otis, as a public man, took an active and
zealous part, besides conducting a large correspondence as
chairman of the House Committee of the Legislature on subjects
relating to the weal of the whole country. Nor were his duties
confined to these matters alone, for we find him at this period
engaged in controversies first with Governor Hutchinson, and then
with his successor, Governor Bernard, both of whom deemed Otis an
arch-rebel and incendiary--a man not only without the pale of
considerate treatment by lawfully constituted authority in the
Colonies, but the object of contumely and loathing by the
obsequious loyalists of the Motherland and all who desired her
continued dominance and supremacy in the country. History has
happily long since done justice to James Otis and seen him in a
fairer and far more worthy light--the light not only of a
patriot lover of liberty, but an ardent and invincible defender
of his country against autocratic encroachment, and a fearless
asserter of the principles which have become the foundation stone
of the American nation. In his masterful way, Otis was at times
heedlessly bitter and inveterate in his prejudices against the
mother country and the King's officers in the Colony; but we must
remember the strength as well as the ardor of his affection for
his native land and the righteousness of the cause he lovingly
espoused and so nobly advocated. We must remember also the
antagonisms he naturally aroused, and the hatreds of which he was
the object, on the part of loyal authority in the Colony which
feared while it traduced him. This is shown in the mishap that
befell him in a British coffeehouse in Boston, where he was
roughly assaulted by a man named Robinson, an ally of the revenue
officers whom he had denounced in an article in the Boston
Gazette, an attack that left its traces in the mental ailment
which afterwards distressingly incapacitated him and shortened
his bright public career. He nevertheless lived to see the
fruition of his hopes, in the throwing off by the Colonies of all
allegiance to Britain and take part himself in the battle of
Bunker Hill. The harvest reaped by his country from the seeds of
liberty he had planted in his day was such as might well cheer
him in the period of mental darkness which fell upon him and
regretfully clouded his closing years. Nor was he, in his own
era, without regard and honor among those who delighted in his
splendid patriotism, in the days of his manly strength, mental as
well as physical, and who held him in high esteem as a patriot
orator and the staunchly loyal tribune of the New World peoples.
In these days of flaccid patriotism and moral declension in
public life, his example may well stimulate and inspire. In his
wholehearted devotion to the hopes as well as to the interests of
the Colonies most notable was the polemical fervor with which he
espoused their cause and noble the stand he took for liberty and

Like many men who have attained eminence in public life, James
Otis was the victim in his day of detraction and envy. A
specially malignant slander was current with reference to him and
his father at the period of the patriot's resigning his Crown
post of Advocate-General. The motive for throwing up his
appointment and pleading the people's cause against the Writs of
Assistance, it was at the time said, was the disappointment of
the Otis family at the Chief-Justiceship, then vacant, going to
Governor Hutchinson instead of to Colonel James Otis of
Barnstable, father of our hero. This aspersion of the fair name
of the Otises as patriots and high-minded gentlemen, and the
lying assertion that it was this disappointment that led the
Otises, father and son, to abandon the Crown's side for that of
the people, was cruelly false, and especially so as Hutchinson,
who got the post, repeats the falsehood in his "History of
Massachusetts" in explanation of the Otises turning their coats
and becoming partisans of the popular cause. Nothing could well
be more unjust and untrue, for both men were of far too honorable
a character and too ardently patriotic to justify the slander and
give even the slightest color to the misrepresentation. Were it
necessary more emphatically to characterize the slander as false,
one might confidently point to the happy relations of the Otises
with the other patriots of the time--to men of the stamp of the
two Adams statesmen, to Hancock, Randolph, Warren, and other
leaders of the Revolutionary era, as well as to the contemporary
repute and influence of both men in the heroic annals of the
Colonial period. The times were indeed trying and critical, and
at the outset of the movement for independence and relief from
the irritating aggressions of the Crown, the attitude, we may be
sure, was closely watched and not over truthfully reported, of
men of influence who took the patriot side and helped on the
great cause which was afterwards to be gloriously and
triumphantly crowned.

But we pass on to relate, in a few brief words, what remains yet
to be told of James Otis's career, and of the pathetic declining
days of the hero and his tragic end. While mind and body were
intact and working perfectly in unison, Otis continued to give
himself heart and soul to the cause he had so patriotically and
zealously espoused. Even when his malady showed itself, there
were brief returns of useful activity and old-time mental
alertness, only, however, to be followed by sad relapses into the
eclipse-period of his powers. At periods of respite from his
ailment, Otis took part fitfully in his duties as member of the
Massachusetts Legislature, of which body he had been Speaker, and
did what he could to further the work of legislation. He also at
this time appeared once or twice as an advocate in Court, and
also continued his correspondence in Committee of the General
Assembly with prominent men in the other Colonies, seeking
successfully cooperation with them in the great drama of the
time. But for the most part we now find him a considerately
cared-for guest of his old-time friend, Colonel Samuel Osgood, at
the latter's farmhouse at Andover. Here the distinguished
pre-Revolutionist had phenomenal premonitions of the coming
manner of his death, related to his sister, Mrs. Warren, to whom
the patriot on more than one occasion said, that when God in his
Providence should take him hence into the eternal world, he hoped
it would be by a stroke of lightning! This tragic fate was ere
long to be his, for on the afternoon of May 23rd, 1783, when Otis
was standing amid a family group at the door of the Osgood
homestead at Andover, a bolt from the blue flashed down from
aloft and felled the hero to the ground. Death was
instantaneous, and happily it left no mark or contortion on his
body, while his features had the repose and placidity of seeming
sleep. Thus passed the hero from the scenes of earth, and in a
sense fitly, for the period was that which saw the close of the
drama of the Revolution he had been instrumental in bringing
about, and the departure from the soil of the new-born Republic
of the last of the English soldiery.

[3]Historian, Biographer, Essayist, Author of a "Precis of
English History," a "Continuation of Grecian History," etc., and
for many years Editor of Self-Culture Magazine.--The Publishers.


May it please your Honours: I was desired by one of the court to
look into the (law) 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 presented another petition, and out of regard to the
liberties of the subject. And I take this opportunity 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 villainly 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 ever was found in an English lawbook. I
must therefore beg your Honours' 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 cause, 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 cause from the same principle; and I
argue it with the greatest pleasure, as it is in favour 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 as it is in
opposition to a kind of power, the exercise of which in former
periods of history cost one king of England his head and another
his crown, I have taken more pains in this cause than I ever will
take again, although my engaging in this and another popular
cause 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 good citizens; 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.

In the first place, may it please your honours, I will admit that
writs of one kind may be legal; that is, special writs, directed
to special officers, and to search certain houses, etc.,
specially set forth in the writ, may be granted by the Court of
Exchequer at home, upon oath made before the Lord Treasurer by
the person who asks it, that he suspects such goods to be
concealed in those very places he desires to search. The Act of
14 Charles II., which Mr. Gridley[4] mentions, proves this. And
in this light the writ appears like a warrant from a Justice of
the Peace to search for stolen goods. Your honours 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 on it, that the writ prayed
for in this petition 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
domains. Every one with this writ may be a tyrant; if this
commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner, also, 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 him. 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: t o be the servants 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 everything 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 Honours 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, 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 garret to cellar; and then served the
constable in the same manner! But to show another absurdity in
this writ, if it should be established, I insist upon it every
person, by the 14 Charles II., 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 neighbour'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 blood!

Again, these writs are not returned. Writs, in their nature, are
temporary things. When the purposes for which they are issued
are answered, they exist no more; but these live forever; no one
can be called to account. Thus reason and the constitution are
both against this writ. Let us see what authority there is for
it. Not more than one instance can be found of it in all our
law-books; and that was in the zenith of arbitrary power, namely,
in the reign of Charles II., when star-chamber powers were pushed
to extremity by some ignorant clerk of the exchequer. But had
this writ been in any book whatever, it would have been illegal.
All precedents are under the control of the principles of law.
Lord Talbot (the Earl of Shrewsbury, an English peer of the era
of William and Mary) says it is better to observe these than any
precedents, though in the House of Lords the last resort of the
subject. No Acts of Parliament can establish such a writ; though
it should be made in the very words of the petition, it would be
void. An act against the constitution is void. But this proves
no more than what I before observed, that special writs may be
granted on oath and probable suspicion. The act of 7 and 8
William III. that the officers of the plantations shall have the
same powers, etc., is confined to this sense; that an officer
should show probable ground; should take his oath of it; should
do this before a magistrate; and that such magistrate, if he
think proper, should issue a special warrant to a constable to
search the places. That of 6 Anne can prove no more.

[4] Otis's opponent--his legal preceptor--who argued in favor of
the Writs.

JAMES OTIS ON THE STAMP ACT. An Oration Delivered Before the
Governor and Council In Boston, December 20, 1765.

It is with great grief that I appear before your Excellency
(Governor Hutchinson) and Honours (of the City Council) on this
occasion. A wicked and unfeeling minister (Earl Grenville) has
caused a people, the most loyal and affectionate that ever king
was blest with, to groan under the most insupportable oppression.

But I think, Sir, that he now stands upon the brink of inevitable
destruction; and trust that soon, very soon, he will feel the
full weight of his injured sovereign's righteous indignation. I
have no doubt, Sir, but that the loyal and dutiful
representations of nine provinces, the cries and supplications of
a distressed people, the united voice of all his Majesty's most
loyal and affectionate British-American subjects, will obtain all
that ample redress which they have a right to expect; and that
erelong they will see their cruel and insidious enemies, both at
home and abroad, put to shame and confusion.

My brother Adams has entered so largely into the validity of the
act, that I shall not enlarge on that head. Indeed, what has
been observed is sufficient to convince the most illiterate
savage that the Parliament of England had no regard to the very
first principles of their own liberties.

Only the preamble of that oppressive act is enough to rouse the
blood of every generous Briton.--"We your Majesty's subjects,
the commons of Great Britain, etc., do give and grant"--What?
Their own property? No! The treasure, the heart's blood of all
your Majesty's dutiful and affectionate British-American

But the time is far spent. I will not tire your patience. It
was once a fundamental maxim that every subject had the same
right to his life, liberty, property, and the law that the King
had to his crown; and 'tis yet, I venture to say, as much as a
crown is worth, to deny the subject his law, which is his
birthright. 'Tis a first principle "that Majesty should not only
shine in arms, but be armed with the laws." The administration
of justice is necessary to the very existence of governments.
Nothing can warrant the stopping the course of justice but the
impossibility of holding courts, by reason of war, invasion,
rebellion, or insurrection. This was law at a time when the
whole island of Great Britain was divided into an infinite number
of petty baronies and principalities; as Germany is, at this day.

Insurrections then, and even invasions, put the whole nation into
such confusion that justice could not have her equal course;
especially as the kings in ancient times frequently sat as
judges. But war has now become so much of a science, and gives
so little disturbance to a nation engaged, that no war, foreign
or domestic, is a sufficient reason for shutting up the courts.
But if it were, we are not in such a state, but far otherwise,
the whole people being willing and demanding the full
administration of justice. The shutting up of the courts is an
abdication, a total dissolution of government. Whoever takes
from the king his executive power, takes from the king his
kingship. "The laws which forbid a man to pursue his right one
way, ought to be understood with this equitable restriction, that
one finds judges to whom he may apply."

I can't but observe that cruel and unheard-of neglect of that
enemy to his king and country, the author of this Act, that, when
all business, the very life and being of a commercial state, was
to be carried on by the use of stamps, that wicked and execrable
minister never paid the least regard to the miseries of this
extensive continent, but suffered the time for the taking place
of the Act to elapse months before a single stamp was received.
Though this was a high piece of infidelity to the interest of his
royal master, yet it makes it evident that it could never be
intended, that if stamps were not to be had, it should put a stop
to all justice, which is, ipse facto, a dissolution of society.

It is a strange kind of law which we hear advanced nowadays, that
because one unpopular Act can't be carried into execution, that
therefore there shall be an end of all law. We are not the first
people who have risen to prevent the execution of a law; the very
people of England themselves rose in opposition to the famous
Jew-bill, and got that immediately repealed. And lawyers know
that there are limits, beyond which, if parliaments go, their
acts bind not.

The king is always presumed to be present in his courts, holding
out the law to his subjects; and when he shuts his courts, he
unkings himself in the most essential point. Magna Charter and
the other statutes are full, "that they will not defer, delay,
nor deny any man justice"; "that it shall not be commanded by the
Great Seal, or in any other way, to disturb or delay common
right." The judges of England are "not to counsel, or assent to
anything which may turn to the damage or disherison of the
crown." They are sworn not to deny to any man common right, by
the king's letters, nor none other man's, nor for none other
cause. Is not the dissolution of society a disherison of the
crown? The "justices are commanded that they shall do even law
and execution of right to all our subjects, rich and poor,
without having regard to any person, without letting to do right
for any letters or commandment which may come to them, or by any
other cause."


Professor Hosmer draws the following pictures of Otis and his

"The splendid Otis, whose leadership was at first unquestioned,
was like the huge cannon on the man-of-war, in Victor Hugo's
story, that had broken from its moorings in the storm, and become
a terror to those whom it formerly defended. He was indeed a
great gun, from whom in the time of the Stamp Act had been sent
the most powerful bolts against unconstitutional oppression.
With lashings parted, however, as the storm grew violent he
plunged dangerously from side to side, almost sinking the ship,
all the more an object to dread from the calibre that had once
made him so serviceable. It was a melancholy sight, and yet a
great relief, when his friends saw him at last bound hand and
foot, and carried into retirement.

"Bowdoin, also, was not firm in health, and though most active
and useful in the Council, had thus far done little elsewhere.
Hawley, far in the interior, was often absent from the centre in
critical times, and somewhat unreliable through a strange
moodiness. Cushing was weak. Hancock was hampered by foibles
that some times quite canceled his merits. Quincy was a
brilliant youth, and, like a youth, sometimes fickle. We have
seen him ready to temporize, when to falter was destruction, as
at the time of the casting over of the tea; again in unwise
fervor, he would counsel assassination as a proper expedient.
Warren, too, could rush into extremes of rashness and ferocity,
wishing that he might wade to the knees in blood, and had just
reached sober, self-reliant manhood when he was taken off.

"John Adams showed only an intermittent zeal in the public cause
until the preliminary work was done, and Benjamin Church,
half-hearted and venal, early began the double-dealing which was
to bring him to a traitor's end. There was need in this group of
a man of sufficient ascendency, thorough intellect and character,
to win deference from all--wise enough to see always the supreme
end, to know what each instrument was fit for, and to bring all
forces to bear in the right way--a man of consummate adroitness,
to sail in torpedo-sown waters without exciting an explosion,
though conducting wires of local prejudice, class sensitiveness,
and personal foible on every hand led straight down to magazines
of wrath which might shatter the cause in a moment--a man having
resources of his own to such an extent that he could supplement
from himself what was wanting in others--always awake, though
others might want to sleep, always at work though others might be
tired--a man devoted, without thought of personal gain or fame,
simply and solely to the public cause. Such a man there was, and
his name was Samuel Adams."


Professor Hosmer thus compares Otis and Adams:

"Otis' power was so magnetic that a Boston town meeting, upon his
mere entering, would break out into shouts and clapping, and if
he spoke he produced effects which may be compared with the sway

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