James Otis Born February 5, 1725
Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States
Died May 23, 1783 Occupation lawyer
James Otis (February 5, 1725 – May 23, 1783) was a lawyer in colonial Massachusetts who was an early advocate of the political views that led to the American Revolution. The phrase "Taxation without Representation is Tyranny" is usually attributed to him.
He was born at Barnstable to James Otis and Mary Allyne, the second of thirteen children. His younger sister, Mercy Otis Warren, his brother Joseph Otis, and his youngest brother, Samuel Allyne Otis also rose to prominence, as did his nephew Harrison Gray Otis.
Writs of Assistance
“I have been old and now I am dead, and I solemnly say I have never known a man whose love of country was more ardent or sincere, never one who suffered so much, never one whose service for any 10 years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of his country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770.” – John Adams
Perhaps not a single person more epitomized the complexities and contradictions of the pre-Revolutionary War period in Boston than the prominent attorney, orator and pamphleteer James Otis, Jr. Born in West Barnstable in 1725, Otis graduated from Harvard in 1743 and rose meteorically to the top of the Boston legal profession.
In 1760, Otis received a prestigious appointment as Advocate General of the Admiralty Court. He promptly resigned, however, when expected to argue in favor of the “writs of assistance.” These writs would enable British authorities to enter any colonist’s home with no advance notice, no probable cause and no reason given. In a dramatic turnabout following his resignation, Otis instead represented pro bono the colonial merchants who were challenging the legality of the writs before the Superior Court, the predecessor of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
James Otis considered himself a loyal British subject. Yet in February 1761, he argued so brilliantly against the writs of assistance in a nearly five-hour oration before a packed audience in the Old State House that John Adams claimed: “Every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did ready to up arms against the writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of the opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child of Independence was born.”
According to Adams,
“Otis was a flame of fire; with a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities.”
Originally politically based in the rural Popular Party, Otis effectively made alliances with Boston merchants so that he instantly became a patriot star after the writs of assistance oration. He was elected by an overwhelming margin to the House of Representatives a month later. Otis subsequently authored several important patriotic pamphlets, served in the Massachusetts legislature and was a leader at the Stamp Act Congress. Brutally injured in the head by British tax collector John Robinson's cudgel at the British Coffee House in 1769, Otis suffered from increasingly erratic behavior (probably not caused by the injury because early signs of his mental illness had already been in evidence). He also was friends with Thomas Paine who wrote Common Sense.
During the American Revolution he was a volunteer at the Battle of Bunker Hill, June, 1775. He died at age 58 when, as he stood in the doorway of a friend’s Andover house, a bolt of lightning struck him.
Oddly, or coincidentally, enough, he obliquely predicted his manner of death. He is reported to have said to his sister, Mercy Otis Warren, "My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity, that it will be by a flash of lightning."
Despite his rousing oration against the writs of assistance, Otis did not identify himself as a revolutionary. His peers, too, generally viewed him as more cautious than the incendiary Samuel Adams. Otis at times counseled against the mob violence of the radicals and argued against Adams’s proposal for a convention of all the colonies resembling that of the British Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yet on other occasions Otis exceeded Adams in rousing passions and exhorting people to action. According to some accounts, at a town meeting on September 12, 1768, Otis even called his compatriots to arms.
In many ways, Otis went beyond the traditional mentality of the pre-Revolutionary War era. For example, Otis favored extending the basic natural law freedoms of life, liberty and property to African-Americans, a position with few adherents among the leaders of the Revolution. Otis died in May, 1783, when struck by lightning, which is surprisingly the way that he wanted it to be.
- William Tudor, Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts. Boston, 1823.
Jeffrey W. Purcell, “James Otis, ‘Flame of Fire’ Revolutionary Opposing the Writs of Assistance and Loyal British Subject?” 5 Massachusetts Legal History (1999).
External linkWikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:James Otis
- Full text of James Otis, the pre-revolutionist by John Clark Ridpath, from Project Gutenberg
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