|Nicknames:||"The "fiery Patriot of the Revolution""|
|Birthplace:||Barnstable, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, USA|
|Death:||Died in Andover, Essex County, Massachusetts, USA|
|Cause of death:||struck by lightning while standing in his front door during a thunderstorm, dying instantly|
|Occupation:||Lawyer, Member of the Massachusetts Colonial House of Representative; Advocate General in Colonial Vice Admiralty Court (-1761); Coined "Taxation without representation . . ." and laid groundwork for Fourth Amendment; Killed by lightening strike|
|Managed by:||Alexander Sudnik-Murdock|
James's Top Matches
About James Otis, Jr.
James Otis, born February 5, 1725. died May 23, 1783. Revolutionary War Patriot. He coined the phrase "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, he was descended from John Otis, one of the first settlers in Hingham, Massachusetts, who arrived in June 1635. He graduated from Harvard University in 1743, having studied general literature, and began a study of law for the next two years under the tutelage of Jeremiah Gridley, considered one of the best lawyers in America at the time. In 1748, he set up a law...[Read More] (Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson) Granary Burial Ground, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA.
James Otis, Jr. (February 5, 1725 – May 23, 1783) was a lawyer in colonial Massachusetts, a member of the Massachusetts provincial assembly, and 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. However, the phrase had been used for more than a generation in Ireland.
He was born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. He was the second of thirteen children and the first to survive infancy. His 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. His father, James Otis, Sr., was a prominent lawyer and militia officer. The elder Otis was often referred to by his military rank (colonel) to distinguish the two men.
In 1755 James married "the beautiful Ruth Cunningham", a merchant's daughter and heiress to a fortune worth 10,000 pounds. Their politics were quite different, yet they were attached to each other. Otis later "half-complained that she was a 'High Tory,'" yet in the same breath "she was a good Wife ['Ruthy'], and too good for him." The marriage produced three children (James, Elizabeth and Mary). Their son James died at the age of eighteen, and their daughter Elizabeth, a Loyalist like her mother, married Captain Brown of the British Army and lived in England for the rest of her life. Their youngest daughter, Mary, married Benjamin Lincoln, son of the distinguished Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln.
Speaking of James Otis, John Adams said, "I have been young and now I am old, 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."
Writs of assistance
Otis graduated from Harvard in 1743 and rose meteorically to the top of the Boston legal profession. In 1760, he received a prestigious appointment as Advocate General of the Admiralty Court. He promptly resigned, however, when Governor Francis Bernard failed to appoint his father to the promised position of Chief Justice of the province's highest court; the position instead went to longtime Otis opponent Thomas Hutchinson. In a dramatic turnabout following his resignation, Otis instead represented pro bono the colonial merchants who were challenging the legality of the "writs of assistance" before the Superior Court, the predecessor of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. These writs enabled British authorities to enter any colonist's home with no advance notice, no probable cause and no reason given. In his oration against the writs, John Adams stated, "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."
James Otis considered himself a loyal British subject. Yet in February 1761, he argued brilliantly against the Writs of Assistance in a nearly five-hour oration before a select audience in the State House. His argument failed to win his case, although it galvanized the revolutionary movement. More than thirty years later, with considerable exaggeration, John Adams claimed that "the child independence was then and there born,[for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance." In fact, his challenge to the authority of Parliament made a strong impression on John Adams, who was present, and thereby eventually contributed to the American Revolution. In a pamphlet published three years later, in 1765, Otis expanded his argument that the general writs violated the British constitution harkening back to the Magna Carta. Much enhanced by John Adams on several occasions, the text of his 1761 speech was first printed in 1773 and in longer forms in 1819 and 1823.
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' 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.
Patriot and pamphleteer
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 controversy over the writs of assistance. He was elected by an overwhelming margin to the provincial assembly a month later. Otis subsequently wrote several important patriotic pamphlets, served in the assembly and was a leader of the Stamp Act Congress. He also was friends with Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense.
Otis suffered from increasingly erratic behavior as the 1760s progressed. Otis received a gash on the head by British tax collector John Robinson's cudgel at the British Coffee House in 1769. Some mistakenly attribute Otis's mental illness to this event, but it has been shown to be unrelated by Wroth and Zobel. John Adams has several examples in his diary of Otis's mental illness well before 1769. By the end of the decade, Otis's public life largely came to an end. Some believe Otis was a manic depressive or schizophrenic and that his illness could be successfully treated today. Otis was able to do occasional legal practice during times of clarity.
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.
Otis died suddenly in May 1783 at the age of 58 when, as he stood in the doorway of a friend's house, he was struck by lightning. 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".
* The Rudiments of Latin Prosody (1760). Otis published the first of two treatises on prosody, and his alma mater, Harvard, eventually adapted it as a textbook. * A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives (1762). The first political publication by Otis. Here he uses an example of an expenditure not sanctioned by the colonial legislature as the foundation of his theory that taxes can be charged only by a representative government. In effect, he summarizes the argument that would have a central place in Revolutionary rhetoric.
The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764). This pamphlet sets down another important philosophy underpinning the Revolutionary debate: it asserts that rights are not derived from human institutions, but from nature and God. Thus, government does not exist to please monarchs, but to promote the good of the entire society.
Considerations on Behalf of the Colonists (1765). This pamphlet expands the author's argument from The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. He furthers the notion of natural rights by linking it to the theory of equal representation. In this year he also authors the pamphlets Vindication of the British Colonies and Brief Remarks on the Defence of the Halifax Libel, Otis's last. Contradicting his earlier statements, Otis now is pleased to grant Parliament complete authority over the colonies. Scholars have settled on two explanations for his drastic reversal: Otis either temporarily became mentally ill, or he intended to use these pieces to defend himself against charges of treason.
Otis, James (2 Feb. 1725-23 May 1783), politician, was born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, the son of Colonel James Otis and Mary Allyne. James Otis, Sr., was the political "boss" of Barnstable County (Cape Cod), the colonel of its militia, and a longtime representative and leader of the Massachusetts General Court. James Otis, Jr., graduated from Harvard College in 1743, although he complained to his father of its "miserable, despicable, and arbitrary government." He then studied law with the noted Boston lawyer Jeremiah Gridley, practiced locally, and in 1755 married the wealthy heiress Ruth Cunningham. She sympathized with the Loyalists during the American Revolution, as did her father, Captain Nathaniel Cunningham. Their three children reflected the parental disagreement: a son died in a British prison in 1777, a daughter married a lieutenant in the British army, while the other daughter wed the son and namesake of General Benjamin Lincoln.
After his marriage Otis moved to Boston, where his father's connections with Governors William Shirley and Thomas Pownall obtained for him appointments as justice of the peace (1756) and deputy advocate general of the vice admiralty court (1757), the latter worth ¹200 a year. Yet Otis did not rise through nepotism alone. He studied law deeply, published a work titled The Rudiments of Latin Prosody (1760), wrote an unpublished work on Greek prosody, frequented political, legal, and literary circles in Boston, and gained a superb reputation as a lawyer, which impressed both future patriot John Adams and future Loyalist Thomas Hutchinson, who "never knew fairer or more noble conduct in a pleader, than in Otis," who "defended his causes solely on their broad and substantial foundations" rather than technical points of law (Tudor, p. 36).
However, the friendship between Hutchinson and Otis did not last long. Governor William Shirley had promised Otis's father, then Speaker of the assembly, the first vacancy on the Massachusetts Superior Court, which became available when Chief Justice Stephen Sewall died in September 1760. Hoping that incoming governor Francis Bernard would honor his predecessor's commitment, Otis approached Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson and asked support for his father. There are two versions of what happened next. Otis thought that Hutchinson pledged his help, then double-crossed him by accepting the post himself. Hutchinson's version was that he only agreed not to seek the position, that he put in a good word for Otis, and only reluctantly accepted it when Bernard assured him he would never choose Otis. Either way, the battle lines were drawn between the two powerful families and their supporters. Hutchinson also claimed that Otis then swore he would set the province aflame or perish in the attempt, an allegation Otis and the patriots vehemently denied.
Hutchinson and Otis clashed again almost immediately. The Boston mercantile community was enraged at a recent crackdown on illegal trade by Customs Commissioner Charles Paxton. Paxton relied on Writs of Assistance (general search warrants that permitted him to search anywhere) to secure convictions. Merchants brought suit in the superior court, now headed by Hutchinson, to have the procedure declared illegal. Otis relinquished his vice admiralty position to take the case, which he shared with Oxenbridge Thacher without a fee, in December 1760. The following February he presented the argument, which 82-year-old John Adams, remembering an event he had witnessed over a half-century previously, forever immortalized: "Otis was a flame of fire! . . . He hurried away everything before him. American independence was then and there born; the seeds of patriots and heroes were then and there sown" (Adams, vol. 10, p. 247).
Yet what Otis said and its significance will never be exactly known. Adams's notes of the trial indicate that Otis stressed two points. First, the Writs of Assistance were "the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive to English liberty, and the fundamental principles of the Constitution." As such, the Act of Parliament authorizing the writs was against both the Constitution and equity and hence void; it was then the duty of "the executive courts . . . to pass such acts into disuse" (Adams, vol. 2, pp. 521-22). Otis was grasping at straws because it was difficult to deny that an act of Parliament had binding force. Hutchinson ignored constitutional issues, inquired whether British courts authorized similar writs, and assumed the Massachusetts Superior Court possessed equal power. Ironically, when the British attorney general finally ruled on the writs in 1766, he ignored both Otis's and Hutchinson's reasoning and merely asserted that the act of Parliament concerning the writs did not apply to the colonies. The impact of Otis's speech is also open to question: few people heard it, it was not published and only publicized in the nineteenth century, and natural law's superiority to manmade law had been invoked previously, as in the right to resist naval impressment following the great riot of November 1747 in the Independent Advertiser. Yet undoubtedly Otis's powerful challenge to the sovereignty of Parliament and his defense of constitutional rights beyond the reach of any power initiated the discussion for the revolutionary era.
Two months after the writs case, Otis won election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives from Boston: the 1761 returns ousted Hutchinson's and Bernard's "court" supporters from three of the town's four seats. After 1764 they would never hold any of them. Otis won election each year until 1769 and then again in 1771, when his deepening insanity forced him to retire. In 1762 he published the first of his major political writings, A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives. At issue was the trivial sum of ¹72, which Governor Bernard had spent to send the province sloop off to Maine to protect shipping in wartime. But for Otis, this unauthorized expenditure during the recess of the house violated the principle that "a House of Representatives, here at least, bears an equal proportion to the governor, as the House of Commons to the King," who could not spend a shilling the Commons had not appropriated. In The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (July 1764), he went even further: "The very act of taxing, except over those who are represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights as freemen; and if continued, seems to be in effect an entire disfranchisement of every civil right." Otis argued that even the Acts of Trade and Navigation, which the colonies usually acknowledged in return for protection they received from British ships and arms, were in effect a tax on trade and hence illegal. In A Vindication of the British Colonies (Mar. 1765), Otis mocked the idea that lawmakers from one part of the empire could "virtually" represent in Parliament those who did not actually vote for them: "as to any personal knowledge they have of us," we are "as perfect strangers . . . as the savages of California." We have "no more share, weight or influence than the Hottentots have in . . . China, or the Ethiopians in . . . Great Britain." Through these works and other pamphlets, newspaper articles, and speeches in the Boston Town Meeting and Massachusetts General Court that circulated by word of mouth, Otis was perhaps the most influential advocate in Massachusetts, if not America, of the position that Britain had no right to tax or even legislate for unrepresented colonists and that unconstitutional law was no law at all.
Yet despite these bold pronouncements Otis earned a reputation among Boston radicals as "a reprobate, an apostate, and a traitor" (Adams, vol. 10, p. 295). The same Otis who denied Parliament's right to legislate for the colonies also wrote in "A Vindication of the British Colonies": "God forbid these colonies should ever prove undutiful to their mother country! . . . Were these colonies left to themselves tomorrow, America would be a mere shambles of blood and confusion, before little petty states could be settled." While it was reasonable and expedient for Parliament to honor colonial rights, Parliament was the "supreme judge from whose determination there is no appeal." At the Stamp Act Congress, to which he was one of three Massachusetts delegates, Otis counseled remonstrance, not resistance. He did so again, successfully, to Samuel Adams's dismay, when the redcoats landed in Boston in 1768.
"How can such inconsistencies and prevarications be reconciled to honesty, patriotism, and common sense?" wrote the Boston Evening Post on 5 May 1766. It is a question that has vexed historians to this day. Those charitably inclined stress that Otis mentally struggled far more than most of his radical contemporaries with how natural rights could be reconciled with social order. A politician of the old school who achieved prominence before the revolutionary crisis, he appreciated the benefits of the British Empire and legal system, which had done well by him and his family. His encroaching madness, aggravated by heavy drinking and a savage beating by Customs Commissioner John Robinson in September 1769, may have been due to the strain of balancing liberty and authority.
On the other hand, Otis's attitude toward Bernard and Hutchinson changed dramatically from 1763 to early 1765, when Otis's father was appointed probate judge and chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas of Barnstable County. In fact, Otis's career in Boston might have been jeopardized, and he would have lost his assembly seat in the 1765 elections, had not Loyalist Samuel Waterhouse gone overboard in attacking him. The vehicle was a satirical poem, "Jemmibullero," which appeared in the Evening Post on 13 May 1765 and which won Otis some sympathy. The poem read in part: "So Jemmy railed at upper folks when Jemmy's DAD was out. / But Jemmy's DAD now has a place so Jemmy's turned about." But Otis redeemed himself by supporting the Stamp Act Congress's majority and opposing the congress president, Massachusetts's Timothy Ruggles, in insisting that the congress protest the act as a violation of American rights, instead of asking for repeal as a matter of favor or referring the mode of protest to the provincial legislatures. From then until his madness set in, Otis was a firm patriot.
Otis's final years were tragic. He drank to excess, raved like a lunatic, broke the windows in the Boston townhouse, and ran about firing his gun. His relatives petitioned Hutchinson in his capacity as judge of probate to remand him to their custody. Despite occasional periods of rationality, he had little to do with the revolutionary movement after 1770. He charged into the American ranks at the battle of Bunker Hill but somehow survived. He died, as he both predicted and desired, when a bolt of lightning struck him at the house of Isaac Osgood in Andover, Massachusetts. The contradiction between liberty and sovereignty that tore apart the British Empire also destroyed the mind of James Otis. In addition he was divided between the conventional, patronage politics that enriched and advanced his family and the ideological struggle of an age of revolution. Otis, like Moses, was fated to glimpse the Promised Land but never enter into it.
Otis's papers are at the Massachusetts Historical Society and Butler Library of Columbia University. His pamphlets are printed in University of Missouri, Studies, vol. 4, ed. C. F. Mullett (1929). Those written until 1765 are more easily obtained in Bernard Bailyn and Jane Garrett, eds., Pamphlets of the American Revolution, vol. 1, 1750-1765 (1965). Of Otis's contemporaries, the shrewdest, if critical observations, are found in the papers of Francis Bernard, Houghton Library, Harvard University, and of Thomas Hutchinson, vols. 25-27, the Massachusetts Archives; the writings of John Adams, Works (10 vols., 1850-1856); and various papers published since 1961 by the Adams Papers Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The standard biography is still William Tudor, The Life of James Otis (1823), although it is usefully supplemented by John J. Waters, Jr., The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts (1968). Partial to Otis is James R. Ferguson, "Reason in Madness: The Political Thought of James Otis," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 36 (1979): 194-214. Critical are Ellen E. Brennan, "James Otis: Recreant and Patriot," New England Quarterly 12 (1979): 691-725, and Clifford K. Shipton, Sibley's Harvard Graduates, vol. 11 (1960), pp. 247-87. Oliver M. Dickerson, "Writs of Assistance as a Cause of the American Revolution," in The Era of the American Revolution, ed. Richard B. Morris (1939), pp. 40-75, downplays their role; Joseph R. Frese, "James Otis and the Writs of Assistance," New England Quarterly 30 (1957): 496-508, rehabilitates it.
Citation: William Pencak. "Otis, James"; http://www.anb.org/articles/01/01-00690.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Copyright Ã 2000 American Council of Learned Societies."
James Otis, Jr.'s Timeline
February 5, 1725
Barnstable, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, USA
May 23, 1783
Andover, Essex County, Massachusetts, USA
Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts