Otis, James 1725–1783

James Otis, a leader of colonial Massachusetts politics and an early contributor to the rhetoric of the American Revolution, was born in Barnstable, Plymouth Colony, on February 5, 1725. His family had gained some prominence throughout the region: His father James Otis, Sr., served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, despite a lack of formal education.

James Otis, Jr., graduated from Harvard in 1743 and completed his master’s degree in 1746. Following his formal training, Otis studied under attorney Jeremiah Gridley and was admitted to the Plymouth Colony bar. Following that, he began his own practice in Barnstable. He practiced law there for two years before moving to Boston in 1750. In addition to his work as an attorney, Otis handled his father’s business affairs in Boston and became generally engaged in commerce. He married Ruth Cunningham, the daughter of an affluent Boston merchant, in 1755.

The following year Otis began his tenure as the advocate general of the vice-admiralty court. He resigned his position with the court in 1760 in protest of the writs of assistance issued by the Massachusetts superior court. These writs allowed customs officials to search vessels at will for smuggled goods. Otis presented a lengthy and eloquent argument against the writs of assistance before the high court. The writs, Otis argued, were a violation of common and natural law and trampled on human rights. Otis further declared that any act of Parliament that so impeded the natural rights of the colonists was invalid. Otis’s argument against the writs of assistance helped to establish the basic groundwork of the division between Parliament and the colonies. His declaration of the writs as unconstitutional raised the fundamental question of how much authority Parliament had and to what extent that body could exercise sovereign powers.

Otis’s argument against the writs of assistance moved him to the forefront of the infant Revolutionary movement. In 1761, Otis was elected to the colonial assembly; in 1764, he was chosen to head the Massachusetts committee of correspondence. The author of numerous pamphlets and letters that outlined the issues of the Revolution, Otis drafted a concise argument against Parliament’s efforts at taxation in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. Otis opposed later acts of the British Parliament, declaring the Sugar Act a law that taxed the colonial population without their consent. Otis served as a member of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, narrowly losing the post of presiding officer to his fellow Massachusetts representative Timothy Ruggles. Although Otis was widely supported by a radical faction within the Congress, the group as a whole tended to adopt a moderate voice of opposition. It declared that the provision of the Stamp Act that granted greater jurisdiction to the vice admiralty courts violated the right to trial by jury. In 1766, Otis was elected speaker of the Massachusetts colonial assembly, an honor that was disallowed him by the veto of Bernard, the royal governor. The position went instead to Thomas Cushing, one of Otis’s followers. Governor Bernard continued his attack on Otis, negating the election of his father, James Otis, Sr., to the Massachusetts Council.

In 1767, Otis attacked the Townshend Acts, another of Parliament’s efforts to tax the colonies. He chaired a Boston town meeting that called on the local inhabitants to begin manufacturing a variety of articles including clothing, furniture, sugar, liquor, cheeses, and jewelry so as not to consume those items taxed by the Townshend Acts. Together with fellow Revolutionary Samuel Adams, Otis convinced the Massachusetts assembly to adopt the Circular Letter, a document that declared the colonial position and rejected the idea that the colonies could be adequately represented in Parliament. The letter was sent to the speaker of every other colonial assembly in an effort to regain the type of cooperation and harmony that had been evident at the time of the Stamp Act crisis.

Otis’s political and philosophical thought helped to shape the ideology of the American Revolution. In 1769, he was attacked by a British customs official and sustained severe injuries. The resulting skull fracture damaged his brain and incapacitated him mentally. After an incident in which he vandalized the State House, Otis was declared insane, and his brother Samuel was named his guardian. The following year, Otis was removed from public life. He spent the rest of his years at the homes of family friends, no longer recognizable as the strong political force he had once been. On May 23, 1783, Otis was struck by lightning and died instantly. Tonia M. Compton See also: Revolutionary War; Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, The (1764); Stamp Act (1765); Townshend Acts (1767); Document: Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764). Bibliography Gipson, Lawrence Henry. The Coming of the Revolution, 17631775. New York: Harper & Row, 1954. Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 17631789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Sheedy, Jacks. “James Otis, Jr. The first Barnstable patriot,” Summerscape ’98, a supplement to the Barnstable Patriot.

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James Otis (1725 - 1783)


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