James Otis Jr.

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James Otis
JamesOtisJr by Blackburn.jpg
Portrait by Joseph Blackburn, 1755
Born (1725-02-05)February 5, 1725
Barnstable, Province of Massachusetts Bay, British America
Died May 23, 1783(1783-05-23) (aged 58)
Andover, Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting place Granary Burying Ground, Boston
Occupation lawyer, political activist, pamphleteer and legislator
Known for

Oration against British writs of assistance February 5, 1761 which catapulted him into the first ranks of Patriot leaders. The executive Courts must pass such acts into disuse." "A man's house is his castle.... this writ [of assistance] would totally annihilate this privilege.

Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please."
Spouse(s) Ruth Cunningham
Children James, Elizabeth Brown
Mary Lincoln
Parent(s) James Otis Sr.
Mary Allyne
Bronze sculpture of James Otis Jr. in front of the Barnstable County Courthouse

James Otis Jr. (February 5, 1725 – May 23, 1783) was a lawyer, political activist, pamphleteer and legislator in Boston, a member of the Massachusetts provincial assembly, and an early advocate of the Patriot views against British policy that led to the American Revolution. His well-known catchphrase "Taxation without representation is tyranny" became the basic Patriot position.[1]

Early life[edit]

Otis was born in West Barnstable ("Great Marshes"), Massachusetts, 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 became leaders of the American Revolution, as did his nephew Harrison Gray Otis.[2] His father, Colonel James Otis Sr., was a prominent lawyer and militia officer. James Otis Sr. and his son had a tumultuous relationship. He penned a letter to his son articulating his disappointments and encouraging his son to seek God's righteousness to better himself.[3]

In 1755, James married Ruth Cunningham, a merchant's daughter and heiress to a fortune worth ₤10,000.[4] 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."[5] The marriage produced children James, Elizabeth, and Mary. Their son James died at the age of eighteen. Their daughter Elizabeth was a Loyalist like her mother; she 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.

Writs of assistance[edit]

James Otis Jr. 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 recollected years later, "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."[6]

James Otis considered himself a loyal British subject. Yet in February 1761, he argued 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.

John Adams promoted Otis as a major player in the coming of the Revolution. 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." 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." His challenge to the authority of Parliament made a strong impression on Adams, and thereby eventually contributed to the American Revolution. Otis expanded his argument in a pamphlet published three years later in 1765, that the general writs violated the British constitution harkening back to the Magna Carta. The text of his 1761 speech was much enhanced by John Adams on several occasions; it was first printed in 1773 and in longer forms in 1819 and 1823.[7]

According to James R. Ferguson,[8] the four tracts that Otis wrote during 1764–65 to protest British tax measures reveal contradictions and even intellectual confusion. Otis was the first leader of the period to develop distinctive American theories of constitutionalism and representation, but he relied on traditional views of Parliamentary authority. Otis refused to follow the logical direction of his natural law theory and, by drawing back from radicalism, appeared to be inconsistent. Some historians have suggested incipient insanity,[who?] but Samuelson argues that Otis should be seen as a practical political thinker rather than a theorist. That explains why his positions changed as he adjusted to altered political realities, according to Samuelson, and exposed the British constitutional dilemmas of colonial parliamentary representation and the imperial relationship between Britain and the American colonies.[9]

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. Otis even called his compatriots to arms at a town meeting on September 12, 1768, according to some accounts.[10]

Patriot and pamphleteer[edit]

Otis was originally politically based in the rural Popular Party, but he 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.

After being banished from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Watertown in 1743, James Otis, whose behavior could be described as unpredictable and incomprehensible, became the responsibility of the community. Otis suffered from increasingly erratic behavior as the 1760s progressed. He 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 alone, but John Adams, Thomas Hutchinson, and many others mention his mental illness well before 1769. The blow to the head was not the cause of Otis' mental illness, but it made it far worse and, shortly after, he could no longer continue his work. By the end of the decade, Otis's public life largely came to an end, though he was able to do occasional legal practice during times of clarity.

Otis favored extending to African Americans the basic natural freedoms of life, liberty, and property. He asserted that blacks had inalienable rights. The idea of racial equality also permeates Otis's Rights of the British Colonies (1764), in which he states:

The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.

— James Otis, Rights of the British Colonies, 1764[11]


James Otis' grave in Granary Burying Ground

Otis died suddenly in May 1783 at the age of 58, as he stood in the doorway of a friend's house, when 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".[12][not in citation given]

Published works[edit]

  • 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 held 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 authored 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.


  1. ^ The slogan was already in use in Ireland. McCullough, David (2001). John Adams. New York, N.Y.: Simon & Schuster. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-7432-2313-3. 
  2. ^ http://www.juntosociety.com/founders/jamesotis.html
  3. ^ Nielsen, Kim E. (2012). A Disability History of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. p. 34. ISBN 978-0-8070-2204-7. 
  4. ^ Charles H. Turtle, "Christopher Kilby of Boston", New England Hist. and Mass. Register, XXVI (1872), 4,4, n
  5. ^ John Adams Diary, I, 349 (January 16, 1770).
  6. ^ Adams, John. Novanglus and Massachusettensis; or, Political Essays. Boston: Hews and Goss, 1819, p. 246.
  7. ^ http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1204.html
  8. ^ Ferguson, 1979
  9. ^ Samuelson, 1999
  10. ^ "James Otis, Jr". Geni. Retrieved 18 April 2017. 
  11. ^ Breen, 1998
  12. ^ Drake, S.G. (1848). The New England Historical & Genealogical Register, Volume 2. p. 290. Retrieved 22 September 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Breen, T. H. "Subjecthood and Citizenship: The Context of James Otis's Radical Critique of John Locke," New England Quarterly (Sep., 1998) 71#3, pp. 378–403 in JSTOR
  • Brennan, Ellen E. "James Otis: Recreant and Patriot," New England Quarterly (1979) 12:691–725 in JSTOR
  • Clancy, Thomas K., "The Importance of James Otis," 82 Miss. L.J. 487 (2013).
  • Farrell, James M. "The Writs of Assistance and Public Memory: John Adams and the Legacy of James Otis," New England Quarterly (2006) 79#4 pp. 533–556 in JSTOR
  • Ferguson, James R. "Reason in Madness: The Political Thought of James Otis," William and Mary Quarterly, (1979): 36:194–214. in JSTOR
  • Frese, Joseph R. "James Otis and the Writs of Assistance," New England Quarterly 30 (1957) 30:496–508 in JSTOR
  • Pencak, William. "Otis, James" in American National Biography Online Feb. 2000
  • Samuelson, Richard A. "The Constitutional Sanity of James Otis: Resistance Leader and Loyal Subject," Review of Politics (Summer, 1999), 61#3 pp. 493–523 in JSTOR
  • Shipton, Clifford K. Sibley's Harvard Graduates, vol. 11 (1960), pp. 247–87, a short scholarly biography
  • Waters, John J. Jr., The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts (1968)


External links[edit]

  1. ^ Ferguson, James. "Reason in Madness: The Political Thought of James Otis". Omohundro Institute of Early American History. JSTOR 1922264.