Return to Main Page

James Otis


James Otis, Jr. was one of the earliest American patriots. He blazed onto a scene of injustice in 1761, as the British pressed their Sugar Act against the unreceptive American Colonies. Otis spoke against England in the courtroom and through his writings. He ignited a patriot cause that was to become a revolution and a quest for independence.

James Otis, Jr., the oldest of thirteen children, was born on February 5, 1725, in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. His lawyer father, James Senior, was a member of the Colonial Council. The minister of Barnstable, Reverend Jonathon Russell, supervised young Otis’ early education. Otis then attended Harvard College, graduating in 1743, but continuing his education in law under Jeremiah Gridley, a member of the General Court of Massachusetts. After he was admitted to the bar, Otis launched his law practice in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but relocated to Boston in 1750.

Otis married Ruth Cunningham, the daughter of a well-to-do Boston merchant, in 1755. Though unhappily married, mainly due to political differences, the couple had three children.

In 1756, Otis was appointed to the Vice Admiralty Court, a court residing over maritime affairs, as Advocate General.

Britain established the Navigation Acts in 1650, confining the trade of the colonies’ exports to England. In 1733, Britain enforced the Molasses Act, heavily taxing all non-British (and less expensive) imported sugars, in order to promote sugar harvested from the British West Indies. In order to avoid these duties and the inflated prices, merchants began smuggling sugar into the colonies. In 1764, the Molasses Act was reformed into the Sugar Act. The original tax on non-British sugars was partly reduced, but several other items were to be taxed under the same guidelines, and the colonists’ exports were to be scrutinized scrupulously by the British. England granted writs of assistance, very vague search warrants, allowing custom inspectors absolute power to investigate homes, ships, warehouses or any area they saw fit. With these writs, the British would eliminate smuggling and impose the Sugar Act, and therefore the tax, on the colonists. To oversee the enforcement of the Sugar Act, Thomas Hutchinson was promoted over James Otis, Sr. to the appointment of Chief Justice of Massachusetts.

Angered by the snub of his father and the injustice of the writs of assistance, Otis, Jr. resigned as Advocate General in 1761, representing sixty-three Boston merchants in a court battle against the writs of assistance. He not only opposed the writs, the governor of Massachusetts, Sir Francis Bernard, and Thomas Hutchinson, but also Jeremiah Gridley, attorney for the Crown-- his own former tutor.

In February of 1761, Otis argued his case to the Crown:

A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Customhouse 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 may inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient.

…Every man prompted by revenge, ill humor, or wantonness to inspect the inside of his neighbor’s house, may get a writ of assistance. Others will ask it from self-defense; one arbitrary exertion will provoke another, until society be involved in tumult and in blood.

“Then and there, the child Independence was born,” declared John Adams, who watched the case from the sidelines. Though Otis’ five-hour speech effectively supported the patriotic cause, Hutchinson was able in the end, with canny political maneuvering, to preserve the writs.

Though Otis officially lost his case, he won the title of patriot. He was elected in May 1761, to the Massachusetts General Court, and in 1766, Speaker of that same body, only to have his new position vetoed by the royal governor.

Otis continued to support the colonies in their struggle for equality with Great Britain in his The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved of 1764, in opposition of the Sugar Act. He was also present at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, where delegates cited the recently passed Stamp Act in their further fight against taxation without representation. Though Otis never suggested a full-scale revolution, he continued to fight against the inequitable British government with more pamphlets: A Vindication of the British Colonies and Considerations on Behalf of the British Colonies.

After Otis was prohibited from serving as Speaker of the General Court of Massachusetts, he and Samuel Adams protested against unjust British legislation with a circular letter calling the other twelve colonies to defy the Townshend Duties of 1767.

Otis’ constant struggle against the Crown gained political change but also made political enemies. In another scathing attack on crown officials, he disparaged custom commissioners in the Boston Gazette. In 1769, one of those commissioners, John Robinson, confronted Otis in a coffee house. They came to blows, and Otis received a head injury that further aggravated what some described as an already failing mental health. Otis suffered from gaps in his sanity for the rest of his life.

Otis took John Robinson to court for compensation, and won his case; in the end he merely accepted Robinson’s public apology.

A shell of his former self, Otis retired from public life. On May 23, 1783, in a dramatic end for this dramatic man, he was struck and killed by a bolt of lightening.

The patriotic energy James Otis could create with his pen gave birth to “the child Independence”. He fought against the unfair acts of England with passion and dedication, retiring from his important position as Advocate General of the Vice Admiralty Court in order to represent the merchants of Boston. He made his resentment and displeasure known in his writings against the injustices of Great Britain. In the end Otis’ patriotic zeal led to the attack by Robinson and the further breakdown of his mental faculties. As brilliant in his energies, and, later in his life as unpredictable, as the lightning that killed him, Otis clashed with the constricting Crown of England to spark the American Colonies’ quest for freedom. As John Adams said, “Otis was a flame of fire!”