1902 Encyclopedia > James Otis

James Otis
American politician of the Revolutionary period
(1724-83)




OTIS, JAMES (1724-1783), was born at Barnstable, Massachusetts, U.S., on February 5, 1724 (o.s.). He graduated with honours at Harvard in 1743, and for a year or two afterwards devoted himself to the study of literature before reading law. He had been a dozen years at the bar, and had risen to professional distinction, when in 1760 he published a Rudiments of Latin, Prosody, a book long ago out of print as well as out of date, but of authority in its time. He wrote also a similar treatise upon Greek prosody; but that was never published, because, as he said, there was not a fount of Greek letters in the country, nor, if there were, a printer who could have set it up. These, however, were his first and last works upon any other subject than politics. As the long war between Great Britain and France drew towards its close in 1762, measures were taken to enforce anew, in the British colonies in America, the commercial laws which had been in a measure lost sight of. The relaxation had taught the colonists that the burden was heavier than they thought when they bent beneath it; now the war had given them confidence in their own power, and the time had come, therefore, when resistance was inevitable. A trade with the West Indies in colonial vessels had been specially developed. This was in violation of the navigation laws, and to break it up an order in council was sent from England in 1760 directing the issue of writs of assistance, which would authorize the custom-officers to enter any man's house on suspicion of concealment of smuggled goods. The legality of a measure which would put so dangerous a power into the hands of irresponsible men was questioned, and the superior court consented to hear argument. Otis was a law-officer under the crown, and it was his duty to appear on behalf of the Government. He refused, resigned his office, and appeared for the people against the issue of the writs. His plea was profound for its legal lore, fearless in its assertion of the rights of colonial Englishmen, and so fervid in its eloquence that it was said he " was a flame of fire." Though it failed to convince a court where the lieutenant-governor, Hutchinson, sat as chief justice, Otis was from that moment a man of mark. John Adams, who heard him, said, " American independence was then and there born." The young orator was soon afterwards unanimously elected a representative from Boston to the Colonial Assembly. To that position he was re-elected nearly every year of the remaining active years of his life, serving there with his father, who was usually a member, and often speaker, of that body. Of most of the important state papers addressed to the colonies to enlist them in the common cause, or sent to the Government in England to uphold the rights or set forth the grievances of the colonists, the younger Otis was the author. His influence at home in controlling and directing the movement of events which led to the revolution was universally felt and acknowledged ; and abroad no American was so frequently quoted, denounced, or applauded in parliament and the English press, as the recognized head and chief of the rebellious spirit of the colonies.' In 1765 Massachusetts sent him as one of her representatives to the first Continental Congress, where he was a conspicuous figure. Four years later his brilliant public career was brought to a close. In consequence of a newspaper controversy with some Tory office-holders in Boston, he was attacked in a darkened room in a public coffee-house by a dozen men, and wounded by a blow upon the head from which he never recovered. His health gave way, and he was subject to frequent attacks of insanity. He was killed by lightning on the 23d May 1783.

A biography of Otis by William Tudor appeared in 1823 ; and a much briefer one, by Francis Bowen, in 1844







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