Who is James Otis Junior?[edit | edit source]
James Otis Jr. (1725 -1783) was a lawyer, politician, and legislater who became an
early leader in the American Revolution.He was born on February 5, 1725 to James Otis, Sr. and Mary Allyne Otis in Barnstable, Massachusetts. He was elder brother to famed author Mercy Otis Warren. He graduated from Harvard and became a lawyer in Boston. Although sympathetic to the American Colonists, he married a Loyalist, Ruth Cunningham in 1755. He was well known in his profession and in 1760 was appointed to the position of Advocate General of the Admiralty Court. The Advocate General was an officer of the royal customs, so he would have to uphold the writs, no matter how he personally felt about the writs.
He was asked to represent Charles Paxton, a customs agent, in his petition to receive a new writ after the death of King George II in 1760. Otis promptly resigned his appointment, and refused to represent Paxton. Upon hearing this, 63 merchants asked Otis to represent them in their petition against the writs. He agreed to represent the merchants free of charge. The case became known then as “Petition of Lechmere,” and Paxton was represented by a teacher of James Otis Jr., named Jeremiah Gridley.
The Writs of Assistance case, or The Petition of Lechemere[edit | edit source]
Otis gave a four hour impassioned speech against the writs of assistance to Massachusetts Governor Sir Francis Bernard and the High Judges, including Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson, a man who was somewhat of a rival to the house of Otis. Governor William Shirley promised James Otis Senior the position of Chief Justice the next time it vacated. The seat did not vacate during his tenure and two successors later Governor Sir Francis Bernard appointed a young up and coming Bostonian, Thomas Hutchinson to the position. Hutchinson did not have a legal background so was seen not only as an improper choice, but also as a slight to the Otis'. The speech was heard in the Council Chamber of The Old State House in Boston, Massachusetts on February 24th, 1761. James Otis made what could have been a routine legal case into a formal declaration of citizens’ rights. Drawing upon progressive ideas inspired by the Enlightenment, Otis claimed there were fundamental rights belonging to every person that no government could take away. Though Otis lost the case, his argument made a great impression on his contemporaries. His ideas on personal liberties remained in the minds of the men who drafted the United States Constitution. The Fourth Amendment in particular echoes his sentiment.
He continued to work for colonial citizen's rights throughout the 1760's, elected to the Massachusetts Assembly, writing pamphlets and taking on legal cases that many lawyers would have turned down outright. He didn't take a case unless he believed the person to be in the right, which on occasion, led him to turn away from a case in the middle of court. In this way he was a mentor to a young lawyer named John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams.
His Family and Mental State[edit | edit source]
In the 1760's, Otis started to show increasing evidence of mental instability. His outbursts became more common and extreme, making him unfit for a public role.
His wife, Ruth Cunningham was the daughter of a shipping merchant and so brought money and prestige to the marriage. Her father, because of his business, held loyalties to Great Britain, and Ruth shared his feelings. Because of this, only five years after the marriage began, lines were drawn between them concerning the politics of the day. Her stoic and reserved nature also clashed with Otis' eccentricity and firey passion. However, despite these strains on their relationship, they did have three children. The eldest, James, was sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause and joined the Navy at the outbreak of the Revolution. He died in battle at age eighteen. The elder daughter, Elizabeth, was more of a Loyalist and married Captain Brown of the British Army, a marriage favored by Mrs. Otis. To get around Otis'dissaproval, the marriage was conducted during one of his mentally disturbed periods, which caused him much frustration. Captain Brown was wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill and sent home to England. Elizabeth went with him and her father disinherited her in his will. His younger daughter shared her father's Revolutionary enthusiasm and married a young lawyer named Benjamin Lincoln Jr., son of a famous Revolutionary War General.
James Otis Jr., Massachusetts Representative[edit | edit source]
In 1764 Otis wrote and sent a pamphlet titled, "The Rights of the British Colonies asserted and proved" to Great Britain in response to the Sugar Act.
While in the Massachusetts Assembly, which was like the House of Representatives for Massachusetts, Otis was part of a committee that resolved to meet with other colonies to discuss the Stamp Act passed in 1765. He led the Massachusetts delegation to this Colonial Congress in which nine other colonies met. This meeting was the first step towards meeting at a Continental Congress. Otis is acknowlegded as the firmest contestant to the principles of the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act was so widely protested that it was repealed a year later in 1766.
In 1767 Otis was voted by the Massachusetts Assembly to be Speaker of the House. Unfortunately, Governor Bernard vetoed this decision. After this, James Otis was generally chosen by the Assembly to write out the state papers on affairs,. However, these documents were so full of his eccentric demeanor and fiery language they usually had to be toned down by Samuel Adams and house Speaker Thomas Cushing.
One of the letters Otis prepared for the Assembly was in response to an important event. The Assembly had voted to send a circular letter to the other colonies protesting the Townshend Acts and urging all the colonies to stand against them together. Governor Bernard asked them to rescind the letter. They voted 92 to 17 not to rescind. This was an important act of defiance for the colony to make. Otis prepared the answering letter to the Governor informing him of the Assembly's decision. This event was so important at the time that Paul Revere made a commemorative and celebratory bowl to mark the occasion, on one side he wrote: "To the Memory of the glorious NINETY-TWO: Members/of the Honbl House of Representatives of the Massachusetts-Bay/who, undaunted by the insolent Menaces of Villains in Power/from a Strict Regard to Conscience, and the LIBERTIES/of their Constituents, on the 30th of June 1768 /Voted NOT TO RESCIND." It now resides in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. On their website, the museum explains:
"The Liberty Bowl honored ninety-two members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who refused to rescind a letter sent throughout the colonies protesting the Townshend Acts (1767), which taxed tea, paper, glass, and other commodities imported from England. This act of civil disobedience by the "Glorious Ninety-Two" was a major step leading to the American Revolution. The bowl was commissioned by fifteen members of the Sons of Liberty, a secret, revolutionary organization to which
1769[edit | edit source]
It was after these glorious nine years in public office that Otis' mental health took a serious turn for the worse. Colleagues started to note that his usual eccentricities of nature became more excitable and irrational. In the year 1769 Otis walked into a coffee house where John Robinson, a customs commissioner, was in attendance. In his irrationality, Otis had published an advertisement in which he accused Robinson and three other commissioners of villainy and that they had assailed his character. Robinson attacked Otis and since the room was full of Robinson's friends, a fight broke out. Otis was severely hurt by a wound to the head, caused by a sword. Otis brought suit against Robinson and won a sum of two thousand pounds. However, Robinson sincerely apologized and Otis' forgiving nature prevailed; Robinson was forgiven the verdict.
After this event, though most likely not because of it, Otis was no longer able to legislate but he retained his seat till 1771. He came to work, but his eccentricities had grown worse and he was rendered useless to the Assembly. He was given a letter of thanks by the Assembly in 1770 for the time he had given in service to Massachusetts.
The next ten years of his life, all through the Revolution and forming of the new government of the U.S. of America, Otis had brief times of cohesive thought and rationality, but the slightest excitement caused his irrationality and eccentricities to flourish. He lived to see his younger brother Samuel Allyne Otis be elected to the House of Representatives in Massachusetts in 1776, but he did see his brother's rise to the National Senate. Samuel Allyne Otis would serve in the senate until he died in 1814.
James Otis Jr. was taken to a friends house in Andover where he lived out the rest of his days. He was more calm there, but not more rational. He once tried a case with not much success and once went to dine at Governor John Hancock's house although his mental capacity was all but gone. His brother returned him to Andover after this.
"Flash of Lightning"[edit | edit source]
Otis remarked on several occasions to his sister, Mercy Otis Warren, and to others "I hope when God Almighty in his Providence shall take me out of time into eternity, it will be by a flash of lightning!" and it turned out to be quite prophetic. In 1783 Otis stood in the doorway of his friends home observing a thunderstorm. A flash of lightening came down from the sky and passed through the body of James Otis Jr., he was killed instantly, but no marks were left on his body.
He was buried in the Granary Burial Ground in Boston, Massachusetts in the Cunningham tomb, owned by his wife's family and six years later, his wife, Ruth, joined him there. Today you can see a headstone bearing his name.