James Otis

JAMES OTIS, a distinguished American patriot, was born February 5, 1724-5, at Great Marshes, in what is now called West Barnstable, Mass. His family was one of the most respectable in the colony, and of English origin. In June, 1739, he entered Cambridge college. The first two years of his collegiate course are said to have been given more to amusement than to study, his natural disposition being vivacious and ardent; but subsequently he was distinguished for his application and proficiency. After finishing his course at the university, he devoted eighteen months to the pursuit of various branches of literature, and then entered upon the study of the law in 1745, in the office of Mr. Gridley. Under that eminent lawyer he employed his legal novitiate, and then went to Plymouth, where he was first admitted to the bar. The two years, however, of his residence in that town, were more occupied in study than in practice, so that, when he removed to Boston, in 1750, he was well qualified to assume a high rank in his profession. This he quickly did: his practice became very extensive. On one occasion, he went, in the middle of the winter, to Halifax, in consequence of urgent solicitation, to defend three men accused of piracy, and procured their acquittal. Although his professional engagements were so numerous, he cultivated his taste for literature, and, in 1760, published a treatise, entitled the Rudiments of Latin Prosody, with a Dissertation on Letters and the Principles of Harmony, in poetic and prosaic Composition, collected from the best Writers. He also composed a similar work on Greek prosody, which remained in manuscript, and perished with all his papers. It was never printed, as he said, because there were no Greek types in the country, or, if there were, no printer knew how to set them.'

In 1755, he married Miss Ruth Cunningham, the daughter of a respectable merchant, who brought him a dowry at that time considered very large. Amid all the embarrassments which his affairs subsequently experienced, in consequence of his entire devotion to the concerns of the public, he sacredly preserved the fortune which he received with his wife, to whom it returned after his death. The public career of Mr. Otis dates from the period when he made his famous speech against the writs of assistance,' for which an application had been made, by the officers of the customs, to the superior court of Massachusetts, in pursuance of an order in council, sent from England, to enable them to carry into effect the acts of parliament regulating the trade of the colonies. When that order arrived, Otis was advocate-general, and was, consequently, requested to lend his professional assistance in the matter; but, deeming the writs to be illegal and tyrannical, he refused, and resigned his station. He was then applied to, to argue against the writs, which he immediately undertook to do, in conjunction with Mr. Thacher, and in opposition to his former preceptor, Mr. Gridley, the attorney-general. Of the discourse which he pronounced, president Adams the elder says, 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, a prophetic glance of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away all before him. American independence was then and there born. Every man, of an immense crowded audience, appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.' The court adjourned for consideration, and, at the close of the term, the chief-justice, Hutchinson, delivered the opinion: The court has considered the subject of writs of assistance, and can see no foundation for such a writ; but, as the practice in England is not known, it has been thought best to continue the question to the next term, that, in the mean time, opportunity may be given to know the result.' When the next term came, however, nothing was said about the writs; and though it was generally understood that they were clandestinely granted by the court, and that the custom-house officers had them in their pockets, yet it is said that they were never produced or executed. Otis had now fully committed himself against the designs of the British ministry, and thenceforward bent all his energies to maintain the freedom of his country. At the next election of members of the legislature, in May, 1761, he was chosen, almost unanimously, a representative from Boston, and soon became the leader, in the house, of the popular party. For the detail of his course, during the period in which he was a representative, we must refer our readers to the biography of him by Mr. Tudor. In 1765, Mr. Otis was chosen, by the Massachusetts legislature, one of the members of a committee appointed to meet the committees of the legislatures of other colonies at New York, in consequence of the passage of the stamp-act by parliament. They met in convention October 19, in the same year, and named three committees to prepare addresses to the king, lords and commons. On the last Mr. Otis was placed. In this convention, Mr. Otis made the acquaintance of many distinguished men, from different colonies, and subsequently maintained, with several of them, a friendship and correspondence.

In May, 1767, after the repeal of the stamp-act, Mr. Otis was elected speaker of the house of representatives; but he was negatived by the governor, who entertained a peculiar animosity towards him, from his indefatigable endeavors to defeat every plan of encroachment. In the summer of 1769, the vehement temper of Mr. Otis was so much wrought upon by the calumnies which he discovered that the commissioners of the customs in Boston had transmitted to England concerning him, by which, indeed, they sought to have him tried for treason, that he inserted an advertisement in the Boston Gazette, denouncing them in severe terms. The next evening he happened to go to the British coffee-house, where one of the commissioners, a Mr. Robinson, was sitting with a number of officers of the army, navy and revenue. As soon as he entered, an altercation arose, which was quickly terminated by a blow from Robinson's cane. Otis immediately returned it with a weapon of the same kind, when the lights were extinguished, and he was obliged to defend himself, single-handed, against numbers. After some time the combatants were separated. Robinson retreated by a back passage, and Otis was led home, wounded and bleeding.

He received a deep cut on his head; and to this has been partly attributed the derangement under which he afterwards labored. Soon after this transaction, he instituted an action against Robinson, and obtained an award of L2,000 sterling damages, which, however, he gave up on receiving a written apology, in which the defendant acknowledged his fault and begged his pardon.

In 1770, he retired into the country on account of his health. At the election in 1771, he was again chosen a representative; but this was the last year that he took a part in public, concerns, except occasionally to appear at a town-meeting. He withdrew, also, almost entirely, from the practice of his profession. His mind became seriously affected, and continued so, with some lucid intervals, until his death. Sometimes he was in a frenzied state; at others, he exhibited rather the eccentricity of a humorist than absolute derangement. The two last years of his life were passed at Andover. After he had been there for some time, he was supposed to be completely restored, and returned to Boston. He resumed his professional engagements, and pleaded a cause in the court of common pleas, in which he displayed considerable power, but less than was his wont. The interval of reason was not, however, of long duration, and he was induced to go back to Andover. Six weeks after his return, lie was killed by a stroke of lightning, in the sixtieth year of his age, May 23, 1783.

The chief defect of Mr. Otis' character was his irascibility. His merits are well summed up in the following extract from the work of Mr. Tudor, to which we have before alluded:-' In fine, he was a man of powerful genius and ardent temper, with wit and humor that never failed; as an orator, he was bold, argumentative, impetuous and commanding, with an eloquence that made his own excitement irresistibly contagious: as a lawyer, his knowledge and ability placed him at the head of his profession; as a scholar, he was rich in acquisition, and governed by a classic taste; as a statesman and civilian, he was sound and just in his views; as a patriot, he resisted all allurements that might weaken the cause of that country to which he devoted his life, and for which he sacrificed it.' It is greatly to be regretted that, during his derangement, he destroyed all his papers; sufficient evidence, however, of his power as a writer, remains in the various state papers of which he was the author whilst a member of the legislature, though they were subjected to the revising pen of Samuel Adams, whose patient temper permitted him to undergo the labor of correcting and polishing, which the ardor of the other disdained.