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“Then and there the child Independence was born"
Long before Lexington, James Otis’ fight for civil liberties gave heart to the rebel cause. But why did he behave so strangely as the Revolution neared? Which side was he on?
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
Although far more moderate on the Stamp Act issue than either Patrick Henry or Daniel Dulany, Otis plucked up his courage and under the pseudonym “John Hampden” published in the Boston press a sweeping denial of Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. But by now his waverings had placed him under suspicion. Forced to defend himself at a Boston town meeting held in the spring of 1766, and to deny charges that his behavior was the result of “weak nerves” or “cowardice,” he offered to meet George Grenville in single combat on the floor of Faneuil Hall to settle the whole issue. Again returned to the House with his popularity temporarily restored, Jemmy was humiliated when Governor Bernard vetoed his selection by his colleagues as Speaker as simply “impossible.” Thenceforward for several years he collaborated with Sam Adams in directing the radical party in the House.
In February, 1768, Sam Adams drew up a circular letter denouncing Lord Townshend’s external tax measures—import duties on such items as glass, lead, paper, and tea—enacted by Parliament. Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the colonies, promptly denounced Adams’ letter, ordered the Massachusetts legislature to rescind it, and instructed the colonial governors that the assemblies of other colonies be prevented, by dissolution if necessary, from endorsing it. Otis launched into an abusive two-hour tirade against Hillsborough, ridiculing king’s ministers who, like Hillsborough, had been educated by travel on the European continent as “the very frippery and foppery of France, the mere outside of monkeys.” Although he withheld criticism of George III, he delivered an encomium on Oliver Cromwell and defended the execution of Charles I. That same year, following the arrival in Boston of two regiments of redcoats, Otis wrote to an English correspondent: You may ruin yourselves, but you cannot in the end ruin the colonies. Our fathers were a good people. We have been a free people, and if you will not let us remain so any longer, we shall be a great people, and the present measures can have no tendency but to hasten [with] great rapidity, events which every good and honest man would wish delayed for ages, if possible, prevented forever.
Unfortunately for his continued effectiveness as a political leader, no checkrein could be placed on Otis’ abusive conduct toward others. “If Bedlamism is a talent, he has it in perfection,” commented Tory Judge Peter Oliver, and even friendly critics agreed that Otis was unbalanced. The dispatch of troops to Boston heightened tempers. In 1769 Otis got into a coffeehouse brawl with John Robinson, a customs official. It is charitable to conclude that the caning he received accelerated his mental disintegration. In any event, two years later his family and friends requested he be examined by a sanity commission; as judge of probate, his old foe, Hutchinson, had the satisfaction of appointing its members, who found Otis to be a lunatic. Although he had intermittent lucid spells thereafter, he played no role at all during the Revolution. Instead, it was his brother Joseph who fought at Bunker Hill. James’ death was appropriately dramatic. On May 23, 1783, he was standing in the doorway of a farmhouse in Andover when he was struck down by lightning. “He has been good as his word,” commented Hutchinson. “Set the province in a flame and perished in the attempt.”
A whole generation passed before John Adams, in a series of letters to the newspapers in 1818, established the legend of James Otis’ heroic role. Even Virginians came to speak reverently of the “god-like Otis,” and perhaps it is only fitting that he should be judged by his most brilliant and seminal achievement rather than by the sadder years when darkness fell upon him. It is only proper, too, that we recognize the writs of assistance case for what it was in fact—first of a series of crises which culminated at Lexington and Concord.
The attack against the writs, initiated by Otis, developed into a notable series of legal battles, fought not only in Massachusetts but throughout the colonies. Local justices of the peace in the Bay Colony refused in 1765 to grant them on the ground that they were repugnant to the common law. They continued to be issued by that province’s Superior Court, but individuals sometimes managed to defy them: in 1766 a merchant named Daniel Malcolm, presumably on the advice if not at the instigation of Otis, refused to admit the customs officials into part of his cellar, even though they were armed with writs of assistance, and warned them that he would take legal action against them if they entered. The customs men backed down.
Meantime opposition to the writs was spreading to other colonies. In 1766 the customs collector of New London, Connecticut, sought legal advice as to his power of search and seizure, but the judges at New Haven felt that in the absence of a colonial statute they could make no determination. The collector referred the matter to the Commissioner of Customs in England, who in turn asked the advice of Attorney General William de Grey. His opinion came as a shock to the customs officials, for he found that the Courts of Exchequer in England “do not send their Processes into the Plantations, nor is there any Process in the plantations that corresponds with the description in the act of K[ing] W[illiam].”