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James Otis & the Revolutionary War: Quotes, Biography & Facts

Instructor: Matthew Hill
James Otis was a colonial leader in revolutionary America who argued against the Writs of Assistance. He is credited with popularizing the phrase 'no taxation without representation.'

Roots of a Revolutionary

In a private letter written in 1818, John Adams wrote to Hezekiah Niles reflecting on the American Revolution. He listed James Otis as 'first and foremost, before all and above all' in sparking the move toward independence. James Otis was born in 1725 in Barnstable, Massachusetts. His father, James Otis Sr., was respected in Massachusetts politics. His famous sister was Mary Otis Warren, who later wrote a three-volume history of the American Revolution. He married Ruth Cunningham, who came from a prominent family, and remained loyal to the British, which often strained their marriage. Otis attended Harvard and then studied law under the then renowned attorney Jeremiah Gridley. He practiced law in Plymouth before relocating to Boston, but in time Otis found himself pitted against Gridley in a high-profile case.

James Otis
James Otis

The Writs of Assistance

Otis' status was soon elevated by a crisis. In 1761, the British imposed a Writs of Assistance to enforce anti-smuggling laws. These laws provided wide discretion in enforcement and gave customs officials the right to search private homes for smuggled goods with little restraint. These laws were approved and enforced by Thomas Hutchinson, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. An interesting detail is that when the new Governor of Massachusetts Francis Bernard took office in 1761, Otis' father was expected to be appointed to the position of Chief Justice. However, the position was given to Thomas Hutchinson, even though Otis had years of legal experience, and Hutchinson had none. This in turn created a lot of enmity between the two families.

Thomas Otis law professor. They argued opposite viewpoints on the Writs of Assistance
Otis Professor Jeremiah Gridley

James Otis' Famous Speech

When word of the Writs of Assistance became public, fifty-three Boston merchants filed suit claiming the writs were illegal, but a customs official, James Paxton, filed a countersuit. As the Advocate-General, Otis would have to enforce these laws. Rather than do this, he resigned his position and offered his services as legal counsel to the Boston merchants and refused to accept a fee. Otis and his co-counsel, Oxenbridge Thatcher, mounted a lengthy defense in the Superior Court of Massachusetts. Otis gave a famous five-hour speech defending colonial rights.

Reminiscent of Patrick Henry's later, 'Give me Liberty or Give me Death' speech, Otis noted the gravity of the situation: 'Let the consequences be what they will, I am determined to proceed. The only principles of public conduct that are worthy of a gentleman or a man are to sacrifice estate, ease, health, and applause, and even life, to the sacred calls of his country.' It was in this speech that Otis is often attributed with popularizing the phrase 'no taxation without representation'. It was noted that Otis actually stated that, 'taxation without representation is tyranny'. However, no complete copy of the speech exists, and many scholars argue that Otis expressed more the idea, than the literal wording.

Otis did not win, but he made quite an impression. One of the most memorable lines of his speech was his reference to a man and his castle: 'Now, one of the essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one's house. A man's house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.' A young John Adams sat in the audience and was impressed with Otis' passion. He later wrote that he was 'a flame of fire' and the idea of independence began there.

Old Boston House of Massachusetts where Otis argued against the Writs of Assistance
Old Boston House of Massachusetts

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