James Otis Jr. 1761

Many American Founding Fathers have been enshrined in public memory. But according to John Adams, American Independence began not with one of these household names in 1776, but rather it began with a man by the name of James Otis in 1761.

As the Seven Years' War was coming to an end in North America, a young king was ascending the throne in England. Change was all around. In the war, Britain had decisively tipped the power balance in North America, gaining a remarkable amount of territory from the French. But the British had also expended a tremendous amount of money in the process. Now the new king felt pressure to address this strained financial situation. Back in England, taxes were already very high, and so King George III decided to raise revenue by tightening anti-smuggling enforcement with regard to the trade flow in Boston Harbor. Penalties for smuggled cargo in Boston had long existed on the books, but they had not been seriously enforced. Merchants in Boston, however, had come to rely upon this relaxed import policy.

King George II died in 1760, and along with him, a generalized search warrant known as a "Writ of Assistance" was set to expire as well. The Writ of Assistance offered broad latitude to British customs officials, theoretically giving them the authority to search anyone, anywhere, at anytime for smuggled goods, even without probable cause. In practice, however, the British had not typically exercised this authority to its full extent (from 1744-1760, not even a single cargo was confiscated by the British in the port of Boston). But when the new king arranged to have this expiring warrant renewed, it signaled to merchant colonists that the tradition of unchecked smuggled goods would be ending. Fearing for their livelihoods, sixty-three Boston merchants banded together and hired a local star of the legal system to defend their cause in 1761.

The man they hired was James Otis, a 36 year old Harvard graduate, who had gained respect on both sides of the Atlantic. He had also harbored a personal grievance against the court system for passing over his father with regard to a justice position, whom he believed had been eminently qualified and next in line, and thereby snubbed.

When the day came to defend the colonists, Otis captivated the courtroom. With a line of argumentation both imaginative and audacious, Otis advanced the notion that a parliamentary measure, though produced by a constitutional body, may not necessarily be constitutional itself. He argued that the fundamental principles of the British Constitution were built upon the protection of private property, and thus British officials ought not have the open-ended freedom to search private property, even if a Constitutional body such as Parliament had granted them the authority. John Adams, in attendance at the courthouse on that day, described the events in this way:

Otis was a flame of Fire! With the promptitude of clasical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic glare of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away all before him... Every man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take up arms against Writs of Assistance.

Looking back, Adams pointed to this moment as the spark that led to all that followed. Adams asserted:

American Independance was then and there born. The seeds of patriots... were then and there sown... Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain.

With all of this, the judge did not rule in favor of James Otis that day. Nevertheless, a powerful precedent was set; one that would soon prove to be of seismic significance. As professor Mancall of USC put it:

For the first time, colonists had challenged the notion that they should be subject to British rule... One of the central premises of the Revolution had been established. Colonists felt empowered to resist Parliamentary Acts that they did not like.

The Writ of Assistance case catapulted Otis into the front and center of Boston politics henceforth. He became an early leader of the burgeoning resistance movement. His pamphlets in 1762 and 1764 would help to invent the foundational vocabulary of the Revolution. In 1764, it was Otis who led much of the effort against the Sugar Act.

Otis seemed to be a force of nature, on an unstoppable meteoric trajectory. But then tragically, and almost with an equal abruptness, Otis was pulled back down to earth as dramatically as he had risen. Otis's mind began to slip in the latter half of the 1760's. He began to experience increasingly severe spells of dementia, and by the end of the decade, his prominent public role in the Revolutionary movement was no more.

Years later, by the time of the Revolutionary War, Otis was said to have been a mere shadow of his former self. Said Adams:

I never saw such an object of admiration, reverence, contempt, and compassion all at once as this. I fear, I tremble, I mourn for the man and his country. Many others mourn for him with tears in their eyes.

One first hand account, from amongst the army in New York, described Otis as a lunatic strolling around the grounds of the camp. "The great and fervent mind which first grasped the Independence, in ruin."

Fittingly, for the man who had once himself seemed a force of nature, it would be nature itself that would finish Otis off, and in spectacular fashion. While speaking to a member of his family from a doorway in Massachusetts, it has been recorded that Otis was struck down almost mythically, by a bolt of lightning on an otherwise clear day. In this fabled way, Otis died less than four months from the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the war which marked a culmination for the world-changing movement which Otis, in no small part, had set in motion.

Mancall, Peter C. University of Southern California. Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution. The Great Courses, 2006.

James Otis Jr. Fourth / 4th of July T Shirt.

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James Otis Jr. Fourth / 4th of July T Shirt.

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