Otis, James (1725–1783)

James Otis was a leading defender of individual and charter rights in the American colonies, and an opponent of general search warrants and parliamentary taxation. The son of a prominent Massachusetts assemblyman, Otis was born in Barnstable, educated at Harvard and trained as a lawyer. He became both an attorney for Boston’s merchant community and the advocate general of the Boston Vice-Admiralty Court, which adjudicated customs violations. In 1760, Otis resigned his official post to petition the Massachusetts Assembly for the relief of ship owners whose cargoes had been seized and sold as contraband. He argued that customs collectors had illegally used writs of assistance as general warrants to search suspects’ property at will. In February 1761, after King George II died and the surveyor of customs applied to the Massachusetts Superior Court for renewal of the writs, Otis testified against the law itself, arguing that writs of assistance were arbitrary extensions of royal power over British subjects’ property and violated both the British constitution and natural law. Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson upheld the constitutionality of the statute and the legality of the writs, but Otis’s address did help him win election to the provincial Assembly, where he became a leader of the faction opposed to Hutchinson.

In 1762 Otis drafted a legislative report criticizing Massachusetts’s royal governor, Francis Bernard, for spending provincial funds without legislative approval, arguing that not even the king could arbitrarily transgress the colony’s laws. In 1764, after passage of the Sugar Act, Otis published The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, an influential pamphlet arguing that Parliament had no right to deprive men of their property without their consent, and therefore could not legitimately tax colonists who were not represented in that body. Otis helped organize an intercolonial congress in response to the 1765 Stamp Act, and there helped write a remonstrance to Parliament that proclaimed the stamp tax unconstitutional. In 1768 he supported Samuel Adams’s circular letter calling for united colonial resistance to new parliamentary taxes, and joined ninety-one other legislators in defying Governor Bernard’s order to rescind it.

In 1769 a customs commissioner whom Otis had criticized in the press, James Robinson, confronted Otis in a Boston coffeehouse and administered a caning fromwhich the victimnever fully recovered. Increasingly wracked by mental illness, Otis became a recluse, and died in Andover in 1783. Meanwhile, Whig essayists made Otis’s denunciation of taxation without representation into one of the main colonial grievances against the British government, and judges in other colonies, following Otis’s arguments against writs of assistance, refused to issue them. Commenting on Otis’s speech against the writs, John Adams asserted that it was ‘‘then and there the child independence was born.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Adams, Adams, ed. The Works of John Adams. 10 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1850–1856.
  • Galvin, John. Three Men of Boston. New York: Thomas R. Crowell Co., 1976.
  • Tudor, William. Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.

See also General Warrants; Writs of Assistance Act


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