James Otis

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James Otis
James Otis.jpg
James Otis
BornFebruary 5 1725(1725-02-05)
Flag of United States Barnstable, Massachusetts, United States
DiedMay 23 1783 (aged 58)
Flag of United States Andover, Massachusetts, United States
ParentsJames Otis, Mary Allyne

James Otis, Jr. (February 5, 1725 – May 23, 1783) was a lawyer in colonial Massachusetts who was an early advocate of the political views that led to the American Revolution. The phrase, "Taxation without representation is tyranny," is attributed to him. Otis became a nationally recognized patriot, statesman, pamphleteer, and orator. He went beyond the traditional mentality of the American Revolution era. For example, Otis favored extending the basic natural-law-freedoms of life, liberty, and property to African-Americans, a position with few adherents among the leaders of the revolution.

Early life

Otis was born at Sterling Park to James Otis, Sr., a prominent Massachusetts political figure, and Mary Allyne. He was the second of thirteen children. His older sibling died in infancy. His younger sister, Mercy Otis Warren, his younger brother, Joseph Otis, and his youngest brother, Samuel Allyne Otis, also rose to prominence, as did his nephew, Harrison Gray Otis.

Otis graduated from Harvard College in 1743, and practiced law briefly in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1750, he settled in Boston, where he rose meteorically to the top of the Boston legal profession.

Writs of assistance

In 1760, Otis received a prestigious appointment as Advocate General of the Admiralty Court. He promptly resigned, however, when expected to argue in favor of the "writs of assistance." These writs would enable British authorities to enter any colonist's home with no advance notice, no probable cause, and no reason given. In a dramatic turnabout following his resignation, Otis instead represented pro bono the colonial merchants who were challenging the legality of the writs before the Superior Court, the predecessor of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

According to John Adams, "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."[1]

James Otis considered himself a loyal British subject. Yet in February 1761, he argued so brilliantly against the writs of assistance in an oration that stretched nearly five hours before a packed audience in the Old State House that John Adams later claimed: "The child independence was then and there born, [for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance."[2]

Otis did not identify himself as a revolutionary; his peers, too, generally viewed him as more cautious than the incendiary Samuel Adams. Otis at times counseled against the mob violence of the radicals and argued against Adams' proposal for a convention of all the colonies resembling that of the British Glorious Revolution of 1688. Yet, on other occasions, Otis exceeded Adams in rousing passions and exhorting people to action. According to some accounts, at a town meeting on September 12, 1768, Otis went so far as to call his compatriots to arms.

Patriot and pamphleteer

Otis founded the politically based rural Popular Party, he effectively made alliances with Boston merchants so that he instantly became a patriot star after the "Writs of assistance" oration. One month later, he was elected by an overwhelming majority to the House of Representatives. Otis subsequently authored several important patriotic pamphlets, served in the Massachusetts legislature and was a leader of the Stamp Act Congress. He also became friends with Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense.

Otis became one of the major protesters at the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, while he decried the Townshend Act in 1767 by writing that "no one should be taxed without representation." He made several enemies during this time. John Robinson, a British tax collector, beat him so severely at the British Coffee House in 1769, that he suffered severe head injuries. Otis had infuriated Robinson with a scathing newspaper editorial. He suffered from increasingly erratic behavior for the remainder of his life (probably not caused by the injury, but exacerbated by it; early signs of mental illness had already been in evidence). Otis's public life came to an end soon afterward, although he emerged from his incapacity from time to time, only to return when excited.

During the American Revolutionary War, Otis managed to sneak off to serve at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He survived the battle unharmed.

Later life and death

Otis died suddenly in May of 1783, at the age of 58, when, as he stood in the doorway of a friend's house in Andover, Massachusetts, a bolt of lightning struck him. Strangely enough, he had obliquely predicted the manner of his own death; he is reported to have said to his sister, Mercy Otis Warren, "My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity, that it will be by a flash of lightning."

Speaking of James Otis, John Adams said,

I have been young and now I am old, and I solemnly say I have never known a man whose love of country was more ardent or sincere, never one who suffered so much, never one whose service for any 10 years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of his country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770.

Perhaps not a single person more epitomized the complexities and contradictions of the pre-American Revolutionary War period in Boston.[3]


  1. Jedidiah Morse, Annals of the American Revolution (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press 1968).
  2. Morse, p. 225
  3. New England Historic Genealogical Society. The New England historical and genealogical register (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society 1874).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adams, John. James Otis, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock John Adams's Tributes to These as the Three Principal Movers and Agents of the American Revolution. Boston: Directors of the Old South Work 1907.
  • Galvin, John R. Three Men of Boston. New York: Crowell 1976. ISBN 9780690010183
  • Tudor, William. The Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts. New York: Da Capo Press 1970. ISBN 9780306719363


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