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James Otis Jr.James Otis was an American political activist during the period leading up to the American Revolution. He helped formulate the colonists’ grievances against the British government in the 1760s. Son of the elder James Otis, who was already prominent in Massachusetts politics, the younger Otis graduated from Harvard College in 1743 and was admitted to the bar in 1748. He moved his law practice from Plymouth to Boston in 1750. His reputation was built mainly upon his famous challenge in 1761 to the British-imposed Writs of Assistance. Arguing before the Superior Court in Boston, Otis raised the doctrine of natural law underlying the rights of citizens and argued that such writs, even if authorized by Parliament, were null and void. Going back to fundamental English constitutional law, Otis offered the colonists a basic doctrine upon which the Founding Fathers could draw for decades to come. At this time he also reportedly coined the oft-quoted phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

James Otis Jr. was born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts (Cape Cod) on February 5, 1725. He was the second of thirteen children and the first to survive infancy. His sister Mercy Otis Warren, his brother Joseph Otis, and his youngest brother Samuel Allyne Otis became leaders of the Revolution, as did his nephew Harrison Gray Otis. His father, Colonel James Otis, Sr., was a prominent lawyer and militia officer.

In 1755 James married Ruth Cunningham, a merchant’s daughter and heiress to a fortune worth 10,000 pounds. Their politics were quite different, yet they were attached to each other. Otis later “half-complained that she was a ‘High Tory,'” yet in the same breath “she was a good wife, and too good for him.” The marriage produced three children (James, Elizabeth and Mary). Their son James died at the age of eighteen, and their daughter Elizabeth, a Loyalist like her mother, married Captain Brown of the British Army and lived in England for the rest of her life. Their youngest daughter, Mary, married Benjamin Lincoln, son of the distinguished Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln.

Otis graduated from Harvard in 1743 and rose meteorically to the top of the Boston legal profession. In 1760, he received a prestigious appointment as Advocate General of the Admiralty Court. He promptly resigned, however, when Governor Francis Bernard failed to appoint his father to the promised position of Chief Justice of the province’s highest court; the position instead went to longtime Otis opponent Thomas Hutchinson. In a dramatic turnabout following his resignation, Otis instead represented pro bono the colonial merchants who were challenging the legality of the “writs of assistance” before the Superior Court, the predecessor of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. These writs enabled British authorities to enter any colonist’s home with no advance notice, no probable cause and no reason given. James Otis considered himself a loyal British subject. Yet in February 1761, he argued against the Writs of Assistance in a nearly five-hour oration before a select audience in the State House. His argument failed to win his case, although it galvanized the revolutionary movement. In his oration against the writs, John Adams recollected years later, “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.” Otis is quoted to have said, “A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court may inquire.”

John Adams promoted Otis as a major player in the coming of the Revolution. 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.” The challenge to the authority of Parliament by Otis made a strong impression on John Adams, who was present, and thereby eventually contributed to the American Revolution. In a pamphlet published three years later, in 1765, Otis expanded his argument that the general writs violated the British constitution referencing his argument back to the Magna Carta. Otis was elected in May 1761 to the General Court (provincial legislature) of Massachusetts and was reelected nearly every year thereafter during his active life. In 1766 he was chosen speaker of the house, though this choice was negated by the royal governor of the province.

In September 1762 Otis published A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in defense of that body’s rebuke of the governor for asking the assembly to pay for ships not authorized by them, though those ships were sent to protect New England fisheries against French privateers. Otis also wrote various state papers addressed to the colonies to enlist them in the common cause, and he also sent such papers to the government in England to uphold the rights or set forth the grievances of the colonists. His influence at home in controlling and directing the movement of events toward freedom was universally felt and acknowledged, and few Americans were so frequently quoted, denounced, or applauded in Parliament and the British press before 1769. In 1765 he was a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress in New York City, and there he was a conspicuous figure, serving on the committee that prepared the address sent to the House of Commons.

James Otis DeathOtis suffered from increasingly erratic behavior as the 1760s progressed.James Otis’s Death Otis received a gash on the head by British tax collector John Robinson’s cane at the British Coffee House in 1769. Some attribute Otis’s mental illness to this event, but this is in dispute as the cause of Otis’s illness. John Adams has several examples in his diary of Otis’s mental illness well before 1769. By the end of the decade, Otis’s public life largely came to an end. Some believe Otis was a manic depressive or schizophrenic and that his illness could be successfully treated today. Otis was able to do occasional legal practice during times of clarity.

Unique in his era, Otis favored extending the basic natural law freedoms of life, liberty and property to African Americans. He asserted that blacks had inalienable rights. The idea of racial equality also permeates Otis’s Rights of the British Colonies. Otis died suddenly in May 1783 at the age of 58 when, as he stood in the doorway of a friend’s house, he was struck by lightning. 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”

Information was taken from the following references:,_Jr.