Great Americans of History
JAMES OTIS THE PRE-REVOLUTIONIST
BY JOHN CLARK RIDPATH, LL.D. AUTHOR OF A "Cyclopaedia of Universal History," "Great Races of Mankind," "Life and Times of William E. Gladstone," etc., etc.
THE CHARACTER OF JAMES OTIS BY CHARLES K. EDMUNDS, Ph.D.
WITH AN ESSAY ON THE PATRIOT BY G. MERCER ADAM Late Editor "Self-Culture" Magazine, Etc., Etc.
TOGETHER WITH ANECDOTES, CHARACTERISTICS, AND CHRONOLOGY
Near the northeast corner of the old Common of Boston a section of ground was put apart long before the beginning of the eighteenth century to be a burying ground for some of the heroic dead of the city of the Puritans. For some quaint reason or caprice this acre of God was called "The Granary" and is so called to this day. Perhaps the name was given because the dead were here, garnered as grain from the reaping until the bins be opened at the last day's threshing when the chaff shall be driven from the wheat.
Here the thoughtless throng looking through the iron railing may see the old weather-beaten and time-eaten slabs with their curious lettering which designate the spots where many of the men of the pre-revolutionary epoch were laid to their last repose. The word cemetery is from Greek and means the little place where I lie down.
In the Granary Burying Ground are the tombs of many whom history has gathered and recorded as her own. But history looks in vain among the blue-black slabs of semi-slate for the name of one who was greatest perhaps of them all; but whose last days were so strangely clouded and whose sepulchre was so obscure as to leave the world in doubt for more than a half century as to where the body of the great sleeper had been laid. Curiosity, whetted by patriotism, then discovered the spot. But the name of another was on the covering slab, and no small token was to be found indicative of the last resting place of the lightning-smitten body of James Otis, the prophetic giant of the pre-revolutionary days. He who had lived like one of the Homeric heroes, who had died like a Titan under a thunderbolt, and had been buried as obscurely as Richard the Lion Hearted, or Frederick Barbarossa, must lie neglected in an unknown tomb within a few rods of the spot where his eloquence aforetime had aroused his countrymen to national consciousness, and made a foreign tyranny forever impossible in that old Boston, the very name of which became henceforth the menace of kings and the synonym of liberty.
Tradition rather than history has preserved thus much. In the early part of the present century a row of great elms, known as the Paddock elms, stood in what is now the sidewalk on the west side of Tremont Street skirting the Granary Burying Ground. These trees were cut away and the first section of the burial space was invaded with the spade. Tomb No. 40, over which the iron railing now passes, was divided down as far as where the occupants are lying. Within the sepulchre were several bodies. One was the body of Nathaniel Cunningham, Sr. Another was Ruth Cunningham, his wife. The younger members of the family were also there in death.
When the lid of one coffin in this invaded tomb was lifted, it was found that a mass of the living roots of the old strong elm near by had twined about the skull of the sleeper, had entered through the apertures, and had eaten up the brain. It was the brain of James Otis which had given itself to the life of the elm and had been transformed into branch and leaf and blossom, thus breathing itself forth again into the free air and the Universal Flow.
The body of the patriot had been deposited in this tomb of his father-in-law, the Nathaniel Cunningham just referred to, and had there reposed until the searching fibres of another order of life had found it out, and lifted and dispensed its sublimer part into the viewless air. Over the grave in which the body was laid is still one of the rude slabs which the fathers provided, and on this is cut the name of "George Longley, 1809," he being the successor of the Cunninghams in the ownership of Tomb No. 40.
Here, then, was witnessed the last transformation of the material, visible man called James Otis, the courageous herald who ran swinging a torch in the early dawn of the American Revolution.
The pre-revolutionists are the Titans of human history; the revolutionists proper are only heroes; and the post-revolutionists are too frequently dwarfs and weaklings. This signifies that civilization advances by revolutionary stages, and that history sends out her tallest and best sons to explore the line of march, and to select the spot for the next camping-ground. It is not they who actually command the oncoming columns and who seem so huge against the historical background—it is not these, but rather the hoarse forerunners and shaggy prophets of progress who are the real kings of men— the true princes of the human empire.
These principles of the civilized life were strongly illustrated in our War of Independence. The forerunners of that war were a race of giants. Their like has hardly been seen in any other epoch of that sublime scrimmage called history. Five or six names may be selected from the list of the early American prophets whose deeds and outcry, if reduced to hexameters, would be not the Iliad, not the Jerusalem Delivered, but the Epic of Human Liberty.
The greatest of these, our protagonists of freedom, was Benjamin Franklin. After him it were difficult to name the second. It is always difficult to find the second man; for there are several who come after. In the case of our forerunners the second may have been Thomas Jefferson; it may have been Samuel Adams; it may have been his cousin; it may have been Thomas Paine; it may have been Patrick Henry; it may have been James Otis, the subject of this monograph.
It is remarkable to note how elusive are the lives of many great men. Some of the greatest have hardly been known at all. Others are known only by glimpses and outlines. Some are known chiefly by myth and tradition. Nor does the effort to discover the details of such lives yield any considerable results. There are great names which have come to us from antiquity, or out of the Middle Ages, that are known only as names, or only by a few striking incidents. In some cases our actual knowledge of men who are believed to have taken a conspicuous part in the drama of their times is so meagre and uncertain that critical disputes have arisen respecting the very existence of such personages.
Homer for example—was he myth or man? The Christ? Where was he and how did he pass his life from his twelfth year to the beginning of his ministry? What were the dates of his birth and death? Shakespeare? Why should not the details of his life, or some considerable portion of the facts, compare in plenitude and authenticity with the events in Dr. Johnson's career?
It seems to be the law of biography that those characters who are known to the world by a few brilliant strokes of genius have as a rule only a meagre personal history, while they whose characters have been built up painfully and slowly out of the commonplace, like the coral islands of the Atlantic, have a great variety and multitude of materials ready for the hands of the biographer.
James Otis belonged to the first of these classes. There is a measure of elusiveness about his life. Our lack of knowledge respecting him, however, is due in part to the fact that near the close of his life, while he was oscillating in a half-rational condition between Andover and Boston, with an occasional visit to Plymouth, he fell into a fit of pessimism and despair during which he spent two days in obliterating the materials for his biography, by destroying all his letters and manuscripts. He did as much as he could to make impossible any adequate account of his career or any suitable revelation of his character as developed in his correspondence. Over and above this, however, the materials of his life are of small extent, and fragmentary. It is to his formal publications and the common tradition of what he did, that we must turn for our biographical and historical estimate of the man. In this respect he is in analogy with Patrick Henry who appears only fitfully in history, but with meteoric brilliancy; or with Abraham Lincoln the narrative of whose life for the first forty-five years can be adequately written in ten pages.
The American Otises of the seventeenth century were of English descent. The emigration of the family from the mother country occurred at an early day when the settlements in New England were still infrequent and weak. The Otis family was among the first to settle at the town of Hingham. Nor was it long until the name appeared in the public records, indicating official rank and leadership. From Hingham, John Otis, who was born in 1657, ancestor of the subject of this sketch, removed to Barnstable, near the center of the peninsula of Massachusetts, and became one of the first men of that settlement. He was sent to the Legislature and thence to the Council of the Colony in which he had a seat for twenty-one years. During this period he was promoted to the place of Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and while holding this important place he was also judge of the Probate Court. The family rose and flourished in reputation.
In 1702, James Otis, son of Judge John Otis, was born. He followed in his father's footsteps becoming a lawyer and colonial publicist, afterwards a colonel of the militia, a judge of the Common Pleas, a judge of the Probate Court, and a member of the Council of Massachusetts. Just after reaching his majority Colonel Otis took in marriage Mary Alleyne, and of this union were born thirteen children. The eldest was a son, and to him was given his father's name. It was to this child that destiny had assigned the heroic work of confronting the aggressions of Great Britain on the American colonists, and of inspiring the latter to forcible resistance.
James Otis, Junior, was born at a place called Great Marshes, now known as West Barnstable, on the 5th of February, 1725. He inherited from his father and grandfather not only a large measure of talents but also a passion for public life which impelled him strongly to the study and solution of those questions which related to the welfare of the American colonies, and to the means by which their political independence might be ultimately secured.
The character and intellect of Colonel Otis of Barnstable were transmitted to other members of his family also. The daughter Mercy, oldest sister of James Otis, was married to James Warren who made his home at Plymouth. This lady had her brother's passion for politics—an enthusiasm which could hardly be restrained. She wrote and conversed in a fiery manner on the revolutionary topics of the day. Almost coincidently with the Battle of Bunker Hill she composed and published (without her name, however,) a biting satire on the colonial policy of Great Britain, calling her brochure "The Group." Fifteen years afterwards she published a volume of poems, mostly patriotic pieces, and finally in 1805 a brief "History of the American Revolution," which was considered a reputable work after its kind.
Samuel Alleyne Otis, youngest brother of James, outlived nearly all the other members of the family, and was recognized as a prominent political leader. He, also, had the strong patriotic and revolutionary bent of the family, was popular and influential, and was honored with a long term of service as Secretary of the Senate of the United States. In this capacity he participated, April 30, 1789, in the inauguration of Washington, holding the Bible on which the Father of his Country took the oath of office. The other brothers and sisters were of less conspicuous ability, and were not so well known to their own and other times.
In New England in the first half of the eighteenth century the sentiment of education was universal. Among the leading people, the sentiment was intense. Colonel Otis, of Barnstable, was alert with respect to the discipline and development of his children. He gave to them all, to the sons especially, the best advantages which the commonwealth afforded. James Otis was assigned to the care of Reverend Jonathan Russell, the minister at Barnstable, who prepared the youth for college. By the middle of his fifteenth year he was thought to be ready for matriculation. He was accordingly entered as a freshman at Harvard, in June, 1739.
Of the incidents of his preceding boyhood, we know but little. A tradition exists that he was more precocious than diligent; that his will was strong; that his activities were marked with a reckless audacity, which, however, did not distinguish him much from the other promising New England boys of his age. Something of these characteristics are noticeable in his college career. At Harvard he showed an abundance of youthful spirits; a strong social disposition, and a well-marked discrimination between his friends and his enemies. At times he applied himself assiduously, and at other times mused and read rather than studied. On the whole he did not greatly distinguish himself as a student. His passion for literature was marked, and he became conspicuous for his forensic abilities. Towards the end of his course, his character as a student was intensified, and he was not often seen away from his books. Out of term time, he would return to his father's home taking his books with him. At such times he was rarely seen by his former companions of Barnstable, because of his habit of secluding himself for study.
It is narrated that at this period of his life, young Otis gave strong evidence of the excitable temperament with which he was endowed. In the intervals of his study his nervous system, under the stimulus of games or controversial dispute, would become so tense with excitement as to provoke remark. Nor may we in the retrospect fail to discover in this quality of mind and temper the premonitions of that malady which finally prevailed over the lucid understanding, and rational activities of James Otis.
The youth did not much effect social accomplishments. He had a passion for music and learned to play the violin. With this instrument he was wont to entertain himself in the intervals of study. Sometimes he would play for company. It was one of his habits to break off suddenly and rather capriciously in the midst of what he was doing. Thus did he with his music. It is narrated that on a certain occasion while playing by invitation for some friends, he suddenly put aside the instrument, saying in a sort of declamatory manner as was his wont—
"So fiddled Orpheus and so danced the brutes."
He then ran into the garden, and could not be induced to play the violin again.
Young Otis passed through the regular classes at Harvard and was graduated in 1743. On that occasion he took part in a disputation which was one of the exercises of his class. Otherwise his record at the college is not accented with any special work which he did. At the time of his graduation he was in his nineteenth year. It had been his father's purpose and his own that his profession should be the law. It does not appear, however, that his college studies were especially directed to this end. At any rate, he did not devote himself at once to the law, but assiduously for two years (1743-45) to a general course of study chosen and directed by himself with a view to the further discipline of his mind and the widening of his information. It was an educational theory with Otis that such an interval of personal and spontaneous application should intervene between a young man's graduation and the beginning of his professional career. Having pursued this course with himself he insisted that his younger brother, Samuel Alleyne Otis, should take the same course. In one of his letters to his father—a communication fortunately rescued from the holocaust of his correspondence—he discusses the question and urges the propriety of the young man's devoting a year or two to general study before taking up his law books. An extract from the letter will prove of interest. The writer says: "It is with sincerest pleasure I find my brother Samuel has well employed his time during his residence at home. I am sure you don't think the time long he is spending in his present course of studies; since it is past all doubt they are not only ornamental and useful, but indispensably necessary preparatories for the figure I hope one day, for his and your sake, as well as my own, to see him make in the profession he is determined to pursue. I am sure the year and a half I spent in the same way, after leaving the academy, was as well spent as any part of my life; and I shall always lament I did not take a year or two further for more general inquiries in the arts and sciences, before I sat down to the laborious study of the laws of my country.
"My brother's judgment can't at present be supposed to be ripe enough for so severe an exercise as the proper reading and well digesting the common law. Very sure I am, if he would stay a year or two from the time of his degree, before he begins with the law, he will be able to make better progress in one week, than he could now, without a miracle, in six. Early and short clerkships, and a premature rushing into practice, without a competent knowledge in the theory of law, have blasted the hopes, and ruined the expectations, formed by the parents of most of the students in the profession, who have fallen within my observation for these ten or fifteen years past."
The writer of this well-timed communication then adds in proof of his position, the names of several distinguished jurists who postponed the beginning of their legal studies, or at least their legal practice, to a time of life quite beyond the conventional student period. Mr. Otis then declares his conviction that a young man may well procrastinate his legal studies until he shall have attained the age of thirty or even of forty years. He declares his belief that such postponement will as a rule lead to better result than can be attained by a youth who begins at twenty, however brilliant his genius may be.
This view of the case was with James Otis both theory and practice. He began his legal studies in 1745. In that year he became a law student under the tuition of Jeremiah Gridley who at that time was already regarded as one of the most able and accomplished lawyers in Massachusetts. Preceptor and student were at the first in accord in their political and social principles. At the time of the young man's law course, Gridley was a member of the General Court of Massachusetts. He belonged to the party called Whig; for the political jargon of Great Britain had infected the Americans also, and they divided according to the names and principles of the British partisans of the period.
Judge Gridley, while he remained on the bench, took sides with the colonists in their oncoming contention with the mother country. Afterwards, however, by accepting the appointment of Attorney General he became one of the king's officers, and it was in this relation that he was subsequently brought face to face with his distinguished pupil in the trial of the most remarkable case which preceded the Revolutions.
Mr. Otis devoted two years of time to his legal studies before beginning the practice of his profession. The study of law at that time was much more difficult than at the present day. The student was obliged to begin de novo with the old statutes and decisions, and to make up the science for himself by a difficult induction, which not many young men were able to do successfully.
Law text-books were virtually unknown. Otis did not even have access to "Blackstone's Commentaries." No authoritative works on evidence or pleading existed in the English language.
The student must get down his Acts of Parliament, his decisions of the King's Bench, his Coke, his black-letter dissertations on the common law, and out of these construct the best he could a legal system for himself. To this work Mr. Otis devoted himself from 1745 to 1747, after which he left the office of Judge Gridley and went to Plymouth, where he applied for admission to the bar, and was accepted by the court. He began to practice in 1748—the year of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, when the political and historical status of Europe was again fixed for a brief period.
The young attorney almost immediately took rank at the Plymouth bar. The old records of the court at that place still show the frequent appearance of Otis for one or the other of the parties. In this manner were passed the years 1748 and 1749. It does not appear that at this time he concerned himself very much with the affairs of the town or the larger affairs of the commonwealth. The tax records show his name with an entry to the effect that in 1748 he estimated his personal estate at twenty pounds besides his "faculty," by which was meant, his professional value.
A few incidents of this period in Otis's life have come down by tradition. He soon made a favorable impression on the court and bar. He gained the good opinion of his fellows for both ability and integrity of character. This reputation he carried with him to Boston, whither he removed early in the year 1750. He had already acquired sufficient character to bring his services into requisition at places somewhat distant from Plymouth.
His reception in Boston was accordingly favorable. Beyond the limits of the colony he became known as an advocate. He was sent for in important cases, and showed such signal ability as to attract the admiring attention of both court and people. Already at the conclusion of his twenty-fifth year he was a young man of note, rising to eminence.
There was good ground for this reputation in both his principles of conduct and his legal abilities. From the first he avoided the littleness and quibble which are the bane of the bar. He had a high notion of what a lawyer should be and of the method and spirit in which he should conduct his cases. He had as much dignity as audacity, a sense of justice as keen as the purpose was zealous in pursuing it.
It came to be understood in the courts of Boston when Otis appeared as an advocate that he had a case and believed in it. He avoided accepting retainers in cases, of the justice of which he was in doubt. Pursuing this method, he was sometimes involved in law-suits in which he was constrained to turn upon his own client.
The story goes of one such instance in which he brought suit for the collection of a bill. Believing in his client and in the justice of the claim, he pressed the matter in court and was about to obtain a judgment when he accidentally discovered, among his client's papers, a receipt which the plaintiff had signed for the very claim under consideration. Through some mistake the receipt had again got back into the man's possession, and he had taken advantage of the fact to institute a suit for the collection of the claim a second time.
Seeing through the matter at once, Otis took the plaintiff aside, confronted him with the receipt and denounced him to his face as a rascal. The man gave down and begged for quarter, but Otis was inexorable; he went back to the bar and stated to the court that reasons existed why the case of his client should be dismissed. The court, presided over by Judge Hutchinson, afterward Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts, expressed its surprise at the turn of affairs, complimented Otis for his honorable course as an advocate, commended his conduct to the bar, and dismissed the case.
With the spread of his reputation Mr. Otis was summoned on legal business to distant parts. On one occasion he was called to Halifax to defend some prisoners under arrest for piracy; believing them to be innocent he convinced the court in an eloquent plea and secured the acquittal of the prisoners.
On another occasion he was summoned to Plymouth to defend some citizens of that town who had become involved in a riot on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. It was the custom in the New England towns to observe this day with a mock procession, in which effigies representing the Pope, the Old Bad One, and James the Pretender, were carried through the streets to be consigned at the end to a bonfire. In this instance violence was done by some of the participants; windows were smashed, gates were broken down, etc. Mr. Otis conducted the defense, showing that the arrested persons taking part in a noisy anniversary, and committing acts that were innocent in spirit, if not innocent per se, ought not to be adjudged guilty of serious misdemeanor. This plea prevailed and the young men were acquitted.
It is to be greatly regretted that the legal pleas and addresses of James Otis have not been preserved. A volume of his speeches would reveal not only his style and character, but also much of the history of the times. The materials, however, are wanting. He kept a commonplace book in which most of his business letters of the period under consideration were recorded. But these give hardly a glimpse at the man, the orator, or his work. Tradition, however, is rife with the myth of his method and manner. He was essentially an orator. He had the orator's fire and passion; also the orator's eccentricities—his sudden high flights and transitions, his quick appeals and succession of images.
To these qualities of the orator in general Otis added the power of applying himself to the facts; also the power of cogent reasoning and masterful search for the truth which gained for him at length the fame of first orator of the revolution. The passion and vehemence of the man made him at times censorious and satirical. His manner towards his opponents was at times hard to bear. His wit was of that sarcastic kind which, like a hot wind, withers its object.
All of these dispositions seemed to increase his power and to augment his reputation, but they did not augment his happiness. His character as an advocate and as a man came out in full force during the first period of his Boston practice; that is, in the interval from 1750 to 1755.
On attaining his thirtieth year Mr. Otis came to the event of his marriage. He took in union, in the spring of 1755, Ruth Cunningham, daughter of a Boston merchant. From one point of view his choice was opportune, for it added to his social standing and also to his means. From another aspect, however, the marriage was less fortunate.
The Cunningham family was not well grounded in the principles of patriotism. The timid commercial spirit showed itself in the father, and with this the daughter sympathized. The sharp line of division between patriotism and loyalty had not yet been drawn —as it was drawn five years afterward. But it began to be drawn very soon after the marriage with serious consequences to the domestic peace of the family.
It appears that beside this general cause of divergence, the staid and unenthusiastic character of Mrs. Otis rather chilled the ardor of the husband, and he, for his part, by his vehemence and eccentricity, did not strongly conciliate her favor. There were times of active disagreement in the family, and in later years the marriage was rather a fact than a principle.
The result of Mr. Otis's marriage was a family of one son and two daughters. The son, who was given his father's name, showed his father's characteristics from childhood, and certainly a measure of his genius. The lad, however, entered the navy at the outbreak of the Revolution, became a midshipman, and died in his eighteenth year. The oldest daughter, Elizabeth, went wholly against her father's grain and purpose. Just before the beginning of the Revolution, but after the case had been clearly made up, she was married to a certain Captain Brown, at that time a British officer in Boston, cordially disliked, if not hated, by James Otis. Personally, Brown was respectable, but his cause was odious. He was seriously wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Afterwards he was promoted and was given a command in England. Thither his wife went with him, and Mr. Otis discarded them both, if not with anathema at least with contempt.
It would appear that his natural affection was blotted out. At least his resentment was life-long, and when he came to make his will he described the circumstances and disinherited Elizabeth with a shilling. The fact that Mrs. Otis favored the unfortunate marriage, and perhaps brought it about—availing herself as it is said, of one of Mr. Otis's spells of mental aberration to carry out her purposes—aggravated the difficulty and made her husband's exasperation everlasting.
The younger daughter of the family shared her father's patriotism. She was married to Benjamin Lincoln, Jr., a young lawyer of Boston, whose father was General Benjamin Lincoln of revolutionary fame. The marriage was a happy one, but ultimately clouded with honorable grief. Two promising sons were born, but each died before reaching his majority. The father also died when he was twenty-eight years old. The wife and mother resided in Cambridge, and died there in 1806.
The second period in James Otis's life may be regarded as extending from 1755 to 1760; that is, from his thirtieth to his thirty-fifth year. It was in this period that he rose to eminence. Already distinguished as a lawyer, he now became more distinguished as a civilian and a man of public affairs.
He caught the rising interest as at the springing of the tide, and rose with it until it broke in lines of foam along the shores of New England. He gained the confidence of the patriot party, of which he was the natural leader. His influence became predominant. He was the peer of the two Adamses, and touched hands right and left with the foremost men of all the colonies.
It surprises us to note that at this time James Otis devoted a considerable section of his time to scholastic and literary pursuits. He was a student not only of men and affairs but of books. Now it was that the influence of his Harvard education was seen in both his studies and his works. We are surprised to find him engaged in the composition of a text-book which is still extant, and, however obsolete, by no means devoid of merits. The work was clearly a result left on his mind from his student days.
He composed and, in the year 1760, published, by the house of B. Mecom in Boston, a 72 page brochure entitled "The Rudiments of Latin Prosody with a Dissertation on Letters and the Principles of Harmony in Poetic and Prosaic Composition, collected from some of the best Writers."
The work is primarily a text in Latin Prosody in which the author thought himself to improve on the existing treatises on that subject. The afterpart of the pamphlet is devoted to a curious examination of the qualities of the letters of the Greek and Roman alphabets.
In this he attempts to teach the distinction between quantity and accent in the Greek language, but more particularly to describe the position and physiological action of the organs of speech in producing the elementary sounds in the languages referred to. The author declares his conviction that the growth of science had been seriously impeded by the inattention of people to the correct utterance of elementary sounds. He also points out the great abuses in the prevailing methods and declares that these abuses have so impeded the work of education "that many have remained children all their days."
Having written and published his work on Latin prosody, Mr. Otis next produced a similar work on the prosody of Greek. This, however, he did not publish, and he is said to have destroyed the manuscript at the time of burning his correspondence near the end of his life.
A conversation of James Otis is narrated by Francis Bowen, in Jared Sparks's "American Biography" in which the orator is represented, in speaking of the bad literary taste prevalent among the boys of the time, as saying, "These lads are very fond of talking about poetry and repeating passages of it. The poets they quote I know nothing of; but do you take care, James, [Otis was addressing James Perkins, Esq., of Boston] that you don't give in to this folly. If you want to read poetry, read Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Pope and throw all the rest into the fire; these are all that are worth reading." In this brief comment the severity of Otis's literary taste is indicated and also something of the rather abrupt and dogmatic character of his mind. His criticism, though true, can hardly be said to be judicious.
In order to understand the part which James Otis played in the great work of revolution and independence it is now necessary to note with care the conditions into which he was cast and with which he was environed at that period of his life when the man-fire flames highest and the audacity of the soul bounds furthest into the arena of danger.
Every man is the joint product of himself and his environment. His life is the resultant of the two forces by which he is held and balanced. At the time when James Otis reached his thirty-fifth year a condition had supervened in the American colonies which reacted upon his passionate and Patriotic nature so powerfully as to bring into full play all of his faculties and to direct the whole force of his nature against the tyrannical method of the mother country.
Let us look for a moment at the course of events which had preceded and which succeeded the crisis in James Otis's life, and made him the born leader of his countrymen in their first conflict for independence.
Great Britain had aforetime permitted the American colonists to plant themselves where, when, and as they would. Almost every colonial settlement had been an adventure. The emigrants from the other side of the Atlantic had been squeezed out by the hard discipline of church and state. In America they settled as they might.
"And England didn't look to know or care."
In the language of one of the bards of this age,
"That is England's awful way of doing business."
She permitted her persecuted children to brave the intolerable ocean in leaking ships, to reach the new world if they could, and survive if they might.
Notwithstanding this hard strain on the sentiment of the Pilgrims, the Cavaliers, and the Hugenots, they remained loyal to the mother country. They built their little states in the wilderness and were proud to christen their towns and villages with the cherished names of the home places in England. They defended themselves as well as they could against the inhospitality of nature, the neglect of the mother country, and the cruelty of savage races.
It was only when they grew and multiplied and flourished that our little seashore republics attracted the attention of the mother land and suggested to the ministers of the crown the possibility of plucking something from the new states which had now demonstrated their ability to exist and to yield an increase.
Meanwhile, for six generations, the colonists had developed their own social affairs and managed their own civil affairs according to the exegencies of the case and the principles of democracy. Their methods of government were necessarily republican.
The military necessities which were ever at the door had taught our fathers the availability of arms as the final argument in the debate with wrong. The conflicts with the Indians and the experiences of the French and Indian war had shown that the Americans were able to hold their own in battle.
Under these conditions there was a natural growth of public opinion in the colonies tending to independence of action, and to indignant protest against foreign dictation. In the sixth decade of the eighteenth century many of the leading young men of America talked and wrote of independence as a thing desirable and possible.
In 1755, when James Otis was thirty years of age, his young friend, John Adams, sitting one day in his school house in Connecticut, wrote this in his diary: "In another century all Europe will not be able to subdue us. The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us."
We thus note natural conditions as tending to produce a rebellion of the American colonies; also the inherited disposition of the colonists under the discipline of their times; also the growth of public opinion among the leading spirits—to which we must add the character of the reigning king and of the ministers to whom he entrusted his government as the general conditions antecedent to the revolutionary movement of our fathers.
But there were more immediate and forceful causes which operated to the same end. Among these should be mentioned as a prevailing influence the right of arbitrary government claimed by Great Britain and at length resisted by the colonists. The right of arbitrarily controlling the American states was shown in a number of specific acts which we must here discuss.
The first of these was the old Navigation Act of 1651. The measure adopted by the government of Cromwell had never been strenuously enforced. It was the peculiarity of all the early legislation of Great Britain relative to the colonies that it was either misdirected or permitted to lapse by disuse.
The colonies thus literally grew, with little home direction. After the navigation act had been nominally in force for eighty-two years it was revived and supplemented by another measure known as the Importation Act.
This statute, dating from the year 1733, was intended to be an actual device for controlling the commercial relations with the colonies. By the terms of the Act heavy duties were laid on all the sugar, molasses, and rum which should be imported into the colonies. The customs were exorbitant and were from the first evaded as far as possible by the American merchants.
This may be regarded as the first actual breach of justice on the one side and good faith on the other, as between the home government and the American dependencies of Great Britain.
The reader will note that the question at issue was from the first commercial. It was a question of taking something from the colonists and of giving no equivalent, either in value or political rights. Had the American colonists been willing to be taxed and searched without an equivalent, then would there have been no revolution.
It will be noted from the nature of the question that the issue, since it was a matter of the merchants, was also a matter of the cities. For the merchant and the city go together. With the country folk of the pre-revolutionary era, the faultfinding and dispute related always to political questions proper—to questions of rights as between the king and his subjects; to questions of institutional forms, the best method of governing, etc.
All of these matters, however, could have been easily adjusted, and if there were an "if" in history they would have been adjusted without revolution and without independence. The commercial question, however, involving money rights, and implying the privilege and power of the Mother Country to take from the Colonists their property, however small the amount, could but engender resistance, and if the claim were not relinquished could but lead to war and disruption.
The neglected growth of the Colonies had in the meantime established in the seaboard towns of America, usages and customs which were repugnant to British notions of regular and orderly government. The commercial life had taken a form of its own.
The Americans had built ships and warehouses. They had engaged in commerce as they would. They had made their trade as free as possible. They had ignored the old Navigation Act, and when the Importation Act was passed, it confronted a condition in America.
It applied to a state of affairs that already existed.
The American ship, trading with the West Indies and bringing back to Boston a cargo of molasses or rum, was met at custom house with an exorbitant requisition. The officer acting under the Importation Act, virtually said, "Stand and deliver."
If it were a British ship the resistance to the duty would be offered by the land merchants rather than by the sea traders; for the merchants did not desire that the cost of the merchandise to themselves and their customers should be doubled without some equivalent advantage. No equivalent advantage was either visible or invisible. What, therefore, should they do but first evade and then openly resist?
There was an epoch of evasion. This covered a period of about seventeen years, extending from 1733 to 1750. In the latter year an act was passed by Parliament forbidding the erection of iron works in America. The manufacture of steel was especially interdicted. The measure which was in reality directed against shipbuilding included a provision which forbade the felling of pines outside of enclosures. It was thus sought by indirection to prevent the creation of a merchant marine by the American Colonists and to limit their commerce to British ships. This measure like the Importation Act was also ignored and resisted. For eleven years the Americans persisted in their usual course, making iron, cutting pine timber and building ships, importing molasses and rum, evading the duties, and thus getting themselves into the category of smugglers.
It was this precise condition of affairs which led to a still more stringent measure on the part of the home government. It was determined in Parliament to put an end to the evasion and resistance of the American merchants and importers with respect to the existing laws. The customs should be collected. It was deemed best, however, that the new measure should issue from the judiciary.
An appeal was made to the Court of Exchequer in England for the granting of search warrants to be issued in America by the king's officers for the purpose of ferreting out contraband goods. These warrants granted by the Court of Exchequer were the Writs of Assistance, the name of which appears so frequently and with so much odium in the colonial history of the times. These writs were granted by the court under pressure of the ministry in the year 1760.
The Writs of Assistance were directed to the officers of the customs in America. But any officer could arm one of his subordinates, or indeed any other person whom he should designate, with one of the writs, and the person so appointed might act in the name of the king's officer.
The thing to be done was the examination of any place and all places where contraband goods might be supposed to be lodged. Whether there were evidence or no evidence, the case was the same. The document was a writ of arbitrary search.
Any house, public or private, might be entered at any time; any closet or any cellar might be opened. Neither the bridal chamber nor the room of the dead was sacred on the approach of any petty customs constable or deputy in whose hands a Writ of Assistance had been placed. The antecedent proceedings required no affidavit or any other legal formality. The object was to lay bare the whole privacy of a people on sheer suspicion of smuggling.
It could hardly be supposed that our fathers would tamely submit to such an odious and despotic procedure. To have done so would have been to subscribe to a statute for their own enslavement. Nor may we pass from the consideration of these writs and the resistance offered thereto by the patriots of all our colonies without noticing the un-English character of these laws.
Of a certainty Englishmen in whatever continent or island of this world would never tolerate such a tyrannical interference with their rights. This was demonstrated not only in America, but in England also.
The issuance in England of just such illegal and arbitrary warrants was one of the causes that led to the tremendous agitation headed by John Wilkes. The excitement in that controversy grew, and notwithstanding the repeated arrests of Wilkes and his expulsions from Parliament, his reelection was repeated as often, and his following increased until not only the ministry but the throne itself was shaken by the cry of "Wilkes and Liberty." Nor did this well-timed ebullition of human rights subside until the arbitrary warrants were annulled by a decision of the King's Bench.
It was the trial of this issue in America that brought on the Revolution. It was a great cause that had to be pleaded, and the occasion and the city and the man, were as great as the cause. The parties to it were clearly defined, and were set in sharp antagonism.
On the one side were the king's officers in the province, headed by the governor. This following included the officers of the customs in particular. It also included the not inconsiderable class of American respectabilities who were feeble in American sentiments, and who belonged by nature and affiliation to the established order. These were the loyalists, destined to be designated as Tories, and to become the bete noire of patriotism.
On the other side was a whole phalanx of the common people—a phalanx bounded on the popular side by the outskirt of society and on the high-up side by the intellectual and philosophical patriots who were as pronounced as any for the cause of their country, and with better reason than the reason of the many.
The officers of the province elected by the home folks were all patriots, but the appointed officers of the crown were quite unanimous for the prerogative of the crown, holding severe measures should be taken with the resisting colonists, and in particular that the Writs of Assistance were good law and correct policy.
We should here note the particular play of the personal forces in the year 1760. There were two notable deaths—the one notable in Massachusetts and the other in the world. The first was that of Chief Justice Stephen Sewall of Massachusetts, and the other was that of His Majesty George II, the
"Snuffy old drone from the German hive,"
as he is described by the "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." The first was succeeded in office by Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant-Governor of the province under Sir Fraucis Bernard, who was appointed governor in this notable year 1760 as the successor of Thomas Pownall, who had succeeded Governor William Shirley.
Hutchinson—to use the adjective which John Adams was wont to apply to himself and other patriots to the manner born—was a Massachusettensian. He had sympathized with the people, but he now turned against them. Before Judge Sewall went away it was said and believed that Governor Shirley had promised the place of Chief Justice, when the same should be vacant, to no other than Colonel James Otis of Barnstable, father of the subject of this sketch.
But Governor Bernard, Shirley's second successor in office, took another view of the matter and appointed Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson to the high office of Chief Justice.
It was the belief and allegation of the King's party that this appointment and this disappointment—the first of Hutchinson and the second of Colonel Otis—bore heavily on all the Otises, and indeed converted them from royalism to patriotism.
Chief Justice Hutchinson himself is on record to this effect. In his "History of Massachusetts," speaking of his own appointment to the judicial office, he says:
"The expected opposition ensued. Both gentlemen (that is, Colonel Otis and James Otis, Jr.) had been friends to the government. From this time they were at the head of every measure in opposition, not merely in those points which concerned the Governor in his administration, but in such as concerned the authority of Parliament; the opposition to which first began in this colony, and was moved and conducted by one of them, both in the Assembly and the town of Boston. From so small a spark, a great fire seems to have been kindled."
The statement of a partisan, especially if he be a beneficiary, must be taken with the usual allowance of salt.
It may be that the patriotic trend of the Otises was intensified a little by a personal pique in the matter referred to. But that either father or son was transferred from the king's party to the people's party by the failure of Colonel Otis to be appointed Chief Justice is not to be believed. Other stories are to be dismissed in the same manner.
One slander prevalent about the Custom House ran to the effect that James Otis had declared that he would set the province on fire even if he had to perish in the flames. The art of political lying was known even among our fathers.
Such was the situation of affairs when the sycophants of the foreign government in Boston undertook to enforce the Writs of Assistance. They soon found that they needed more assistance to do it. The banded merchants, and the patriots generally, said that the acts were illegal, and that they would not submit to the officers. The governor and his subordinates and the custom-house retinue in particular, said that the writs were legal, and that they should be enforced. The matter came to a clash and a trial.
The case as made up presented this question: Shall the persons employed in enforcing the Acts of Trade have the power to invoke generally the assistance of all the executive officers of the colony?
This issue was, in February of 1761, taken into court in the old Town House, afterwards the old State House, of Boston. There were sitting the five Judges of the Superior Court of the province. Chief Justice Hutchinson, still holding the office of Lieutenant-Governor, his membership in the Council, and his position of Judge of Probate, presided at the trial. Perhaps there was never in America an instance in which a high official so nearly fulfilled the part of "Pooh Bah."
The trial evoked an attendance of all who could be admitted, and of many more. The officers of the crown were out in full force, and resolute patriotism completed the crowd. John Adams was one of the spectators.
Another element in the dramatic situation was the fact that James Otis had, in the meantime, received the appointment to the crown office of Advocate General, to which an ample salary was attached. In this relation it would be his especial duty to support the petition of the custom-house officers in upholding the Writs of Assistance and in constraining the executive officers of the province to support them in doing so.
This contingency brought out the mettle of the man. When the revenue officers came to him with the request that he defend their case, he at once resigned his office, and this being known the merchants immediately sought his services as counsel to uphold their protest against the Writs. For his assistant they selected Mr. Oxenbridge Thatcher.
Otis accepted the invitation without a fee. His action involved the loss of his official position as well as his means of living.
It chanced at this time that his old law preceptor, Jeremiah Gridley, was selected as King's Attorney, and it fell to his lot to take the place which Otis would not accept. Thus master and pupil were brought face to face at the bar in the hottest legal encounter which preceded our rupture with the mother country.
The trial that ensued has been described by John Adams, an eye witness of the whole proceedings. He gives in his works a description of the conduct of the case as it was presented for and against the crown, and also notes of Otis's argument.
After the pleas were presented and other preliminary matters arranged, Mr. Gridley addressed the court in support of the government's position. He defended the petition of the custom-house officials as both legal and just. Two statutes of the time of Charles II, empowering the court of Exchequer to issue writs such as those which were now denied, were adduced. He then cited the statute of the sixth year of Queen Anne, which continued to inforce the processes which had been authorized in the twelfth and fourteenth years of the reign of Charles.
Still more to the point were the statutes of the seventh and eighth years of William III, which authorized the collection of revenue "in the British plantations" by officers who might search both public and private houses to find goods that had evaded the duty. These statutes Mr. Gridley claimed as a warrant for the like usage in America.
In answer to Gridley, Oxenbridge Thatcher, himself a lawyer of no mean abilities, spoke for the counter petitioners. His plea was a strong confutation of Gridley's arguments. After this brief address Mr. Otis rose to continue the plea for the people.
Of the speech which followed we have no complete record or wholly satisfactory summary. It is to John Adams, and to the notes which he made on the occasion, that we must look for our opinion of what was, if we mistake not, the greatest and most effective oration delivered in the American colonies before the Revolution.
Such was the accepted belief of those who heard Otis, and witnessed the effect of his tremendous oratory.
Making all allowance for exaggeration, it seems to have been one of those inspired appeals by which History and Providence at critical epochs make themselves known to mankind. John Adams, then twenty-five years of age, passing from his notes of Thatcher's speech, says of the greater actor:
"But 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, a prophetic glance of his eyes into futurity, and a rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried away all before him. American Independence was then and there born. The seeds of patriots and heroes, to defend the Non sine diis animosus infans, to defend the vigorous youth, were then and there sown. Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take arms against Writs of Assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born. In fifteen years, that is in 1776, he grew up to manhood, and declared himself free."
We may allow a little for the enthusiasm of a young patriot such as Adams, but there can be no doubt that his unmeasured eulogy was well deserved. Such was the description of Otis's speech.
As to the speech itself we have only a second-hand and inadequate report. Minot, in his "History of Massachusetts," presents what purports to be a tolerably full outline of the great address.
Mr. Otis spoke for five hours, during which time with his rather rapid utterance he would perhaps deliver an oration of 30,000 words. Minot's report appears to have been derived from Adams' notes done into full form by an unknown writer, who probably put in here and there some rather florid paragraphs of his own. At a subsequent period, Adams took up the subject and corrected Minot's report, giving the revised address to William Tudor, who used the same in his biography of James Otis. From these sources we are able to present a fair abstract of what were the leading parts of Otis's speech. In the beginning he said:
"May it please your Honors:
"I was desired by one of the court to look into the books, and consider the question now before them concerning Writs of Assistance. I have accordingly considered it, and now appear, not only in obedience to your order, but likewise in behalf of the inhabitants of this town, who have present another petition, and out of regard to the liberties of the subject. And I take this liberty to declare, that, whether under a fee or not (for in such a cause as this I despise a fee), I will to my dying day oppose, with all the powers and faculties God has given me, all such instruments of slavery on the one hand, and villainy on the other, as this Writ of Assistance is.
"It appears to me the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that was ever found in an English law-book. I must, therefore, beg your Honors' patience and attention to the whole range of an argument, that may, perhaps, appear uncommon in many things, as well as to points of learning that are more remote and unusual, that the whole tendency of my design may the more easily be perceived, the conclusions better descend, and the force of them be better felt.
"I shall not think much of my pains in this case, as I engaged in it from principle. I was solicited to argue this case as advocate-general; and because I would not, I have been charged with desertion from my office. To this charge I can give a very sufficient answer. I renounced that office, and I argue this case, from the same principle; and I argue it with the greater pleasure, as it is in favor of British liberty, at a time when we hear the greatest monarch upon earth declaring from his throne, that he glories in the name of Briton, and that the privileges of his people are dearer to him than the most valuable prerogatives of his crown; and it is in opposition to a kind of power, the exercise of which, in former periods of English history, cost one king of England his head, and another his throne.
"I have taken more pains in this case than I ever will take again, although my engaging in this and another popular case has raised much resentment. But I think I can sincerely declare, that I cheerfully submit myself to every odious name for conscience' sake; and from my soul I despise all those whose guilt, malice or folly, has made them my foes.
"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.
"These manly sentiments, in private life, make the good citizen; in public life, the patriot and the hero. I do not say that, when brought to the test, I shall be invincible. I pray God I may never be brought to the melancholy trial; but if ever I should, it will then be known how far I can reduce to practice principles which I know to be founded in truth. In the meantime, I will proceed to the subject of this writ."
After this introductory part we are obliged to fall back on the summary given by Mr. Adams. According to his report, Otis in the next place went into fundamentals and discussed the rights of man in a state of nature. In this part, the argument ran in an analagous vein to that of Rousseau in the Contrat Social that is, man in the first place is a sovereign subject only to the higher laws revealed in his own conscience. In this state he has a right to life, to liberty, to property.
Here the speaker fell into the manner of Jefferson in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration. It is to be noted that Otis presented the truth absolutely; he including negroes in the common humanity to whom inalienable rights belong.
Mr. Otis next took up the social compact, and showed that society is the individual enlarged and generalized. This brought him to the question before the court; for the conflict now on was a struggle of society, endowed with inalienable rights, against arbitrary authority and its abusive exercise.
The abusive exercise was shown in the attempts to enforce the Acts of Trade. Of this kind was the old Navigation Act, and of like character was the Importation Act. It was to enforce these that the Writs of Assistance had been devised. Mr. Otis then continued:
"Your Honors will find, in the old books concerning the office of a justice of the peace, precedents of general warrants to search suspected houses. But, in more modern books, you will find only special warrants to search such and such houses, specially named, in which the complainant has before sworn, that he suspects his goods are concealed; and will find it adjudged, that special warrants only are legal. In the same manner, I rely in it, that the writ prayed for in this petition, being general, is illegal. It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer.
"I say, I admit that special Writs of Assistance, to search special places, may be granted to certain persons on oath; but I deny that the writ now prayed for can be granted; for I beg leave to make some observations on the writ itself, before I proceed to other acts of Parliament.
"In the first place, the writ is universal, being directed to 'all and singular justices, sheriffs, constables, and all other officers and subjects;' so that, in short, it is directed to every subject in the King's dominions. Every one, with this writ, may be a tyrant in a legal manner, and may control, imprison, or murder, any one within the realm.
"In the next place it is perpetual; there is no return. A man is accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him, until the trump of the archangel shall excite different emotions in his soul.
"In the third place, a person with this writ, in the daytime, may enter all houses, shops, etc., at will, and command all to assist him.
"Fourthly, by this writ, not only deputies, etc., but even their menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. What is this but to have the curse of Canaan with a witness on us? To be the servant of servants, the most despicable of God's creation?
"Now, one of the most 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. 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 every thing in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court, can inquire. Bare suspicion, without oath, is sufficient.
"This wanton exercise of this power is not a chimerical suggestion of a heated brain. I will mention some facts. Mr. Pew had one of these writs, and, when Mr. Ware succeeded him, he endorsed this writ over to Mr. Ware; so that these writs are negotiable from one officer to another; and so your Honors have no opportunity of judging the persons to whom this vast power is delegated. Another instance is this:
"Mr. Justice Walley had called this same Mr. Ware before him, by a constable, to answer for a breach of the Sabbath-day acts, or that of profane swearing. As soon as he had finished, Mr. Ware asked him if he had done. He replied, 'Yes.' 'Well, then,' said Mr. Ware, 'I will show you a little of my power. I command you to permit me to search your house for uncustomed goods;' and went on to search the house from the garret to the cellar; and then served the constable in the same manner.
"But to show another absurdity in this writ, if it be established, I insist upon it, every person, by the 14th of Charles the Second, has this power, as well as the custom-house officers. The words are, 'It shall be lawful for any person, or persons, authorized,' etc. What a scene does this open. Every man prompted by revenge, ill-humor, or wantonness, to inspect the inside of his neighbor's house, may get a Writ of Assistance. Others will ask it from self-defence; one arbitrary exertion will provoke another, until society be involved in tumult and in blood."
This extract may serve to show the Demosthenic power of James Otis as an orator. We cannot within our limits present many additional paragraphs from his great plea in the cause of his countrymen.
To the next division of his argument he confuted the position taken by Gridley with respect to the alleged legal precedents for the Writs of Assistance. He showed that the writs were wholly different from those provided for in the time of Charles II. Even if they had not been so, the epoch and the manner of King Charles had passed away. Neither could the Writs be justified by inferences and constructions deduced from any previous statutes of Parliament.
Besides, such odious Writs could never be enforced. They could never be enforced in the City of the Pilgrims. If the King of England should himself encamp with twenty thousand soldiers on the Common of Boston, he could not enforce such laws. He assailed the sugar tax with unmeasured invective. And over and above all, this despotic legislation was in direct conflict with the Charter of Massachusetts.
Here the orator broke forth in his most impassioned strain declaring that the British King, the British Parliament and the British nation, were all guilty of ingratitude and oppression in attempting to impose tyrannical enactment on the people of America. Thus he concluded his argument appeal.
Those who heard the oration were convulsed with excitement. The King's party was enraged. The patriots were inspired and defiant. It was in every respect a critical and a historic hour.
What would the court do with the case? The action of that body was obscure and double. There seems to have been a disposition of the Associate Judges to decide for the counter-petitioners; but Chief Justice Hutchinson induced them to assent to his policy of withholding a decision. He accordingly announced that the court would decide the case at the ensuing session. He then wrote to the home government, and the records show that the decision was rendered for the petitioners. That is, for the Custom House officials, and in favor of the Writs.
The Chief Justice is also on record to the effect that he continued to issue the Writs; but if so, no officer of the king ever dared to present one of them in Boston! The famous (and infamous) Writs of Assistance were as dead as the mummies of Egypt.
It is from this point of view that the character and work of James Otis appear to the greatest historical advantage. There can be no doubt that his was the living voice which called to resistance, first Boston, then Massachusetts, then New England and then the world! For ultimately the world heard the sound thereof and was glad. The American Colonies resisted, and at length won their independence. The sparks fell in France, and the jets of flame ran together in a conflagration the light of which was seen over Europe, and if over Europe, then over the world. The Pre-revolutionist had cried out and mankind heard him. Resistance to tyranny became obedience to God.
We shall here sketch rapidly and briefly the unsteady way and unfortunate decline of James Otis down to the time of the eclipse of his intellect and his tragic death.
Three months after he had, according to John Adams; "breathed into the nation the breath of life," he was chosen to represent Boston in the legislature of the Commonwealth. All of his colleagues were patriots. Boston was in that mood.
There runs a story that when he was entering upon his duties he was counselled by a friend to curb his impetuosity and to gain leadership by the mastery of self—advice most salutary to one of his temperament. But it was much like advising General Putnam to be calm at Bunker Hill! Otis promised, however, that if his friends would warn him when his temperature was rising, he would command himself.
It is also narrated that his friends did attempt to pluck him by the coat, but he turned upon them demanding to know if he was a school boy to be called down!
At this time the relations between Governor Bernard and the Legislature were greatly strained. Otis rather increased the tension. A question arose about a financial measure whereby gold was to be exported and silver money retained as the currency of the colony—the former at less than its nominal value—in a manner to juggle the people into paying their obligations twice over. The argument became hot and the Council taking the side of the administration was opposed by the legislative assembly.
Chief Justice Hutchinson and James Otis got into a controversy which was bitter enough, and which may be illustrated with the following letter which James Otis addressed to the printer of a newspaper:
"Perhaps I should not have troubled you or the public with any thoughts of mine, had not his Honor the Lieutenant-Governor condescended to give me a personal challenge. This is an honor that I never had vanity enough to aspire after, and I shall ever respect Mr. Hutchinson for it so long as I live, as he certainly consulted my reputation more than his own when he bestowed it. A general officer in the army would be thought very condescending to accept, much more to give, a challenge to a subaltern. The honor of entering the lists with a gentleman so much one's superior in one view is certainly tempting; it is at least possible that his Honor may lose much; but from those who have and desire but little, but little can possibly be taken away.
"I am your humble servant, "JAMES OTIS, JR."
This controversy continued for some time, and it is thought that to it must be attributed much of the animosity displayed by the Chief Justice towards Otis in the "History of Massachusetts Bay."
Mr. Otis continued his aggressive policy in the session of the assembly held in 1762. It was at this session that the government in the hope of getting a sum of money adopted the ruse of creating an alarm relative to a French invasion of Newfoundland. But the patriots would have none of it. They went so far as to say that if arbitrary government was to be established in America, it made no difference whether the Americans should have King Stork or King Log. To this effect ran a resolution offered by James Otis:
"No necessity can be sufficient to justify a House of Representatives in giving up such a privilege; for it would be of little consequence to the people, whether they were subject to George or Louis, the King of Great Britain or the French King; if both were arbitrary, as both would be, if both could levy taxes without Parliament."
It is said that when this resolution was offered a loyalist member cried out in the Virginian manner, "Treason, treason." It was in this way that Mr. Otis gained the undying enmity of the King's party in America.
It was in the period following his legislative service that James Otis prepared his powerful pamphlet entitled "A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay." In this work he traverses and justifies the course pursued by the patriot legislature during the sessions of his attendance.
Great was the joy of the American Colonies at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris in February of 1763 conceded Canada to Great Britain and insured the predominance of English institutions in the New World.
The animosities of the Americans towards the mother country rapidly subsided. Meetings were held in the principal towns to ratify the peace. At the jubilee in Boston, James Otis presided.
He made on the occasion one of his notable addresses. He referred with enthusiasm to the "expulsion of the heathen"— meaning the French, and then expressed sentiments of strong affection for Great Britain and appreciation of the filial relations of the American Colonies to her.
In these utterances Otis reflected the sentiment of the Bostonians and of the whole people. The General Assembly of Massachusetts took up the theme and passed resolutions of gratitude and loyalty. At this particular juncture the Americans did not anticipate what was soon to follow.
The English Ministry was already preparing a scheme for the raising of revenue in America: The question of the right of taxation suddenly obtruded itself. The Americans claimed the right as Englishmen to tax themselves. The English ministers replied that Parliament, and not the Colonial Assemblies, was the proper body to vote taxes in any and all parts of the British Empire. The Americans replied that they were not represented in Parliament. Parliament replied that many of the towns, shires, and boroughs in England were not represented. If they were not represented, they ought to be, said the Americans;—and thus the case was made up.
By the beginning of 1764 it was known that the Ministers had determined to make a rigorous enforcement of the Sugar Act. Than this, nothing could be more odious to America.
In the spring of the year just named, the citizens of Boston held a great meeting to protest against the impending policy of the crown. As a member of the Assembly and as chairman of a committee Mr. Otis made a report which was ordered to be sent to the agent of the government along with the copy of Otis's recent pamphlet, "The Rights of the British Colonies asserted and proved."
At this time Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson was about to become the representative of the Colony in its contention with the crown and for some reason, not very apparent, Mr. Otis favored his appointment. Governor Bernard, however, opposed the measure, and Hutchinson declined the appointment. Otis's course was censured by the patriots and his popularity was for the while impaired. However, he took strong grounds against the Sugar Act, and soon afterward still more strenuously opposed the Stamp Act.
He regained the impaired confidence of the people and at the close of the session of the Assembly he was appointed chairman of a committee to correspond with the other Colonies, and thus to promote the common interest of all. This, after the intercolonial conference which Franklin had promoted, was perhaps the first step towards the creation of the Continental Congress. Mr. Otis's letter to the provincial agent went to England, though it was sent in the name of the Lower House only. In this document the writer said:
"Granting the time may come, which we hope is far off, when the British Parliament shall think fit to oblige the North Americans, not only to maintain civil government among themselves, for this they have already done, but to support an army to protect them, can it be possible, that the duties to be imposed and the taxes to be levied shall be assessed without the voice or consent of one American in Parliament? If we are not represented, we are slaves."
This document was one of the few American papers which was read and criticized in the British Parliament. The merits of Mr. Otis's pamphlet were actually debated in the House of Lords by Lord Littleton and Lord Mansfield. The latter in the course of his remarks said:
"Otis is a man of consequence among the people there. They have chosen him for one of their deputies at the Congress, and general meeting from the respective governments. It is said the man is mad. What then? One madman often makes many. Massaniello was mad, nobody doubts; yet for all that, he overturned the government of Naples. Madness is catching in all popular assemblies, and upon all popular matters. The book is full of wildness. I never read it till a few days ago, for I seldom look into such things."
It was in the course of this pamphlet that the Mr. Otis spoke so strongly on taxation and representation. "The very act of taxing," said he, "exercised over those who are not represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights; and, if continued seems to be, in effect, an entire disfranchisement of every civil right. For what one civil right is worth a rush, after a man's property is subject to be taken from him at pleasure, without his consent?"
In this was the germ of the stern resistance offered by the Americans to the Stamp Act. No man in the colonies did so much to confute the principles on which the Stamp Act rested as did James Otis.
When the General Assembly of Massachusetts met in May of 1765, Governor Bernard urged in his address the duty of submission to Parliament as to the "conservators of liberty." It was this recommendation which being referred to a Committee, of which Otis was a member, led to the adoption of a resolution for the holding of a Colonial Congress in New York.
Nine colonies accepted the invitation of Massachusetts, and James Otis headed the delegation of three members chosen to represent the mother colony in that prophetic body.
The story of the contest of the Americans with the home government on the subject of the Stamp Act is well known. The controversy resulted on the 18th of March, 1766, in the repeal of the Act by Parliament. But the repeal was accompanied with a salvo to British obduracy in the form of a declaration that Parliament had "the right to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever."
Notwithstanding this hateful addendum, the repeal of the Act was received in America with the greatest joy. During the excitement antecedent to the repeal, mobs had surged through the streets of Boston, building bonfires and burning effigies of officers and other adherents of the king's party. In one of these ebullitions, the house of Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson was attacked and pillaged. The better people had nothing to do with it. Many were arrested and imprisoned.
Governor Bernard was so much alarmed that he declared himself to be a governor only in name. The partisans of the crown started a story that James Otis was the instigator of the riots. There is a hint to this effect in Hutchinson's "History of Massachusetts Bay." But it is evident that the charge was unfounded—except in this, that in times of public excitement the utterances of orators are frequently wrested from their purpose by the ignorant and made to do service in the cause of anarchy.
Meanwhile on the first of November, Mr. Otis returned from the Congress in New York, laid a copy of the proceedings before the Assembly, and was formally thanked for his services.
During the Stamp Act year, Mr. Otis found time to compose two pamphlets setting forth his views on the great questions of the day. There had recently appeared a letter written by a Halifax gentleman and addressed to a Rhode Island friend. The latter personage was unknown; the former was ascertained to be a certain Mr. Howard. The so-called "Letter" was written with much ability and in a bitter spirit.
To this Otis replied with great asperity, and with his power of invective untrammeled. He called his pamphlet "A Vindication of the British Colonies against the Aspersions of the Halifax Gentleman, in his Letter to a Rhode Island Friend." A single passage from the work may serve to show the cogency of the writer's style and especially his anticipation of the doctrines of the Declaration of Independence.
"Is the gentleman," said he, "a British-born subject and a lawyer, and ignorant that charters from the crown have usually been given for enlarging the liberties and privileges of the grantees, not for limiting them, much less for curtailing those essential rights, which all his Majesty's subjects are entitled to, by the laws of God and nature, as well as by the common law and by the constitution of their country?
"The gentleman's positions and principles, if true, would afford a curious train of consequences. Life, liberty, and property are, by the law of nature, as well as by the common law, secured to the happy inhabitants of South Britain, and constitute their primary, civil, or political, rights."
The other pamphlet bearing date of September 4, 1765, was entitled "Considerations on Behalf of the Colonists, in a Letter to a Noble Lord." In this the writer discusses the question of Taxation and in particular the specious claim of the British Ministry that the home government might justly tax the colonists to defray the expenses of the French and Indian War.
In answer to this Otis says, in a manner worthy of an American patriot in the year 1898, "The national debt is confessed on all hands to be a terrible evil, and may in time ruin the state. But it should be remembered, that the colonies never occasioned its increase, nor ever reaped any of the sweet fruits of involving the finest kingdom in the world in the sad calamity of an enormous, overgrown mortgage to state and stock-jobbers."
The period here under consideration was that in which the Stamp Act was nominally in force. The law required all legal business to be done on stamped paper. Therefore no legal business was done.
Hutchinson in his History says: "No wills were proved, no administrations granted, no deeds nor bonds executed." Of course matters could not go on in this manner forever. Governor Bernard was induced to call the legislature together. When that body convened an answer to the Governor's previous message was adopted by the House, and the answer was the work of James Otis. An extract will show the temper of the people at that juncture:
"The courts of justice must be open, open immediately, and the law, the great rule of right, in every county in the province, executed. The stopping the courts of justice is a grievance which this House must inquire into. Justice must be fully administered through the province, by which the shocking effects which your Excellency apprehended from the people's non-compliance with the Stamp Act will be prevented."
Meanwhile the public agitation continued; the newspapers teemed with controversy. The administration was firm, but patriotism was rampant. The party of the people adopted the policy of embarrassing the government as much as possible. Then came the news of the repeal of the act, and the jubilation of the people to which we have already referred came after.
When the legislature met in May of 1767, James Otis was chosen speaker; but his election was vetoed by the Governor. The House was obliged to submit, which it did in sullen temper, and then chose Thomas Cushing for its presiding officer. The other elections indicated the patriotic purpose of the House.
There was almost a deadlock between the legislative and executive departments. Governor Bernard addressed the representatives in a supercilious and dogmatic manner, which they for their part resented with scant courtesy.
On one occasion they said (the language being Otis's) in a concluding paragraph: "With regard to the rest of your Excellency's speech, we are sorry we are constrained to observe, that the general air and style of it savor much more of an act of free grace and pardon, than of a parliamentary address to the two Houses of Assembly; and we most sincerely wish your Excellency had been pleased to reserve it, if needful, for a proclamation."
The state papers on affairs—at least that portion of them emanating from the legislative department—were, up to the year 1769, nearly all prepared by Mr. Otis; but it was generally necessary to tone down the first drafts of his work. For this duty the speaker (Thomas Cushing) and Samuel Adams were generally selected. It was reckoned necessary to put the damper on the fire!
The popular tendency at this time was illustrated in a proposition made by Mr. Otis to open the gallery of the House to such of the people as might wish to hear the debates.
Otis continued his correspondence, a great deal of which was official. His style and spirit suited the temper of the representatives, and they kept him occupied as chairman of a committee to answer messages from the Government, and, indeed, messages from anybody who might assail the patriot party.
In the meantime the animosity between him and the Governor of the province waxed hot. The Governor constantly charged the patriot leader with being an incendiary, and the latter replied in a manner to convict Governor Bernard of despotic usages and a spirit hostile to American liberty.
The next measure adopted by Parliament inimical to the colonies was the act of 1767 imposing duties on glass, paper, painters' colors, and tea, and appointing a commission for the special purpose of collecting the revenues. The commissioners so appointed were to reside in the colonies.
This measure, hardly less odious than the Stamp Act, was strangely enough resisted with less vehemence. Several of the popular leaders were disposed to counsel moderation. Among these was Otis himself. But nearly all outside of the official circles were united against the new act. They formed associations and signed agreements not to use any of the articles on which the duty was imposed. This was equivalent to making the act of no effect.
In the legislative assembly of 1768, Mr. Otis was appointed with Samuel Adams to prepare an important paper on the state of public affairs. This they did by drawing up a petition which has been regarded as one of the ablest of its kind.
There is some controversy as to who actually wrote this famous paper, but it appears to have been done mostly by Mr. Otis, though the refining hand of Samuel Adams may be clearly seen in the style. The publication of the paper still further strained the relations between Governor Bernard and the representative branch.
Meanwhile, the news of the assembling of the Colonial Congress in New York had produced a sensation in England, and the petition of the Massachusetts legislature added to the temper of the ministry. In May of 1768, Bernard sent to the assembly a requisition that that body should rescind the resolution which they had passed for sending a circular letter to the other colonies.
To this Mr. Otis, acting for the assembly, prepared a reply which, while it was not less severe, was more respectful and concessive than were most of his communications. At the conclusion he says:
"We have now only to inform your Excellency, that this House have voted not to rescind, as required, the resolution of the last House; and that, upon a decision on the question, there were ninety-two nays and seventeen yeas."