James Otis The Pre-Revolutionist
John Clark Ridpath
Part 3 out of 3
exercised by Chatham, whom as an orator he much resembled. Long
after disease had made him utterly untrustworthy, his spell
remained. He brought the American cause to the brink of ruin,
because the people would follow him, though he was shattered.
"Of this gift Samuel Adams possessed little. He was always in
speech, straightforward and sensible, and upon occasion could be
impressive, but his endowment was not that of the mouth of gold.
"While Otis was fitful, vacillating and morbid, Samuel Adams was
persistent, undeviating, and sanity itself. While Samuel Adams
never abated by a hair his opposition to the British policy,
James Otis, who at the outset had given the watch-word to the
patriots, later, after Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, said:
"'It is the duty of all humbly and silently to acquiesce in all
the decisions of the supreme legislature. Nine hundred and
ninety-nine in a thousand will never entertain the thought but of
submission to our sovereign, and to the authority of Parliament
in all possible contingencies.'"
OTIS AS AN AUTHOR.
In 1762, a pamphlet appeared, bearing the following title: "A
Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives, of
the Province of the Massachusetts Bay: more particularly in the
last session of the General Assembly. By James Otis, Esq., a
Member of said House.
"Let such, such only, tread this sacred floor,
Who dare to love their country and be poor.
Or good though rich, humane and wise though great,
Jove give but these, we've naught to fear from fate.
Boston, printed by Edes and Gill."
Instead of copious quotations from this patriotic work, we
present the following judgment upon its merits by one best
qualified to estimate its worth. "How many volumes," says John
Adams, "are concentrated in this little fugitive pamphlet, the
production of a few hurried hours, amidst the continual
solicitation of a crowd of clients; for his business at the bar
at that time was very extensive, and of the first importance, and
amidst the host of politicians, suggesting their plans and
"Look over the Declarations of Rights and Wrongs issued by
Congress in 1774.
"Look into the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
"Look into the writings of Dr. Price and Dr. Priestley.
"Look into all the French constitutions of government; and to cap
the climax, look into Mr. Thomas Paine's 'Common Sense, Crisis,
and Rights of Man;' what can you find that is not to be found in
solid substance in this Vindication of the House of
THE TOWN MEETING.
Another important feature in the unfolding of our free
institutions, was the system of town meetings which began to be
held as early as 1767.
"The chief arena of James Otis' and Sam Adams' influence," as
Governor Hutchinson wrote to Lord Dartmouth, "was the town
meeting, that Olympian race-course of the Yankee athlete."
Writing to Samuel Adams in 1790 John Adams, looking back to the
effect of these events, says:
"Your Boston town meetings and our Harvard College have set the
universe in motion."
One held in October of 1767 was presided over by James Otis, and
was called to resist new acts of British aggression on colonial
rights. On September 12, 1768, a town meeting was held, which
was opened with a prayer by Dr. Cooper. Otis was chosen
The petition for calling the meeting requested, that inquiry
should be made of his Excellency, for "the grounds and reasons of
sundry declarations made by him, that three regiments might be
daily expected," etc.
A committee was appointed to wait upon the governor, urging him
in the present critical state of affairs to issue precepts for a
general assembly of the province, to take suitable measures for
the preservation of their rights and privileges; and that he
should be requested to favor the town with an immediate answer.
In October several ship-loads of troops arrive.
The storm thickens.
Another town meeting is called, and it is voted that the several
ministers of the Gospel be requested to appoint the next Tuesday
as a day of fasting and prayer.
The day arrives, and the place of meeting is crowded by
committees from sixty-two towns.
They petition the governor to call a General Court. Otis
appeared in behalf of the people, under circumstances that
strongly, attest his heroism.
Cannon were planted at the entrance of the building, and a body
of troops were quartered in the representatives' chamber.
After the court was opened, Otis rose, and moved that they should
adjourn to Faneuil Hall.
With a significant expression of loathing and scorn, he observed,
"that the stench occasioned by the troops in the hall of
legislation might prove infectious, and that it was utterly
derogatory to the court to administer justice at the points of
bayonets and mouths of cannon."
JAMES OTIS AT THE BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL.
In the sketch of the life of James Otis, as presented in
Appleton's "Cyclopedia of American Biography," an interesting
account is given of the part James Otis played in the noted
battle of Bunker Hill, in June, 1775.
The minute men who, hastening to the front, passed by the house
of the sister of James Otis, with whom he was living, at
At this time he was harmlessly insane, and did not need special
But, as he saw the patriotic farmers hurrying by and heard of the
rumor of the impending conflict, he was suddenly seized with a
martial spirit. Without saying a word to a single soul, he
slipped away unobserved and hurried on towards Boston. On the
roadside he stopped at a farmhouse and borrowed a musket, there
being nothing seemingly in his manner to suggest mental
derangement. Throwing the musket upon his shoulder he hastened
on, and was soon joined by the minute men coming from various
directions. "Falling in" with them, he took an active part in
that eventful contest until darkness closed in upon the
combatants. Then, wearied beyond description, though he was, he
set out for home after midnight. He afterwards pursued his sad
and aimless life, as though nothing unusual had occurred.
INFLUENCE OF THE BATTLE OF BUNKER HILL
Two days before the battle of Bunker Hill Washington had been
appointed by the Continental Congress Commander in Chief.
The news of the battle was brought. Foreseeing the significance
of the result he said, "The liberties of the country are safe."
Four days afterward Thomas Jefferson entered Congress and the
next day news was brought of the Charlestown conflict. "This put
fire into his ideal statesmanship." Patrick Henry hearing of it
said, "I am glad of it; a breach of our affections was needed to
rouse the country to action."
Franklin wrote to his English friends: "England has lost her
THE ANCESTORS OF JAMES OTIS.
Carlyle says: "I never knew a clever man who came out of entirely
stupid people." James Otis's great qualities "were an
inheritance, not an accident, and inheritance from the best blood
of old England." Many years ago, when George Ticknor of Boston
was a guest of Lady Holland, at the famous Holland House, in
London, her ladyship remarked to him, in her not very engaging
"I understand, Mr. Ticknor, that Massachusetts was settled by
"Indeed," said Mr. Ticknor, "I thought I was somewhat familiar
with the history of my State, but I was not aware that what you
say was the case."
"But," he continued, "I do now remember that some of your
ladyship's ancestors settled in Boston, for there is a monument
to one of them in King's Chapel."
James Otis inherited that sturdy New England pride which puts
manhood above dukedoms and coronets.
"A king may make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke and a' that,
But an honest man's aboon his might."
From a race of the true kings of men he was descended, who
conquered out of the jaws of the wilderness the priceless
inheritance of American privilege and freedom. And while kings
at home were trying to crush out the liberties of their subjects,
or were dallying with wantons in the palaces built out of the
unrequited toil of the long-suffering and downtrodden people,
these men of iron were the pioneers of American civilization, at
a time, which Holmes so graphically describes:
"When the crows came cawing through the air
To pluck the Pilgrim's corn,
And bears came snuffing round the door
Wherever a babe was born;
And rattlesnakes were bigger round
Than the butt of the old ram's horn
The deacon blew at meeting time,
On every Sabbath morn."
COL. BARRE ON JAMES OTIS.
In the debate on the Boston Port Bill in Parliament, April 15th,
1774, Colonel Barre referred to the ruffianly attack made on Mr.
Otis, and his treatment of the injury, in a manner that reflects
honor on both of the orators.
"Is this the return you make them?" inquired the British
"When a commissioner of the customs, aided by a number of
ruffians, assaulted the celebrated Mr. Otis, in the midst of the
town of Boston, and with the most barbarous violence almost
murdered him, did the mob, which is said to rule that town, take
vengeance on the perpetrators of this inhuman outrage against a
person who is supposed to be their demagogue?
"No, sir, the law tried them, the law gave heavy damages against
them, which the irreparably injured Mr. Otis most generously
forgave, upon an acknowledgment of the offense.
"Can you expect any more such instances of magnanimity under the
principle of the Bill now proposed?"
THE GENEROSITY OF OTIS.
He was distinguished for generosity to both friends and foes.
Governor Hutchinson said of him: "that he never knew fairer or
more noble conduct in a speaker, than in Otis; that he always
disdained to take advantage of any clerical error, or similar
inadvertence, but passed over minor points, and defended his
causes solely on their broad and substantial foundations."
JOHN ADAMS ON OTIS.
But in that contest over the "Writs of Assistance," there was
something nobler exhibited than superiority to mercenary
"It was," says the Venerable President, John Adams, "a moral
spectacle more affecting to me than any I have since seen upon
the stage, to observe a pupil treating his master with all the
deference, respect, esteem, and affection of a son to a father,
and that without the least affectation; while he baffled and
confounded all his authorities, confuted all his arguments, and
reduced him to silence!
"The crown, by its agents, accumulated construction upon
construction, and inference upon inference, as the giants heaped
Pelion upon Ossa; but Otis, like Jupiter, dashed this whole
building to pieces, and scattered the pulverized atoms to the
four winds; and no judge, lawyer, or crown officer dared to say,
why do ye so?
"He raised such a storm of indignation, that even Hutchinson, who
had been appointed on purpose to sanction this writ, dared not
utter a word in its favor, and Mr. Gridley himself seemed to me
to exult inwardly at the glory and triumph of his pupil."
OTIS COMPARED WITH RANDOLPH.
"The wit exemplified by Mr. Otis in debate," says Dr. Magoon,
"was often keen but never malignant, as in John Randolph. The
attacks of the latter were often fierce and virulent, not
unfrequently in an inverse proportion to the necessity of the
"He would yield himself up to a blind and passionate obstinacy,
and lacerate his victims for no apparent reason but the mere
pleasure of inflicting pangs.
"In this respect, the orator of Roanoke resembled the Sicilian
tyrant whose taste for cruelty led him to seek recreation in
putting insects to the torture. If such men cannot strike strong
blows, they know how to fight with poisonous weapons; thus by
their malignity, rather than by their honorable skill, they can
bring the noblest antagonist to the ground.
"But Mr. Otis pursued more dignified game and with a loftier
"He indeed possessed a Swiftian gift of sarcasm, but, unlike the
Dean of St. Patrick's, and the forensic gladiator alluded to
above, he never employed it in a spirit of hatred and contempt
towards the mass of mankind.
"Such persons should remember the words of Colton, that, 'Strong
and sharp as our wit may be, it is not so strong as the memory of
fools, nor so keen as their resentment; he that has strength of
mind to forgive, is by no means weak enough to forget; and it is
much more easy to do a cruel thing than to say a severe one.'"
Many of the most effective orators, of all ages, have not been
most successful in long and formal efforts. Nor have they always
been close and ready debaters. "Sudden bursts which seemed to be
the effect of inspiration--short sentences which came like
lightning, dazzling, burning, striking down everything before
them--sentences which, spoken at critical moments, decided the
fate of great questions--sentences which at once became proverbs
--sentences which everybody still knows by heart"--in these
chiefly lay the oratorical power of Mirabeau and Chatham, Patrick
Henry and James Otis.--E. L. Magoon.
THE ELOQUENCE OF OTIS.
Otis was naturally elevated in thought, and dwelt with greatest
delight in the calm contemplation of the lofty principles which
should govern political and moral conduct.
And yet he was keenly suspectible to excitement. His intellect
explored the wilderness of the universe only to increase the
discontent of those noble aspirations of his soul which were
never at rest.
In early manhood he was a close student, but as he advanced in
age he became more and more absorbed in public action.
As ominous storms threatened the common weal, he found less
delight in his library than in the stern strife of the forum.
As he prognosticated the coming tempest and comprehended its
fearful issue, he became transformed in aspect like one inspired.
His appearance in public always commanded prompt and profound
attention; he both awed and delighted the multitudes whom his
bold wisdom so opportunely fortified.
"Old South," the "Old Court House," and the "Cradle of liberty,"
in Boston, were familiar with his eloquence, that resounded like
a cheerful clarion in "days that tried men's souls." It was then
that his great heart and fervid intellect wrought with
disinterested and noble zeal; his action became vehement, and his
eyes flashed with unutterable fire; his voice, distinct,
melodious, swelling, and increasing in height and depth with each
new and bolder sentiment, filled, as with the palpable presence
of a deity, the shaking walls. The listeners became rapt and
impassioned like the speaker, till their very breath forsook
He poured forth a "flood of argument and passion" which achieved
the sublimes" earthly good, and happily exemplified the
description which Percival has given of indignant patriotism
expressed in eloquence:
Are few, but deep and solemn, and they break
Fresh from the fount of feeling, and are full
Of all that passion, which, on Carmel, fired
The holy prophet, when his lips were coals,
The language winged with terror, as when bolts
Leap from the brooding tempest, armed with wrath
Commissioned to affright us, and destroy."--E. L. Magoon.
OTIS COMPARED WITH AMERICAN ORATORS.
"His eloquence, like that of his distinguished successors, was
marked by a striking individuality.
"It did not partake largely of the placid firmness of Samuel
Adams; or of the intense brilliancy and exquisite taste of the
younger Quincy; or the subdued and elaborate beauty of Lee; or
the philosophical depth of John Adams; or the rugged and
overwhelming energy of Patrick Henry; though he, most of all
Americans, resembled the latter."--E. L. Magoon.
OTIS COMPARED WITH ENGLISH ORATORS.
"Compared with English orators," Dr. Magoon says, "our great
countryman was not unlike Sheridan in natural endowment.
"Like him, he was unequaled in impassioned appeals to the general
heart of mankind.
"He swayed all by his electric fire; charmed the timid, and
inspired the weak; subdued the haughty, and enthralled the
"He traversed the field of argument and invective as a Scythian
warrior scours the plain, shooting most deadly arrows when at the
"He rushed into forensic battle, fearless of all consequences;
and as the ancient war-chariot would sometimes set its axle on
fire by the rapidity of its own movement, so would the ardent
soul of Otis become ignited and fulminate with thought, as he
swept irresistibly to the goal.
"When aroused by some great crisis, his eloquent words were like
bolts of granite heated in a volcano, and shot forth with
unerring aim, crashing where they fell."
In respect to physical ability, Otis was happily endowed. One
who knew him well has recorded, that "he was finely formed, and
had an intelligent countenance: his eye, voice, and manner were
"The elevation of his mind, and the known integrity of his
purposes, enabled him to speak with decision and dignity, and
commanded the respect as well as the admiration of his audience.
"His eloquence showed but little imagination, yet it was instinct
with the fire of passion."
"It may be not unjustly said of Otis, as of Judge Marshall, that
he was one of those rare beings that seem to be sent among men
from time to time, to keep alive our faith in humanity.
"He had a wonderful power over the popular feelings, but he
employed it only for great public benefits. He seems to have
said to himself, in the language of the great master of the
maxims of life and conduct:
"This above all,--to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
PORTRAIT OF OTIS.
The portrait of James Otis, Jr., published as a frontispiece to
this sketch, is from the oil-painting loaned to the Bostonian
Society, by Harrison Gray Otis, of Winthrop, Massachusetts. The
painting from which it is taken, now hanging in the Old State
House of Boston, is a reproduction of the original portrait by I.
Blackburn, to whom Mr. Otis sat for his portrait in 1755. The
original in possession of Mrs. Rogers, a descendant of James
Otis, may be seen at her residence, No. 8 Otis Place, Boston.
But the original is not so well adapted as is the copy to
photographic reproduction. The two portraits are identical in
feature and character, but the original having a light background
offends the camera.
THE SOURCE AND OCCASION OF THE WAR OF THE REVOLUTION.
"The question is, perhaps more curious than profitable, that
relates to the source and occasion of the first of that series of
events which produced the war of the Revolution. Men have often
asked, what was its original cause, and who struck the first
blow? This inquiry was well answered by President Jefferson, in
a letter to Dr. Waterhouse of Cambridge, written March 3rd, 1818.
"'I suppose it would be difficult to trace our Revolution to its
first embryo. We do not know how long it was hatching in the
British cabinet, before they ventured to make the first of the
experiments which were to develop it in the end, and to produce
complete parliamentary supremacy.
"'Those you mention in Massachusetts as preceding the Stamp Act
might be the first visible symptoms of that design. The
proposition of that Act, in 1764, was the first here. Your
opposition, therefore, preceded ours, as occasion was sooner
given there than here, and the truth, I suppose, is, that the
opposition, in every colony, began whenever the encroachment was
presented to it.
"'This question of priority is as the inquiry would be, who first
of the three hundred Spartans offered his name to Leonidas. I
shall be happy to see justice done to the merits of all.'"
"In the primitive opposition made by Otis to the arbitrary acts
of Trade, aided by the Writs of Assistance, he announced two
maxims which lay at the foundation of all the subsequent war; one
was, that 'taxation without representation was tyranny,' the
other, 'that expenditures of public money without appropriations
by the representatives of the people, were arbitrary, and
therefore unconstitutional. '"
"This early and acute sagacity of our statesman, led Burke finely
to describe the political feeling in America as follows;
"'In other countries, the people, more simple, of a less
mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government, only by
an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of
the pressure of the grievance, by the badness of the principle.
"'They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach
of tyranny in every tainted breeze.'"--E. L. Magoon.
STAMPS AND THE STAMP ACT.
During Robert Walpole's administration , a stamp duty was
proposed. He said "I will leave the taxation of America to some
of my successors, who have more courage than I have."
Sir William Keith, governor of Pennsylvania, proposed a tax in
1739. Franklin thought it just, when a delegate in the Colonial
Congress at Albany, in 1754. But when it was proposed to Pitt in
1759 the great English statesman said: "I will never burn my
fingers with the American stamp act."
The stamps were upon blue paper, and were to be attached to every
piece of paper or parchment, on which a legal instrument was
written. For these stamps the Government charged specific
prices, for example, for a common property deed, one shilling and
THE MINUTE-MAN OF THE REVOLUTION.
The Minute-man of the Revolution! He was the old, the
middle-aged, and the young. He was Capt. Miles, of Concord, who
said that he went to battle as he went to church. He was Capt.
Davis, of Acton, who reproved his men for jesting on the march.
He was Deacon Josiah Haynes, of Sudbury, 80 years old, who
marched with his company to the South Bridge at Concord, then
joined in the hot pursuit to Lexington, and fell as gloriously as
Warren at Bunker Hill. He was James Hayward, of Acton, 22 years
old, foremost in that deadly race from Concord to Charlestown,
who raised his piece at the same moment with a British soldier,
each exclaiming, "You are a dead man!" The Briton dropped, shot
through the heart.
James Hayward fell mortally wounded. "Father," he said, "I
started with forty balls; I have three left. I never did such a
day's work before. Tell mother not to mourn too much, and tell
her whom I love more than my mother, that I am not sorry I turned
out."--George W. Curtis.
THE BOSTON COMMON SCHOOLS.
The Boston Common Schools were the pride of the town. They were
most jealously guarded, and were opened each day with public
They were the nurseries of a true democracy. In them the men who
played the most important part in the Revolutionary period
received their early education.
The Adamses, Chancey, Cooper, Cushing, Hancock, Mayhew, Warren,
and the rest breathed their bracing atmosphere.
ENGLAND AND AMERICA.
I have already dwelt on the significance of the way in which the
Pilgrim Fathers, driven out of England, begin this compact, with
which they begin their life in this new world, with warm
professions of allegiance to England's King.
Old England, whose King and bishops drove them out, is proud of
them to-day, and counts them as truly her children as Shakespeare
and Milton and Vane.
As the American walks the corridors and halls of the Parliament
House at Westminster, he pays no great heed to the painted kings
upon the painted windows, and cares little for the gilded throne
in the gilded House of Lords. The Speaker's chair in the Commons
does not stir him most, nor the white form of Hampden that stands
silent at the door; but his heart beats fastest where, among
great scenes from English triumphs of the days of Puritanism and
the revolution, he sees the departure of the Pilgim Fathers to
found New England.
England will not let that scene go as a part of American history
only, but claims it now as one of the proudest scenes in her own
It is a bud of promise, I said, when I first saw it there. Shall
not its full unfolding be some great reunion of the English race,
a prelude to the federation of the world?
Let that picture there in the Parliament House at Westminster
stay always in your mind, to remind you of the England in you.
Let the picture of the signing of the compact on the "Mayflower"
stay with it, to remind you of progress and greater freedom.
That, I take it, is what America--New England, now tempered by
New Germany, New Ireland, New France--that, I take it, is what
America stands for.--Edwin D. Mead.
THE UNIVERSITIES AND THE MEN OF THE REVOLUTION.
You may perhaps remember how Wendell Phillips, in his great
Harvard address on "The Scholar and the Republic" reproached some
men of learning for their conservatism and timidity, their
backwardness in reform. And it is true that conservatism and
timidity are never so hateful and harmful as in the scholar. "Be
bold, be bold, and evermore be bold," those words which Emerson
liked to quote, are words which should ever ring in the scholar's
But you must remember that Roger Williams and Sir Harry Vane, the
very men whom Wendell Phillips named as "two men deepest in
thought and bravest in speech of all who spoke English in their
day," came, the one from Cambridge, the other from Oxford; and
that Sam Adams and Jefferson, the two men whom he named as
preeminent, in the early days of the republic, for their trust in
the people, were the sons of Harvard and William and Mary. John
Adams and John Hancock and James Otis and Joseph Warren, the
great Boston leaders in the Revolution, were all Harvard men,
like Samuel Adams; and you will remember how many of the great
Virginians were, like Jefferson, sons of William and Mary.
And never was a revolution so completely led by scholars as the
great Puritan Revolution which planted New England and
established the English commonwealth.
No. Scholars have often enough been cowards and trimmers.
But from the days when Moses, learned in all the wisdom of the
Egyptians, brought his people up out of bondage, and Paul, who
had sat at the feet of Gamaliel, preached Christ, and Wyclif and
Luther preached Reformation, to the time when Eliot and Hampden
and Pym and Cromwell and Milton and Vane, all scholars of Oxford
and Cambridge, worked for English commonwealth, to the time of
Jefferson and Samuel Adams and the time of Emerson and Sumner and
Gladstone, scholars have been leaders and heroes too.--Edwin D.
EARL PERCY AND YANKEE DOODLE.
Earl Percy was the son of the Duke of Northumberland. When he
was marching out of Boston, his band struck up the tune of Yankee
Doodle, in derision.
He saw a boy in Roxbury making himself very merry as he passed.
Percy inquired why he was so merry.
"To think," said the lad, "how you will dance by and by to Chevy
Percy was much influenced by presentiments, and the words of the
boy made him moody. Percy was a lineal descendant of the Earl
Percy who was slain in the battle of Chevy Chase, and he felt all
day as if some great calamity might befall him.
STORY OF JAMES OTIS. FOR A SCHOOL OR CLUB PROGRAMME.
Each numbered paragraph is to be given to a pupil or member to
read, or to recite in a clear, distinct tone.
If the school or club is small, each person may take three or
four paragraphs, but should not be required to recite them in
1. James Otis was born in West Barnstable, near the center of
Massachusetts, February 5, 1725.
2. His ancestors were of English descent. The founder of the
family in America, John Otis, came from Hingham, in Norfolk,
England, and settled in Hingham, Massachusetts, in the year 1635.
3. His grandson, John Otis, was born in 1635. He removed from
Hingham to Barnstable, where he became a prominent man and held
several important positions. For eighteen years he was Colonel
of Militia, for twenty years Representative, for twenty-one years
member of the Council, for thirteen years Chief Justice of common
pleas, and Judge of Probate.
4. His two sons, John and James, became distinguished in public
life. James, the father of the subject of this sketch, was an
eminent lawyer. He, like his father, became Colonel of Militia,
Chief Justice of common pleas, and Judge of Probate.
5. James Otis, Jr. thus by inheritance, derived his legal bent
and love for political life.
6. His mother's name was Mary Allyne, or Alleyne, of
Wethersfield, Conn., daughter of Joseph Allyne, of Plymouth. She
was connected with the founders of Plymouth colony, who arrived
in the Mayflower in 1620.
7. James was the oldest of thirteen children, several of whom
died in infancy. Others lived to attain distinction.
8. He was fitted for College by the Rev. Jonathan Russell of
Barnstable, and was so industrious in his studies that he was
ready in his fifteenth year to enter as a freshman at Harvard in
9. There is grave reason for believing that his excessive
devotion to study at this early period, had much to do with his
nervous and excitable condition in succeeding years.
10. "Make haste slowly" is the translation of a Latin motto,
which parents and teachers ought to observe in the education of
11. Far better is it for the student to take time in making a
thorough preparation for the great work of life, than to rush
through his preparatory course at the great risk of health and
strength. Let him aim ever be to present "a sound mind in a
12. James Otis was graduated from college in 1743, after
completing a four years successful course.
13. After graduation he wisely gave nearly two years to the
pursuits of general literature and science before entering upon
14. In this, he set a good example to the young men of the
present day, who are so strongly tempted to enter at once upon
professional life, without laying a broad and deep foundation for
15. James Otis was very fond of the best poets, and "in the
zealous emulation of their beauties," says Dr. Magoon, "he
energized his spirit and power of expression.
16. "He did not merely read over the finest passages--he pondered
them--he fused them into his own soul, and reproduced their
charms with an energy all his own."
17. In 1745 he entered the law office of Jeremiah Gridley, in
Boston, who was then one of the most distinguished lawyers in the
18. He began the practice of law in Plymouth, in 1748, but soon
found that he was "cabined, cribbed and confined" in the
opportunity to rise in such a small place.
19. In 1750 he removed to Boston, and there finding full scope
for his powers, soon rose to the foremost rank in his profession.
20. He justly won the high place so generally accorded him, by
his learning, his integrity, and his marvelous eloquence.
21. In acting successfully as counsel for the three men who were
accused of piracy in Halifax, he received a well earned fee,
which was the largest that had ever been paid to a Massachusetts
22. Like James A. Garfield, he kept up a lively interest in
classical studies during his entire professional career.
23. James Otis married Miss Ruth Cunningham, daughter of a Boston
merchant, early in 1755.
24. The marriage was not in all respects a happy one, partly on
account of political differences. While he became an ardent
patriot, she remained a staunch loyalist until her death on Nov.
25. Another reason for the want of complete domestic felicity was
the peculiar character of his genius, which, so often glowing,
excitable and irregular, must have frequently demanded a home
forbearance almost miraculous.
26. The elder daughter, Elizabeth, married a Captain Brown of the
British army, and ended her days in England. 27. The younger
daughter, Mary, married Benjamin, the eldest son of the
distinguished General Lincoln.
28. In 1761, when he was thirty-six years of age his great
political career began, by his determined opposition to the
"Writs of Assistance."
29. He said with an eloquence that thrilled every heart, "A man's
house is his castle; and while 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."
30. "I am determined to sacrifice estate, ease, health, applause
and even life, to the sacred calls of my country in opposition to
a kind of power, the exercise of which cost one king his head and
another his throne."
31. In 1762 he published a pamphlet entitled, "The Rights of the
Colonies Vindicated," which attracted great attention in England
for its finished diction and masterly arguments.
32. In this production he firmly took the unassailable position,
that in all questions relating to the expenditure of public
money, the rights of a Colonial Legislature were as sacred as the
rights of the House of Commons.
33. Some of the Parliamentary leaders in England spoke of the
work with contempt. Lord Mansfield, the great English legal
luminary, who had carefully read it, rebuked them for their
attitude towards it.
34. But they rejoined, as quoted by Bancroft, "The man is mad!"
"What then?" answered Mansfield. "One mad man often makes many.
Massaniello was mad--nobody doubted it--yet for all that he
overturned the government of Naples."
35. In June, 1765, Mr. Otis proposed the calling of a congress of
delegates from all the colonies to consider the Stamp Act.
36. In that famous Congress which met in October, 1765, in
New York, he was one of the delegates, and was appointed on the
committee to prepare an address to the Commons of England.
37. In 1767 he was elected Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly.
Governor Bernard took a decidedly negative position against the
fiery orator, whom he feared as much as he did the intrepid Sam
38. But Bernard could not put a padlock upon the lips of Otis.
When the king, who was greatly offended at the Circular Letter to
the colonies, which requested them to unite in measures for
redress demanded of Bernard to dismiss the Assembly unless it
should rescind its action, Otis made a flaming speech.
39. His adversaries said, "It was the most violent, abusive and
treasonable declaration that perhaps was ever uttered."
40. In the debate which ensued upon this royal order, Otis said:
"We are asked to rescind, are we? Let Great Britain rescind her
measures, or the colonies are lost to her forever."
41. Otis carried the House triumphantly with him, and it refused
to rescind by a vote of ninety-two to seventeen.
42. In the summer of 1769 he attacked some of the revenue
officers in an article in "The Boston Gazette." A few evenings
afterwards, while sitting in the British coffee-house in Boston,
he was savagely assaulted by a man named Robinson, who struck him
on the head with a heavy cane or sword.
43. The severe wound which was produced so greatly aggravated the
mental disease which had before been somewhat apparent, that his
reason rapidly forsook him.
44. Otis obtained a judgment of L2,000 against Robinson for the
attack, but when the penitent officer made a written apology for
his irreparable offense, the sufferer refused to take a penny.
45. In 1771 he was elected to the legislature, and sometimes
afterward appeared in court and in the town meeting, but found
himself unable to take part in public business.
46. In June, 1775, while living in a state of harmless insanity
with his sister, Mercy Warren, at Watertown, Mass., he heard,
according to Appleton's "Cyclopedia of American Biography," the
rumor of battle. On the 17th he slipped away unobserved,
"borrowed a musket from some farmhouse by the roadside, and
joined the minute men who were marching to the aid of the troops
on Bunker Hill."
47. "He took an active part in that battle, and after it was
over made his way home again after midnight."
48. The last years of his life were spent at the residence of
Mr. Osgood in Andover. For a brief season it seemed as though
his reason was restored. He even undertook a case in the Court
of Common Pleas in Boston, but found himself unequal to the
exertion demanded of him.
49. He had been persuaded to dine with Governor Hancock and some
other friends. "But the presence of his former friends and the
revived memories of previous events, gave a great shock to his
broken mind." He was persuaded to go back at once to the
residence of Mr. Osgood.
50. After his mind had become unsettled he said to Mrs. 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," and this wish he often repeated.
51. Six weeks exactly after his return, on May 23, 1783, while
standing in the side doorway during a thunder-shower, with his
cane in his hand, and telling the assembled family a story, he
was struck by lightning and instantly killed. Not one of the
seven or eight persons in the room was injured. "No mark of any
kind could be found on Otis, nor was there the slightest change
or convulsion on his features."
52. His remains were brought to Boston and interred in the
Granary Burying Ground with every mark of respect, a great
number of the citizens attending his funeral.
53. James Otis sowed the seeds of liberty in this new world
without living to see the harvest, and probably without ever
dreaming what magnificent crops would be produced.
54. When the usurpations of un-English parliamentarians and their
allies at home, became as burdensome, as they were unjust he
defended his countrymen, in whose veins flowed the best of
English blood, with an eloquence whose ultimate influence
transcended his own sublime aspirations.
55. He taught, in the ominous words, which King James's first
House of Commons addressed to the House of Lords, immediately
after the monarch had been lecturing them on his own prerogative,
that "There may be a People without a king;, but there can be no
king without a people."
56. "Fortunately for civil liberty in England and America, in all
countries and in all times," as Edward Everett Hale says, "none
of the Stuarts ever learned in time what this ominous sentence
means--ot James I, the most foolish of them, nor Charles I, the
most false; nor Charles II, the most worthless; nor James II, the
57. It could be said of Otis as Coleridge said of O'Connell, "See
how triumphant in debate and action he is. And why? Because he
asserts a broad principle, acts up to it, rests his body upon it,
and has faith in it."
PROGRAMME FOR A JAMES OTIS EVENING.
1. Music 2. Vocal Music--"Remember the Maine." 3. Essay--
"The True Relation of England as a Nation to the Colonies." 4.
Vocal or Instrumental Music. 5. Essay--"Writs of Assistance,
and Otis' Relation to Them." 6. Music. 7. A Stereopticon
Lecture, illustrating the Famous Buildings and noted features of
Boston--The Old North Church, The Old South, Copp's Hill, Bunker
Hill, North Square, House of Paul Revere, Site of the Old Dragon
Inn, The Old State House, Faneuil Hall, etc. 8. Singing--
QUESTIONS FOR REVIEW.
Where is the Granary Burying Ground? Why so named? What
distinguishes it? Can you give the names of some eminent persons
buried there? In what tomb was James Otis interred? What
interesting particular was noted when his body was disinterred?
What names are given to the pre-revolutionists, the
revolutionists, and the post-revolutionists?
Who is assigned the first place among the protagonists of
freedom? Who the second? What is the remarkable thing about the
lives of many great men? Will you expand the thought?
When and where was James Otis born? What offices did he fill?
When was James Otis, Jr. born? What did he inherit from his
father and grandfather? What were transmitted to other members
of the family? Give the name of one of these members and her
peculiar gifts. What was the name of one of the brothers, and
what is said of him?
By whom was James Otis prepared for College? When did he enter
College? What is the tradition concerning him? What is said of
his College course? What of his excitable temperament? What
anecdote is recorded of him? When, and under what distinguished
lawyer did he begin his legal studies? What is said of his
When and where did he begin to practice law? What are some of
the incidents of his early legal career? What is said of the
defense by Otis of citizens in connection with the anniversary of
the Gunpowder Plot? What is the history of the Gunpowder Plot?
When was the first period of his Boston practice? What is said
of the non-preservation of the legal pleas and addresses of James
Otis? What does tradition say of him as an orator?
When and whom did Otis marry? What is said of the Cunnningham
family? What is said of Mrs. Otis? Who comprised the family of
Mr. and Mrs. Otis? What is said of the marriage of the elder
daughter? What of the younger daughter?
When was the second period in James Otis's life? What is said of
him as a rising man? What is said of his scholastic and literary
pursuits, etc.? What works did he compose? What did James Otis
say about the bad literary tastes of the boys of his time?
Of what is every man the joint product? What were the conditions
under which the colonial settlements were formed? What were the
feelings of the colonists towards England?
What specific conditions in the development of the colonies may
be noted? What were the immediate and forceful causes towards
revolution? What is said of the Navigation Act? of the
Importation Act? What kind of a question was that at issue?
What is said of the seaboard towns? of the traffic with the West
Indies? What period did the epoch of evasion cover? What is said
of the iron and steel industry? of ship building?
What did Hutchinson say of his own Appointment? What were some
of the personal forces at work? What is said of Hutchinson and
others? What slander of James Otis was current? In what
language was the case regarding the Writs of Assistance made up?
What is said of the trial of the case? Who was one of the
eminent spectators? What was the relation of Otis to it?
What did Chief Justice Hutchinson advise in the case of the Writs
of Assistance? What is the story narrated of Otis regarding his
want of self-control?
What is said of the controversy between Hutchinson and Otis?
What resolution did Otis offer in 1762? What is said of his
pamphlet on "The Vindication of the Conduct of the House of
Representatives," etc.? What is said of the Treaty of Paris?
What of the feelings of Americans towards the mother country?
What of the utterances of Otis?
What did the Americans claim? What was the reply of Parliament?
What is said of the Sugar Act? What of Otis' relations to
Lieut.-Governor Hutchinson? Of his relations to the Sugar Act
and Stamp Act? Of his relation to an Intercolonial conference?
What was Franklin's opinion of this conference? What is the
substance of Mr. Otis' letter to the provincial agent? Of Lord
Mansfield's view of it?
SUBJECTS FOR SPECIAL STUDY. 1. The French and Indian War. 2.
James Otis as an Orator. 3. The English Colonies in America.
4. The Influence of College Men in Public Life. 5. How the
American Colonies Grew Together. 6. The Commercial Causes of
the Revolution. 7. The Political Causes of the Revolution. 8.
Otis Compared with Samuel Adams. 9. The Repeal of the Stamp Act.
CHRONOLOGICAL TABLE IN THE LIFE OF JAMES OTIS.
1725 Born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, Feb. 5.
1739 Entered Harvard College, June.
1743 Was graduated from Harvard.
1745 Begins the study of law.
1748 Begins the practice of law at Plymouth, Massachusetts.
1750 Removes to Boston.
1755 Marries Miss Ruth Cunningham.
1760 Publishes "Rudiments of Latin Prosody."
1761 Opposes the "Writs of Assistance."
1762 Publishes "The Rights of the Colonies Vindicated."
1765 Moves resolution for Congress of Delegates to consider "The
Stamp Act," June.
Attends the Congress called to consider "The Stamp Act" in New
York, and appointed on the committee to prepare address to
1767 Elected Speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly.
1769 Attacked and severely injured by Robinson.
1771 Elected to the legislature of Massachusetts.
1775 Participates in the Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17.
1778 Pleads case before court in Boston
1783 Killed by stroke of lightning at Andover, Mass., May 23.
For those who wish to read extensively, the following works are
Library of American Biography. Jared Sparks. Vol. 2. Boston
Charles C. Little and James Brown. 1846.
Life of James Otis. By William Tudor.
Orators of the American Revolution. E. L. Magoon.
"Otis Papers." In Collection of Massachusetts Historical Society,
"Life of James Otis." By Francis Bowen, in Sparks' American
Biography. Vol. XII Boston. 1846.
Cyclopedia of American Biography. D. Appleton & Co. New York.
American Law Register. Vol. 3, page 641.
North American Review. Vol. 16, page 337. J. C. Gray.
"The Old South Leaflets," prepared by Edwin D. Mead. D. C. Heath
& Co., Boston, Publishers.
DeToqueville's Democracy in America.
Works of John Fiske.
Ridpath's History of the United States.
Ellis' History of the United States.
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