HOW JAMES OTIS BECAME A "FLAME OF
In the year 1745 —the very year in which the great
fortress of Louisburg surrendered to the army of Massachusetts farmers and
fishermen—a young man of twenty came to Boston to enter the law office
of Jeremiah Gridley, a famous Boston lawyer. He was James Otis, the eldest
son of Colonel Otis of Barnstable, "down on the Cape."
Even in those days Massachusetts was
still largely rural. As late as 1 760 her population was only about two
hundred thousand. The towns were small and scattered, and Boston, with its
population of twenty thousand, was the nearest approach to a city. To it
young men of ambition turned as the place to make their fortunes, while
even those who left it "for distant parts" aver cherished for it
a love and a longing which remains with its sons and daughters to this
One such young man, born on Milk Street,
opposite: he now famous Old South Meetinghouse, in 1706, had run away as a
boy, seeking fame and fortune; but, as soon as he had gained the footing
which finally brought
him to greatness in far-off Philadelphia, he made it
a rule to return every ten years for a visit to his dearly loved Boston
and the Old South Meeting-house. And Boston boys still profit by the
fund left to his native town, as a token of his love and generosity, by
Benjamin Franklin, Boston born, though a citizen of Philadelphia.
In 1745, when James Otis came to
Boston, that other" old Boston boy," Benjamin Franklin,—patriot,
philosopher, and leader,—was the best known man, in all America and
the best known American in all the world.
Massachusetts boys, in 1745, already
knew the story of Benjamin Franklin, for they read "Poor Richard’s
Almanac," if they read nothing else. And "Poor Richard’s
Almanac" was Franklin’s yearly contribution for the good and
welfare of his country men. No other book or publication of the day did
so much toward making them thinking, frugal, and independent Americans.
But young James Otis read many other things, for he
was quite a scholar. He was, for that day, excellently educated. He had
graduated from Harvard at eighteen, and, as I have said, at twenty went
to study law in Mr. Gridley’s
office. When this schooling was over he set up for himself as a lawyer
in old Plymouth of the Pilgrims. But again Boston, with its wider
opportunities, drew him away from the pleasant South shore, and,
returning to Boston, he rapidly found fame and practice and came to be
counted throughout the colonies as the brightest lawyer in Boston.
But things were coming to pass in all the colonies
which proved more absorbing than law practice, and which, because they
centered themselves largely in Boston, made that growing seaport the
scene of exciting and now historic happenings.
Flushed with victory but burdened with debt, the
government of Great Britain insisted that, as America had benefited by
the conquest of Canada, America should pay the bills.
America had spent a good deal of her own money in the
half century of war with France, but she was willing to help pay England’s
war bills if she might "audit the accounts," and have
something to say as to the raising and spending of the money, which, of
course, could-be obtained only in the shape of taxes or duties.
But all this business England took into her own
hands. The British government said the colonies had and could have
nothing to say as to the method of raising and the manner of spending
the money they must raise. "They must just pay and keep
quiet," England declared, and at once set about arranging things so
as successfully to "squeeze the colonies" for money.
Of course she went at it in the wrong way. Half the
trouble in the world has been caused by governments
blundering into tyranny. The
British government made all possible trouble by permitting a powerful
English organization, known as the Board of Trade, to "regulate
colonial commerce." This meant burdening American commerce with
excessive fines and dues; it meant that the Board of Trade was to make
England’s colonies contribute to England’s wealth, no matter at what
hardship to the colonies; or, in other words, as one historian has
stated it, "the Englishman in America was to be employed in making
the fortune of the Englishman at home."
But the Englishman in America had a mind of his own.
It was one in which was fast growing a love of personal and political
liberty that was only withheld from breaking out into action by the
affection which the colonists held for the dear motherland across the
sea— England, the home of those who had opened up America. It was thus
that two parties were formed in America—those who believed in the
supremacy of the crown, and those who believed in the supremacy of the
There was one thing that the merchants of
Massachusetts did do—they snapped their fingers at the Board of Trade
and at the British government when told that they, the colonies, would
be allowed to trade with England only; they proceeded to do all the
trading they could with England’s other colonies, especially those in
the West Indies.
This nonsensical English law, by establishing what is
called a "prohibitory tariff," tried to prevent the New England
merchants from buying their sugar and molasses in the West Indies; and
West India sugar and molasses were precisely what New England most
and certainly intended to have without paying the
heavy tariff or customhouse charges put upon them. This meant that they
got much of the "sweet stuffs" into Boston and other
Massachusetts ports without paying duties, whenever they could thus
smuggle them in.
Governor Bernard, whom the King of England had sent
to govern Massachusetts, told the merchants of Massachusetts that they
must stop this West India trade. But the merchants kept it up just the
Then Governor Bernard joined hands with the
customhouse officers in trying to stop this unlawful trade, and, as one
means to the end, issued what were called writs of assistance. Now, a
writ of assistance was a law paper duly signed and issued, authorizing
the holder, as an officer of the king, to enter and search any house in
which he supposed sugar or molasses had been hidden and to seize them as
contraband. If the king’s officer could not do this alone the writ
empowered him to call on the bystanders for assistance, and they were
bound to help.
This was allowable in England. But while it was good
enough law, it was very poor policy, and it led to something much more
important than sugar or molasses.
James Otis, the boy from Cape Cod, had risen high in
the law after he had became a Bostonian. He had been appointed king’s
advocate—what one would now call attorney-general of the province.
As king’s advocate it was his duty to apply to the
court for writs of assistance when needed. But James Otis loved liberty
and justice and political freedom too dearly to do anything, however
lawful it might be,
that was a burden on the people, as the writs and
the sugar duties really were. When, therefore, he found that the writs
of assistance were to come from him he at once resigned his office
as king’s advocate, —and a good paying one it was, too. Then he
took up the fight against the crown in defense of the Massachusetts
merchants who were trying to have the odious writs of assistance
In the old Statehouse on Washington Street, at the
head of State Street in Boston, you may see today the room in which
James Otis, late the king’s advocate, now the people’s advocate,
came from his home in Court Street to argue before
the superior Court of Massachusetts the cause of
the people, and, doing so, made on a February day in 1761
an historic speech against issuing the writs of assistance.
He failed, and yet he conquered. The chief justice,
Thomas Hutchinson,—a descendant, by the way, of that same famous Mrs.
Anne Hutchinson whom the ministers of the Bay colony drove into exile,—ruled
against Otis, because the bewigged and robed chief justice was a king’s
man and had the law on his side. But James Otis’s impassioned speech
on that famous February day
was really a writ of assistance for
liberty—something vastly more important than a hunt for smuggled sugar
or hidden molasses.
In that room in the old Statehouse, then known as the
townhouse, there was a young man of twenty-five, who had come to town
from a plain little Braintree farmhouse, still standing in what is now
the city of Quincy.
This young man’s name was John Adams. He was no
longer a farmer’s boy. He had graduated from Harvard, and had just
been admitted to the bar as a Worcester lawyer. He had come up to Boston
and had followed the crowd that thronged the townhouse to hear what Mr.
Otis might have to say about the writs of assistance. He heard enough to
set his soul on fire and make a patriot of him.
James Otis arose, and as he argued against the
tyranny of those writs as not only unjust but as an invasion of the
rights of the people, his feelings carried him away; his voice rang out
in bold and eloquent protest, expressing the same defiance to kingly
authority that, not long after, Patrick Henry gave in a similar case in
"I am determined, sir, to my dying day,"
said James Otis, "to 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. .
. . I oppose that kind of power the exercise of
which, in former periods of English history, cost one king of England
his head and another his throne."
These were bold words for a British subject. They
made young John Adams open his eyes; they thrilled
him with the fervor of freedom.
But Otis went still further. He argued that the writs
were tyranny; that they were illegal; and he laid down the astonishing
doctrine that later had place in the very opening of the Declaration of Independence,
that every man was an "independent sovereign," and that his
right to life, liberty, and property "were inherent and
inalienable," which "no created being could rightfully
contest." And as, in closing, lie repeated his statement that the
writs of assistance were " unjust,
oppressive, and impracticable," he also declared that they never
could be executed.
"If the King of England in person," he
declared, "were encamped on Boston Common, at the head of twenty
thousand men, with all his navy on our coast, he would not be able to
execute these laws. They would be resisted or eluded."
In short, as John Adams said of Otis many years
after, recalling this remarkable scene, "he reproached the nation,
Parliament, and king with injustice, illiberality, ingratitude, and
oppression, in their conduct toward the people of this country, in a
style of oratory that I never heard equaled in this or any other
No wonder that the young man marveled as he listened
or that the old man grew enthusiastic as he recalled the scene. That
speech of James Otis’s fell upon men’s ears like the trumpet call of
freedom. To young John Adams it was, so his grandson tells us,
"like the oath of Hamilcar to the boy Hannibal."
And old John Adams, in a flood of recollections, de
clared" Otis was a flame of fire; .
. . with a prophetic glance into futurity and a
rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence, he hurried all before him. The
seeds of patriots and heroes were then and there sowed. Every man
appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take up 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 to manhood and declared himself free."
A speech that stirs men to passion often works great
harm; but one that arouses the righteous indignation of men and leads
them to think, to talk, and to protest is a prime mover toward great
acts and greater results.
Such a speech was that by James Otis. It made
patriots; and as men repeated the words to others, or themselves
pondered over them, they felt that a new day was dawning for America,
and that a crisis was at hand which each man in Massachusetts—and in
all the colonies—must meet and face, to side either with king or with
colonists, to yield to tyranny. or manfully oppose it.