mob of men as brutal and callous as the two white witnesses
Otis defended the rights of his countrymen by vindicating their enjoyment of English liberty, not by asserting the demand for American independence. He, however, sowed the seed without knowing what kind of harvest it was to produce, for his writings and speeches did more than those of any other man toward preparing the minds of others for the final separation from England. That such was his purpose he steadfastly repudiated, and the following quotations from his pen exhibit full well his attachment to the mother country and to the principles of her constitution.
When in January, 1763, the joyful news was received at Boston that the preliminaries of peace between Great Britain and France had been signed, and that Canada was permanently annexed to the former country, the colonists justly rejoiced, and a town meeting was held of which Otis was chosen moderator. In the course of his speech, Otis declared in his usual earnest way that "the true interests of Great Britain and her plantations are mutual, and what God in his providence united, let no man dare attempt to pull asunder." Similar sentiments expressed by other leaders among the various Colonies might be quoted. We give one more from Otis's pamphlet on the "Rights of the Colonies," published in 1765. In speaking of the colonists, he says: "Their loyalty has been abundantly proved, especially in the late war. Their affection and reverence for their mother country are unquestionable. They yield the most cheerful and ready obedience to her laws, particularly to the power of that august body, the Parliament of Great Britain, the supreme legislative of the kingdom and its dominions. These, I declare, are my own sentiments of duty and loyalty." He angrily repels the charge that the Colonies were seeking for independence, insisting that the people had a "natural and almost mechanical affection for Great Britain which they conceive under no other sense, and call by no other name, than that of home. We all think ourselves happy under Great Britain. We love, esteem, and reverence our mother country, and adore our King. And could the choice of independency be offered the colonies or subjection to Great Britain on any terms above absolute slavery, I am convinced they would accept the latter."
In 1769 he wrote: "The cause of America is, in my humble opinion, the cause of the whole British empire; an empire which, from my youth, I have been taught to love and revere, as founded in the principles of natural reason and justice, and upon the whole, best calculated for general happiness of any yet risen in the world. In this view of the British empire, my Lord, I sincerely pray for its prosperity, and sincerely lament all adverse circumstances. Situated as we are, my Lord, in the wilderness of America, a thousand leagues distant from the fountains of honor and justice, in all our distresses, we pride ourselves in loyalty to the King, and affection to the mother country."
Otis was not much given to general speculations upon the future; but there is something very striking in the following language, taken from his pamphlet "The Rights of the Colonies," if we consider how soon after there occurred the two great crises in the world's affairs, the American and French revolutions. "I pretend neither to the spirit of prophecy, nor to any uncommon skill in predicting a crisis; much less to tell when it begins to be nascent, or is fairly midwived into the world. But I should say the world was at the eve of the highest scene of earthly power and grandeur, that has ever yet been displayed to the view of mankind. The cards are shuffling fast through all Europe. Who will win the prize is with God. This, however, I know, detur digniori. The next universal monarchy will be favorable to the human race; for it must be founded on the principles of equity, moderation, and justice."
JAMES OTIS. [1725 - 1783.] By G. Mercer Adam
The character and life-work of few men belonging to the pre-Revolutionary era are better worth studying than are those of James Otis, the patriot-orator of Massachusetts, who took so prominent a part in opposing England's obnoxious Stamp Act and in arousing the American Colonies to a sense of the outrage done them by the issue of the arbitrary Writs of Assistance. Though the records of his personal life are somewhat meagre, sufficient is known of Otis's public career to interest students of his country's history and entitle him to the admiration of all, as one of the most earnest and eloquent advocates of Liberty in the Nation's youth-time, and a sturdy and noble defender of its cause at the critical era of England's injustice and oppression. No man of the period, it may be hazarded, did more yeoman service than Otis did in the cause of American Freedom, or was more sensible of the rights of the Colonists and of the injustice done them by the Motherland in her assaults on their civil and political status in the years preceding the Revolution. Not only was he one of the most fearless asserters of the great principles for which our forefathers fought and bled, but few men better than he saw more clearly the malign character of the arbitrary acts imposed upon the Colonies that brought about separation and laid the foundation of American independence. In resisting the enforcement of these Acts, Otis was actuated not only by disinterested and patriotic motives, but by a statesmanlike discernment of their unconstitutional character and the wrong they would inflict, in being inconsistent with the foundation charter of the Massachusetts Colony. Like many of the Revolutionary fathers, Otis was not at heart a rebel, or from the outset disloyal to the Crown in its administration of the affairs of the Colonies. His occupancy of the Crown post of Advocate-General and his own well-known integrity and conscientiousness forbid that idea, not to speak of his pride in the fact that his ancestors were English and for generations had held high judicial offices and militia appointments in the gift of the King and the ministry of the period. But though by tradition and training, at the outset of his career, a subject of monarchy and a true man in his official relations with England, Otis was at the same time ardent in his interests for the wellbeing of the Colonies and zealous for their rights and privileges. When these came into conflict, the stand he took was staunchly patriotic, even to the sacrifice of his office and its emoluments; while in espousing the popular cause against the King and the ministry he stood forth, as John Adams expressed it, as "a flame of fire," full of consuming zeal for his country and an ardent upholder of its rights and prerogatives. In assuming this attitude, that Otis's zeal and energy were at times unrestrained and his language occasionally unguarded and overvehement, is doubtless true; but this was certainly excusable in a man of his ardent temperament and strength of character; while the situation of affairs was such as to call not only for patriotic enthusiasm, but for righteous indignation and heated denunciation, in a cause that stirred to the depths the heart and brain of an impetuous and commanding orator. Nor do we well to forget what this consuming, patriotic passion and heated vindication of his country's rights cost Otis, in the responsibility he felt and the solicitation he manifested, especially in the middle and later stages of his strenuous career, for the cause he had so keenly at heart. Pathetic is the story of the ailment that clouded his closing years; and only exculpatory can be the judgment now passed upon the man and his work when we consider what the strain was that he had long and anxiously borne and that revealed its effects in periods of sad mental alienation and incipient madness. To speak and write strongly on taxation and its injustice, in the case of the Colonies, might well, however, disturb the mental equilibrium of even a strong man, and the more so when actively protesting, as Otis long continued to protest, against unlawful encroachments upon the liberties of the Colonies and the other arbitrary acts that then characterized the administration of the Crown. Whatever it cost Otis personally to engage in this defence, the result, as we all now know and admit, was only and wholly beneficent--in the defeat of an unrighteous autocracy, and the emancipation of a Continent from a fettering and baleful administration.
This herald of and actor in the great drama of his time was born at West Barnstable, formerly known as the Great Marshes, in Massachusetts, on the 5th of February, 1723. He was one of thirteen children, his father being Colonel James Otis (born in 1702), the son of Judge John Otis, whose immediate ancestor had emigrated from England in the preceding century and settled in New England at the town of Hingham, calling the region after the old home of the family in the Motherland. This John Otis, who was born in A.D. 1657, became a prominent man in the Settlement, was a member of the Council of the Colony, and ultimately became Chief-Justice of the Common Pleas and Probate Court. Otis's own father (Colonel James Otis) likewise became a lawyer and publicist, a colonel in the local militia, and rose to a high post in the judiciary and was a member of the Council of Massachusetts. He married Mary Alleyne and transmitted to the future patriot, the subject of this sketch, the talents and many of the characteristics of his progenitors. A brother of our hero, Samuel Alleyne Otis, rose to prominence in the politics of the State and as Secretary of the Senate administered to Washington the oath of office as President, holding the Bible on which he was sworn as honored chief of the future nation. A sister, Mercy, an ardent and loyal patriot, married the notable republican, James Warren of Plymouth, and lived herself to write a compend of the "History of the American Revolution," together with a collection of patriotic verse.
James Otis, whom we know as one of the most eloquent orators of the Revolutionary era and an ardent promoter of American independence, was educated for his career at Harvard, which institution he entered as a freshman in 1739, having previously been prepared for college by the Rev. Jonathan Russell. His university course, so far as can be gathered from any account of it that has come down to us, was not a notable one, though he had a fair scholastic career and graduated at the age of nineteen in 1743. While popular after a fashion at college, he was a bit of a recluse and a diligent student of literature, with a predilection, it is said, for music, playing well on the violin. After graduating, he wisely spent two years in general reading before entering upon the study of the law, which he did in 1745 under James Gridley, a prominent jurist of Massachusetts and sometime Crown Attorney-General. Three years later, he was admitted to the bar, and in 1748 began to practice his profession at Plymouth, Mass. In 1750, he removed to Boston, and there became known as an advocate of note and high promise, actuated by nice professional instincts, with a fine sense of honor, and keenly appreciating, it is recorded, his responsibilities in his relations with his clients, which led him to accept only such cases as he could conscientiously defend and take retainers from.