the unfortunate negro man or woman, carefully raised in
It was from this source as from no other that Otis drew his power as a pleader. He was as John Adams records concerning his speech on the "Writs of Assistance," "a flame of fire," but he was a flame of fire set burning to consume the dross of injustice and to purify and rescue the gold of liberty and fair-dealing. Thomas Hutchinson, before whom Otis often pleaded and whose testimony is of the greatest weight when we remember that Otis was his political opponent, has said that he never knew fairer or more noble conduct in a pleader 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. In this regard Otis seems to satisfy Emerson's definition of a great man, when in his essay on the "Uses of Great Men" the latter declares: "I count him a great man who inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty; he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light, and in large relations; whilst they must make painful corrections, and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error."
Indeed, it can 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." The world is upheld, as Emerson says, by the veracity of good men; and so the great power of Otis as an advocate before the civil bar in the minor cases of his career, and as an advocate of the people in the larger court in the great case of his life, for the liberty of opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing the truth, arose almost entirely from his absolute integrity and fairmindedness. Clarendon's portrait of Falkland applies equally as well to Otis, --"He was so severe an adorer of the truth that he could as easily have given himself leave to steal as to dissemble." In short, Otis acted aright, and feared not the consequences, and thus became a power in the community because of his personal character.
The great popularity that he immediately acquired he used for no sinister or selfish ends. He stooped to none of the arts of the demagogue; he was never carried away by a blind spirit of faction. He opposed the arbitrary design of the English ministry with great spirit and firmness, though with some indiscretion; but he was no advocate of turbulent dissensions or causeless revolt. He allowed himself to be ruled by the greater moderation and prudence of his associates, while he inspired them with his own resistless energy and determination.
No imputation can justly be thrown on the sincerity of his patriotism, although the attempt was made by some of his contemporaries.
When in 1764, Otis, as chairman of a committee of the Assembly appointed to consider the status of the Sugar Act, favored the commission of Hutchinson as a special agent of the Colony to go to England and present the claims of the colonists, he was accused of inconsistency in opinion and action, and of dereliction of duty as the acknowledged leader of the patriotic party. Combined with the extraordinary appointment of Hutchinson, which however never took effect owing to the opposition of Governor Bernard, Otis was also charged with a too absolute recognition of the supremacy of Parliament in his pamphlet on the Rights of the Colonies. As his father had recently received a judicial appointment, of no great importance, however, some persons went so far as to suspect Otis's fidelity to the cause, among whom was John Adams, as we see from his diary quoted elsewhere in this paper. People talked of a compromise in which he was supposed to be engaged for gradually withdrawing all resistance to the proceedings of the ministry.
Such charges, however, were but the indications of the unsteadiness and injustice of fickle popular favor. The sacrifices which Otis made for the cause, as told of by himself in the narrative given in this paper, were far too heavy for his patriotism to be doubted for an instant, and any remaining doubt must certainly be removed by a glance at the official correspondence of Governor Bernard in which he is from first to last regarded as the chief opponent of the prerogative and is subjected to much calumny on that account.
The selection of Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson as the special agent of the Colony, though appearing at first sight somewhat strange, is easily explained and appears as the best possible choice. He was a native of the province, and as such thoroughly acquainted with its interests and desirous of promoting them. A few years before he had given sound advice to both Houses in relation to the very matter of the Sugar Act, counselling them not to apply for a reduction of the duty, lest they should appear as indirectly consenting to pay it under any circumstances; advice which had prevailed against the preconceived opinion of a majority of both branches of the legislature. Moreover, Hutchinson's attachment to the interests of the crown, and his intimate relations with the ministry, would enable him to prosecute the suit of the province to great advantage, whereas a known leader of the popular party in Massachusetts would not be received with much favor at the Board of Trade, whatever his errand.
As to Otis's rather unstinted recognition of the prerogatives of the crown and the right of Parliament to tax the Colonies, we remark that he had undoubtedly the same ends in view as the other popular leaders, but he differed from them in the choice of the means, the selection of arguments, and the proper mode of conducting the controversy. All certainly desired to be exempt from taxation and to secure freedom of trade; the question was how best attain these ends and reconcile their pretensions with the acknowledged principles of English law? Otis opposed both the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act on the same broad principle on which Hampden in England resisted the payment of ship-money, namely, that neither measure was sanctioned by the representatives of the people on whom these contributions for the support of the government were to be levied. He was too good a lawyer to question openly the abstract supremacy of Parliament, or to deny the technical "right" of this body to tax America, or to do anything else. But he affirmed that he could not justifiably exercise this right unless representatives elected by America were admitted to sit in the House of Commons. "When Parliament," said he, "shall think fit to allow the colonists a representation in the House of Commons, the equity of their taxing the colonists will be as clear as their power is at present of doing it, if they please." These opinions did not coincide with the sentiments of the greater part of the people at this period, and they were displeased with the explicit and comprehensive terms in which Otis acknowledged the authority of Parliament; they did not care to be reminded of their subjection in such positive language. Otis's incautious use of words may have led him to exaggerate the sovereignty of England over her Colonies, but the course which he pursued was undoubtedly the most judicious one for the interests of America.