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James Otis: Forgotten Founding Father

 

“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter.”

William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, March 1763, in his speech against warrantless searches allowed under the proposed Excise Bill before the British Parliament.

James Otis had a glittering career ahead of him.  At the age of 35 in 1760 he was Advocate General for the Admiralty Court in Boston.  His wife Ruth was heiress to a fortune worth ten thousand pounds.  He threw it all away and resigned his post to represent pro bono, he refused the fee they wished to pay him saying that in such a great cause he despised all fees, colonial merchants subject to writs of assistance.  A writ of assistance was a court order that allowed British officials to search at whim houses and businesses of those suspected of smuggling without obtaining a search warrant.  These writs were in effect for the lifetime of the King during whose reign the writ was issued.  Bearers of writs of assistance were not responsible for any damage caused by their searches.  Otis viewed the writs to be a violation of Magna Carta, English case law and the traditional English legal doctrine that an Englishman’s home was his castle.

In a  five hour address that captivated listeners at the Boston State House on February 24, 1761, James Otis denounced the writs of assistance:

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 on 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; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner, also, 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 servants 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 everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient.

Otis lost the case, but his bold stand was considered the start of the American independence movement.  John Adams was present during the speech and later wrote:

“The child independence was then and there born,[for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.”

In the years to come he helped popularize the phrase, “No taxation without representation.”  Mental illness cut short his services to the American cause, illness exacerbated by his receiving a blow to his head from a British customs inspector in 1769.  In years to come he would have alternating periods of madness and lucidity.  His wife Ruth, although her personal political sympathies were Tory, loyally stood by her husband and cared for him.

Otis did not let his madness stop him from bearing arms.  Hearing the artillery bombardment preparatory to the battle of Bunker Hill, he snuck out of his house, got a rifle, and joined the American troops on Breed’s Hill.  After the battle he walked home.

He often told his sister Mercy Otis Warren, the wife of Founding Father General James Warren and a fiery patriot writer in her own right, that:

“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”

He died precisely as he wished, struck by lightning as he stood at the door of a friend’s house in May 1783, living long enough to see the new nation victorious in the struggle of independence that he had helped initiate.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

8 Comments

  1. one of our many great founders ; the Nations victory in its’ struggle for independence wasn’t signed until sept 83- 4 months after James ‘ departure’. great story though…..

  2. Otis was a grea man : nice try but no cigar- Washington did not order a cease fire until near the end of april ’83 i don’t think news of that reached Otis in time – point 2 the transition from a war army to a peacetime force was not begun in congressional committee until april of 83 as well- We all know how fast congress works, even then…….. and as late as that summer, Washington was still inspecting forts and defenses in the northern department, summer of ’83.
    The army was not disbanded until after sept. 83-
    Peace and true Independence was an uncertainty and was not decided until after the War of 1812. IMHO

  3. “Otis was a grea man : nice try but no cigar”

    Rubbish. The Americans knew they had won their independence with the signing of the preliminary treaty.

    “Washington did not order a cease fire until near the end of april ’83”

    The last skirmish of the Revolution occurred on December 27, 1782 in South Carolina. The British Parliament voted to end all offensive operations on February 27, 1782. On April 15, 1783 Congress ratified the preliminary peace treaty with Great Britain. Celebrations marking the ending of the war immediately began throughout the US as the news spread. Washington made the formal announcement to his army on April 19, 1783.

  4. it is rubbish because you are looking backwards across history – no bugs or crap on the rear window- Geo. III waged war, not parliament – they were the funding organ- no more no less – Washington did not trust the British with cause as was proven time and again before and after 9/83 e.g. the forts in the ohio valley etc. etc. – a contemporary of the negotiations could not presume peace- none less than the great Washington did not trust them, hence his ‘summer tour’ of the northern and western forts in the summer , July , yes July of 1783- see ‘A.C. Flick, “Washington’s Relations to New York State,” New York History, Apr. 1932, 180–181. I suspect the Great Washington also looked for an excuse to get out of the office- and see Saratoga and the Mohawk valley in its grandeur, from the saddle………

    The army did not stand down until last qtr. of 83. – that speaks volumes i think. God Bless all our founders and Praise the Lord for bringing all these great men to bear for freedom in the last qtr of the 18th century, here in Colonial america. “never have so many owed so much to so few” …….

    but i’ll not split hairs[further] – i like you and your thinking and your blog too much; a contemporary of the great Otis would not have presumed victory over the greatest power on earth in may of 1783- there were too many variables at play – of course looking back now we can clearly see the last pitched battles and the success of ‘preliminary’ negotiations. it is all after the fact.

  5. Don – the national park service historians think the war ended in april 1783-

    New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site is where the Continental Army under General George Washington spent the last winter and spring of the Revolutionary War. In October 1782, General Washington moved his northern army to New Windsor to establish winter quarters. Some 7,500 soldiers and 500 women and children civilian refugees encamped here. By late December 1782, they had erected nearly 600 log huts into a “cantonment,” a military enclave. It was at the New Windsor Cantonment that the cease fire orders were issued by Washington ending the eight-year War of Independence on April 19, 1783.

    http://nysparks.com/historic-sites/22/details.aspx

    yet Washington still kept his guard up – maybe he was padding his expense account ??- and of course he did not bid farewell to his staff until december of 83- at Fraunces Tavern
    if the war was over, why else did he wait so long don?? no rubbish now…….

  6. My whole point, and it is a very simple one to grasp, is that by the time of his death on May 23, 1783 Otis, along with all other Americans, knew that they had won their independence. Washington in the summer of 1783 reduced his army to 2000 men. He would not completely demobilize his army until the British evacuated New York City which occurred on November 25, 1783.

  7. I deleted your last comment Paul. Your failure to concede when you are clearly mistaken on a matter of historical fact is a waste of my time. You are banned from this blog. Go waste the time of someone else on the internet.

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