James Otis — Father of the American Revolution

February 5, 1725–May 23, 1783

James Otis was a successful lawyer from Boston, Massachusetts who played a significant role in shaping the ideology of the American Revolution. He is most famous for his opposition to Writs of Assistance, the Sugar Act, and the Townshend Acts.

James Otis, Portrait, Illustration, NYPL

James Otis Jr. made important contributions to the idealogy of the American Revolution. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Who was James Otis?

James Otis was a successful lawyer from Boston, Massachusetts who played a key role in shaping the ideology of the American Revolution.

Otis was a prolific writer and speaker and used his skills to lead opposition to British policies, including Writs of Assistance, the Sugar Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Stamp Act. Otis is often credited for the phrase “no taxation without representation.”

Otis also saw all people as equal, with the same rights, regardless of skin color. An argument can be made that he should be considered a Founding Father because of his early arguments for rights and liberty. Unfortunately, his career was cut short by mental issues.

James Otis Facts

  • Date of Birth: James Otis was born on February 5, 1725, in present-day West Barnstable, Massachusetts.
  • Parents: His parents were James Otis Sr. and Mary Allyne.
  • Spouse: Otis married Ruth Cunningham in 1755.
  • Date of Death: He died on May 23, 1783, in Andover, Massachusetts.
  • Fun Fact: During the Writs of Assistance case, Otis said, “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” which inspired the slogan “No taxation without representation.”
  • Famous Quote: Although there are many quotes attributed to Otis, one of the most famous is “A man’s house is his castle.”

Early Life of James Otis

James Otis Jr. was born in Great Marshes, later known as West Barnstable, Massachusetts, on February 5, 1725. His father was James Otis, Sr. and his mother was Mary Allyne. He was the second of 13 children, but the first to live past infancy.

His sister, Mercy Otis Warren, and brothers, Joseph Otis and Samuel Allyne Otis, were Patriots and contributed to the American cause, as did his nephew, Harrison Gray Otis.

Mercy Otis Warren, Painting
Mercy Otis Warren was the sister of James Otis. Image Source: Wikipedia.

His father was a prominent lawyer in Massachusetts and an officer in the militia. People referred to his father as Colonel Otis, to avoid confusion with the younger James.

Family with Ruth Cunningham

In the spring of 1755, Otis married Ruth Cunningham. She was the daughter of a Boston merchant. By all accounts, she was regarded as very beautiful, and the marriage increased his social standing. However, she was a Loyalist, so they disagreed on many political issues, which frustrated him at times.

Together, they had three children, James, Elizabeth, and Mary, who were also divided in their loyalties.

James volunteered as a midshipman at the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War and died around the age of 18.

Elizabeth married a British officer by the last name of Brown. He was a Lieutenant and was wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill. After Bunker Hill, he was promoted and placed in subordinate command of a fortress off the coast of England. Elizabeth went with him to England and only returned to America once, for a short visit in 1792.

Mary married Benjamin Lincoln, Jr., the eldest son of General Benjamin Lincoln. The younger Lincoln died at the age of 28. Mary died in 1806. Mary and Benjamin had two sons, Benjamin and James Otis. Both died at a young age, just like their father.

General Benjamin Lincoln, Illustration
Benjamin Lincoln. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

On November 15, 1789, Ruth died. She remained a Loyalist until her death.

Education of James Otis

James Otis began his education under the tutelage of the Reverend Jonathan Russell in Barnstable.

In June 1739, when he was 15, he was ready for college, and he entered Harvard to prepare for a career in law. He graduated from Harvard in 1743.

Excitable Nature and Possible Mental Illness

During this time, people noticed that Otis had an excitable nature and a quick temper.

In his biography of Otis, John Clark Ridpath tells the story of playing violin for some friends when he was a boy.

“In the intervals of his study, his nervous system, under the stimulus of games or controversial dispute, would become so tense with excitement as to provoke remark. Nor may we in retrospect fail to discover in this quality of mind and temper the premonitions of that malady which finally prevailed over the lucis understanding and rational activities of James Otis.

The youth did not much effect social accomplishments. He had a passion for music and learned to play the violin. With this instrument he was wont to entertain himself in the intervals of study. Sometimes he would play for company. It was one of his habits to break off suddenly and rather capriciously in the midst of what he was doing. It is narrated that on a certain occasion while playing by invitation for some friends, he suddenly put aside the instrument, saying a word of declamatory manner, as was his wont — ‘So fiddled Orpheus and so danced the brutes.’

He then ran into the garden, and could not be induced to play the violin again.”

Some believe this type of behavior may have actually been early signs of mental illness.

Graduation from Harvard and Personal Studies

In 1743, at the age of 19, he graduated from Harvard but did not immediately pursue a professional career as a lawyer. Instead, he spent a year and a half studying and furthering his education on his own.

Legal Studies Under Jeremiah Gridley

Otis started his legal studies in Boston in 1745 in the law office of Jeremiah Gridley. Gridley was a member of the General Court of Massachusetts and one of the most well-known lawyers in the colonies.

Professional Career of James Otis

In 1747, Otis finished his studies under Gridley and moved to Plymouth. He applied for admission to the bar and was accepted by the court. In 1748, he started practicing law on his own and stayed in Plymouth for two years

In 1750, he moved to Boston. By the time Otis was 35 years old, he had established himself as one of the more prominent attorneys in Boston and throughout Massachusetts. Once he moved into politics, he was consumed by it, and he lost his business.

Political Career of James Otis

In 1756, he was appointed Advocate General of the Boston Vice-Admiralty Court. It was the highest political position for a lawyer in Massachusetts. In that role, he was responsible for overseeing cases that dealt with smuggling.

In 1761, about a month after he argued against the Writs of Assistance, he was elected as a representative to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

In 1765, he represented Massachusetts at the Stamp Act Congress.

In 1767, Otis was elected speaker of the Massachusetts assembly, but it was vetoed by Governor Francis Bernard.

In 1771, he was elected again to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Otis Family Offended by Appointment of Thomas Hutchinson as Chief Justice

In 1761, Governor Bernard appointed Thomas Hutchinson to Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court and passed over James Otis Sr.

James Otis Sr. and his son were disappointed and upset because they believed the position had been promised to Otis Sr. by Governor William Shirley, one of Bernard’s predecessors.

However, Bernard did not believe he needed to uphold the promise of a previous Governor. This event set the Otis family on a path of resistance against British policy.

Thomas Hutchinson, Portrait
Thomas Hutchinson was the political rival of the Otis family. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Writs of Assistance — Paxton v. Gray Case

When King George III took the throne, Britain decided to enforce the Navigation Acts. In 1761, in an effort to enforce the laws, Charles Paxton, a British customs officer in Boston, asked the Massachusetts Superior Court to issue a Writ of Assistance, in order to help crack down on violators of the Navigation Acts.

King George III, Painting
King George III. Image Source: Wikipedia.

A Writ of Assistance was a general search warrant that allowed British customs officials to conduct searches of houses or shops for smuggled goods anytime they wanted, even without any evidence. A Writ of Assistance essentially gave a customs official unlimited power when it came to enforcing laws.

Merchants in Boston believed Writs of Assistance were illegal and filed a lawsuit.

At the time, Otis held the office of Advocate General of the Vice-Admiralty Court in Boston. Because of his position, he was required to argue on behalf of the Crown and the customs officials that Writs of Assistance were legal.

The British customs officials asked Otis to represent them in court.

Otis was already upset over his father being passed over for the spot on the Massachusetts Superior Court. He resigned as Advocate General and then volunteered to serve as the lawyer for the Boston merchants in the case, which was called Paxton v. Gray, and commonly referred to as Paxton’s Case. Otis had to argue the Writs were illegal and infringed on the rights of the merchants.

On February 24, 1861, the case was heard before the Massachusetts Superior Court. Otis was joined by another prominent lawyer, Oxenbridge Thacher to make the argument on behalf of the merchants. The Crown was represented by Jeremiah Gridley, Otis’ former employer.

John Adams, a young lawyer at the time, was in attendance. Thomas Hutchinson was the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court and oversaw the proceedings.

After Gridley and Thacher delivered their opening remarks, Otis spoke for four to five hours against the Writs. He opened his argument with, “May it please your Honors: I was desired by one of the court to look into the books, and consider the question now before them concerning Writs of Assistance. I have accordingly considered it, and now appear not only in obedience to your order, but likewise in behalf of the inhabitants of this town, who have presented another petition, and out of regard to the liberties of the subject. And I take this opportunity to declare that whether under a fee or not (for in such a cause as this I despise a fee) I will to my dying day 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.”

One of his key points was that homes should be protected from being searched by British customs officials on a whim. He said, “…one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle…”

Otis and Thacher made four key arguments against the Writs of Assistance.

  1. Thacher argued the Massachusetts Superior Court did not have the legal authority to issue Writs of Assistance, because the power to do so was only granted to the English Court of Exchequer.
  2. Otis argued that British customs officials should be required to have evidence in order to apply for a Writ.
  3. Otis argued that Writs needed to identify a specific thing to be searched, whether it be a person or place.
  4. Otis argued that Parliament did not have the authority to pass laws that went against reason and common sense.

John Adams took detailed notes and observed that Otis also argued the Writs violated the natural rights of man, the legality of search and seizure, and lawful entry.

John Adams, Portrait
John Adams was an eyewitness to the fiery speech Otis delivered in the Paxton v. Gray case. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Adams also said Otis used the phrase, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” This phrase was modified into “no taxation without representation.” However, there is speculation as to whether or not Otis actually used the phrase in the speech, as it would not have been relevant to the argument at hand.

Although the court eventually sided with the Crown and upheld the legality of the Writs, the ideas Otis based his argument on became essential tenets to the push for independence, culminating in the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. Many years later, Adams recalled the speech and wrote, “Otis was a flame of fire…American Independence was then and there born.”

A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay

In 1762, Otis opposed a motion to grant money to cover the expenses of a naval expedition to the northeast, which Governor Bernard had already agreed to.

Otis explained his opposition in a pamphlet titled ‘A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.’

He expanded on the arguments he made in Paxton’s Case and said governments could not levy taxes without proper representation. He also argued expenditures should be authorized.

James Otis Opposes the Sugar Act

In 1764, at the urging of Prime Minister George Grenville, Parliament passed the Sugar Act. The Sugar Act was the first bill passed to raise revenue from the American colonies. It was actually an extension of the Molasses Act but added taxes to additional goods. It also created regulations on commerce that made it more difficult for merchants to do business.

George Grenville, Prime Minister, Portrait
George Grenville. Image Source: Wikipedia.

In response, Otis published another pamphlet, called ‘The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved.‘ The pamphlet expanded his earlier arguments and served as a basis for his opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Townshend Acts in 1767. Some of the key points he made were:

  1. He argued that rights are derived from Nature and God, not institutions set up by men.
  2. He argued that “taxation without representation” was nothing more than tyranny because the colonists were not represented in Parliament.
  3. He argued that taxes could only be legally levied with the consent of the people and consent could only be achieved if they had representation in Parliament.

James Otis Attends the Stamp Act Congress

On March 22, 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required a stamp to be placed on all legal documents and many printed materials in the colonies.

In May, news of the new law reached the colonies. There was immediate opposition, including riots in Boston, Massachusetts, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Savannah, Georgia.

On June 8, 1765, the Massachusetts Assembly sent a circular letter to the legislatures of the other colonies, inviting them to send delegates to a congress in New York to discuss a unified response to the Stamp Act. The precedent for such a meeting had been set by the Albany Congress in 1754, and it may have been Otis who recommended the meeting over the Stamp Act in the first place.

Nine of the 13 colonies, including Massachusetts, chose to send delegates to the meeting, which was held in New York City. Otis was elected as a delegate from Massachusetts, along with Oliver Partridge and Timothy Ruggles.

The Stamp Act Congress convened on October 7, 1765. On October 19, the Stamp Act Congress issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Congress sent petitions to the King and both houses of Parliament and asked for the Stamp Act to be repealed.

Otis was a member of the committees that drafted the document to the House of Commons, along with Thomas Lynch Sr. and Thomas McKean.

Thomas McKean, Portrait
Thomas Mckean was a delegate from the Lower Counties (Delaware) to the Stamp Act Congress.. Image Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Otis signed his name to the official documents of the Stamp Act Congress.

On November 1, 1765, the Stamp Act took effect, but there were no Stamp Distributors available to distribute the stamps. They had resigned or refused to perform their job due to violence and intimidation against them.

On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, primarily due to protests from British merchants who believed it would damage their prospects of doing business in the colonies.

However, on that same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which declared it had the “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.”

Additional Pamphlets Written by Otis

Otis continued to attack British policies with more pamphlets, including:

  • A Vindication of the British Colonies
  • Considerations on Behalf of the Colonies

Otis and Adams Write the Massachusetts Circular Letter Opposing the Townshend Acts

In 1767 and 1768, Parliament passed a series of acts for various purposes, including establishing a flow of revenue from the colonies to Britain, tightening control over the colonial governments, and paying the salaries of colonial officials who answered to the Crown.

Collectively, they are known as the Townshend Acts and they set up a system where the officials were obligated to support the taxes because the revenue generated from them paid their salaries.

The American Board of Customs Commissioners was established to enforce the acts, and it was located in Boston. The Townshend Acts were heavily criticized, especially in Massachusetts. One of the Customs Commissioners was James Robinson, who had been in charge of distributing stamps in Rhode Island but relocated to Boston to serve on the board.

On December 30, 1767, the Massachusetts General Court was convened, and the issue of the Townshend Acts immediately came to the forefront. A committee was formed to address questions about the acts. Otis was a member of the committee, along with Thomas Cushing, Samuel Adams, Joseph Hawley, John Hancock, and his father, James Otis Sr.

Samuel Adams, Painting, Copley
Samuel Adams helped write the Massachusetts Circular Letter and was a close associate of Otis.. Image Source: Wikipedia.

On January 20, 1768, the committee produced a letter, addressed to King George III. The letter was written by Otis and Adams, with input from the other members of the committee. It condemned the Townshend Acts and maintained the argument that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies unless they had representation in Parliament. The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved the letter.

On January 21, a motion was made in the House of Representatives to take a new approach and send the letter directly to the other colonial legislatures. However, the motion failed to pass.

On February 4, the House voted to reverse its earlier vote approving the committee’s letter. The letter was expunged and a new committee was selected to draft a new letter. As before, Otis was on the committee, along with Samuel Adams and Joseph Hawley. Over the next week, the committee drafted a new letter.

On February 11, the new letter, largely the work of Otis and Adams, was presented to the House and approved. At some point, the motion to send the letter to the colonial legislatures was made and passed. Eventually, it became known as the Massachusetts Circular Letter.

In June, Governor Bernard received a letter from the Earl of Hillsborough, who had recently been named as Secretary of State for the Colonies. The letter instructed him to dissolve the legislature unless it voted to rescind the letter.

On June 19, a debate was held in the House over the request. Otis gave a speech that lasted two hours. According to Governor Bernard, he “…abused all Persons in Authority both here and at home. He indeed excepted the Kings Person, but traduced his Government with all the Bitterness of Words”

On June 22, the House formed a committee to formulate a response to the request to rescind the letter. Otis was a member, along with Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, John Hancock, James Warren, and James Otis, Sr.

On June 30, the House took a vote on whether or not to rescind the letter. The measure failed 92-17. After that, the House created a committee to draft a petition to have Governor Bernard removed from office. Bernard responded by dissolving the legislature later that night.

Boston artisan Paul Revere memorialized the 92 members of the House who voted against rescinding the letter on a silver bowl with the inscription:

To the Memory of the glorious NINETY-TWO: Members
of the Honbl. House of Representatives of the Massachusetts-Bay
who, undaunted by the insolent Menaces of Villains in Power,
from a Strict Regard to Conscience, and the LIBERTIES
of their Constituents, on the 30th. of June 1768

James Otis and the Boston Sons of Liberty

Otis was an active member of the Boston Sons of Liberty, along with his good friends, Samuel Adams, and John Adams, and other prominent Patriots, including John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren.

Joseph Warren, Portrait, Copley
Joseph Warren. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

After news of the passage of the Stamp Act reached the colonies, a group of men in Boston came together. Their goal was to organize resistance to the Stamp Act, and they referred to themselves as the Loyal Nine. One of the members was Benjamin Edes, the publisher and printer of the Boston Gazette, of which Otis was a frequent contributor. Another was Henry Bass, who was a cousin of Samuel Adams.

During the Stamp Act Crisis, the Loyal Nine used their connections and influence to make public demonstrations and incite riots in Boston. As their ranks grew, they adopted the name Sons of Liberty. They also used intimidation and threats of violence to force British officials in charge of administering the Stamp Act to resign. Andrew Oliver had been commissioned to administer the Stamp Act in Boston and distribute the stamps. The Sons of Liberty made him a target.

On August 14, 1765, the Sons of Liberty gathered in Boston and burned Oliver in effigy. They also burned a large boot, decorated with a devil peeking out of it, which represented the Prime Minister, Lord Bute. Rioting continued through the night and included attacks on the homes of several government officials, including Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Governor Bernard left the city and went to Castle William in Boston Harbor.

The Sons of Liberty achieved their goals in Boston. Oliver resigned from his position as Stamp Distributor. Governor Bernard put notices in the papers that he would keep the stamps in Castle William because he had no authority to distribute them. Oliver was the only one with that authority, and he was no longer the Stamp Distributor.

However, Oliver’s commission as Stamp Distributor had not arrived from London, so he did not yet officially hold the position. When his commission arrived in December, the Sons of Liberty forced him to resign again. On the morning of December 17, a broadsheet (see below) was posted throughout Boston that demanded Oliver appear at the Liberty Tree at noon and announce his resignation. Oliver did as he was requested, although he read his resignation from the window of a house near the Liberty Tree because it was raining.

Sons of Liberty, Broadside
This broadside posted throughout Boston demanded the resignation of Andrew Oliver as Stamp Distributor. Image Source: Wikimedia.

Four years later, on August 14, 1769, the Sons of Liberty held a celebration. 350 members attended, and Otis was one of them. The group paraded from Boston in Dorchester, where they enjoyed a meal and several speeches. John Adams also attended and wrote:

“This is cultivating the Sensations of Freedom. There was a large Collection of good Company. Otis and Adams are politick, in promoting these Festivals, for they tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty. They render the People fond of their Leaders in the Cause, and averse and bitter against all opposers.”

Otis Fights with John Robinson at the British Coffee House

In the summer of 1769, Otis suspected the members of the American Board of Customs Commissioners and Customs Collector Joseph Harrison had accused him of treason in letters they sent over to London. At that time, the Commissioners were James Robinson, Henry Hulton, Charles Paxton, and William Burch.

On September 1, Otis went to the offices of the Board of Customs at Concert Hall in Boston. Samuel Adams went with him. Otis was invited in, but he declined and left a message that he wanted to talk to the commissioners at another location, but did not specify where.

On September 2, Robinson went to a local coffee house and Otis happened to be there too. They sat down and talked, and Otis told him he had been informed that some of the commissioners had referred to him as a rebel and a traitor to government officials. Otis was offended by the accusations, which Robinson denied.

On September 3, Otis dined with John Adams, Samuel Adams, and others. John Adams noted, “Otis talks all. He grows the most talkative Man alive. No other Gentleman in Company can find a Space to put in a Word—as Dr. Swift expressed it, he leaves no Elbow Room. There is much Sense, Knowledge, Spirit and Humour in his Conversation. But he grows narrative, like an old Man. Abounds with Stories.”

Later that night, Otis, Samuel Adams, and John Adams spent time at the Edes and Gill print shop, working on propaganda to be printed in the newspaper the next day.

Otis prepared an advertisement that said he had “full evidence” that the Commissioners, including Robinson, had “treated the character of all true North Americans in a manner that it not to be endured, by privately and publickly representing them as Traitors and Rebels, and in a general combination to revolt from Great Britain.”

In another “report” Otis published in the papers, he said that the Commissioners were “superlative blockheads.” He threatened to attack Robinson and “break his head.”

On September 4, Otis, John Adams, and Samuel Adams were gathered with friends at the home of Dr. James Pecker. Adams wrote in his diary that Otis was agitated that night, and spent most of the time railing against various public officials for failing to do their jobs in the way he saw fit. Adams wrote, “There is no Politeness nor Delicacy, no Learning nor Ingenuity, no Taste or Sense in this Kind of Conversation.”

On September 5, 1769, Otis came across Robinson at the British Coffee-House in Boston. The two of them started shouting at each other and a fight broke out. The details of what was said prior to the fight and the fight itself are mostly unclear, as there are several affidavits and newspaper stories that contain different details.

It seems that a crowd made up mostly of soldiers and officers from the Army, Navy, and Revenue office, surrounded Otis and Robinson as they fought. A Boston merchant, John Gridley, said he saw the crowd helping Robinson. Gridley thought that made things unfair and rushed in to help defend Otis.

Otis received a serious blow to the head, and blood ran from it immediately. Gridley was struck on the head and wrist by people in the crowd.

Eventually, the fight broke up. Otis and Gridley were carried out. Robinson and his friends, supposedly the other Commissioners, left the Coffee-House.

On September 11, Otis published an “Advertisement” in the Boston Gazette, which accused Robinson and his “confederates” of trying to assassinate him.

On September 18, Robinson published a reply in the Boston Chronicle. He wrote:

“Your insult was public, and I determined to give you a public chastisement; but I did not attack you abruptly:—We had a parley together, and I attempted to take you by the nose, which, one would think, was a sufficient warning of what was to follow. What ensued served to balance our accompts.”

In the trial, the doctors that took care of Otis after the fight testified that he had received a deep wound to his head. At first, it seemed the blow to his head may have calmed him. John Adams took note of it in his diary. After he was with Otis on October 18 at a friend’s home, he wrote in his diary on October 19 that “Otis bore his Part very well, conversible eno, but not extravagant, not rough, nor soure.”

Otis Sues Robinson

Otis decided to sue Robinson for damages in the amount of 3,000 pounds (roughly $600,000 in 2021). He hired three men to help him with his case: John Adams, Samuel Fitch, and Sampson Salters Blowers.

In January 1770, the case went before the courts. It was continued twice, which was agreed to by both sides.

Otis began to drink heavily and began to struggle more with his mental state. In February 1770, John Adams wrote that Otis was “raving mad.”

In March 1770, the Boston Massacre took place, in which British troops fired into a mob in downtown Boston. Three civilians were killed on the spot, including Crispus Attucks, and two more died later from their wounds. Soon after, Robinson sailed to Britain with documents that detailed the British side of the incident.

The Bloody Massacre, Engraving, Revere
This engraving of the Boston Massacre was done by Paul Revere. Image Source: Library of Congress.

In July 1771, the case was finally heard, even though Robinson was not present. Robinson’s father-in-law, James Boutineau, was his attorney and represented him. The jury awarded Otis 2,000 pounds. Both sides appealed the ruling, which was not heard in the court until August 1772.

On September 14, 1772, the announcement of a settlement between Otis and Robinson appeared in the Boston newspapers.

Robinson’s father-in-law agreed to pay court costs, attorney’s fees, and doctor’s bills for Otis. The total cost was about 112 pounds, far less than the 2,000 that had been awarded by the court.

Otis did not take any money for himself, but he asked for a public apology. Robinson’s father-in-law agreed to that and printed it in the newspapers throughout New England:

“John Robinson…FREELY confesses that in the Assault committed by him the said John Robinson, Esq; on him the said James Otis, in presumptuously attempting to take him the said James Otis by the Nose was the first Assault, which occasioned and brought on all the consequent Insults, Wounds and other Injuries whereof the said James Otis in his Declaration more particularly complains; HE the said John Robinson, Esq; was greatly in Fault, is very sorry for his Conduct and Behaviour that Night towards the said James Otis, and asks the Pardon of the said James Otis.”

Otis Participates in the Battle of Bunker Hill

Otis spent much of the rest of his life living between friends and family members and alternating between moments of clarity and confusion. In June 1775, he was living with his sister, Mercy Otis Warren, at Watertown.

On June 17, when he heard fighting had broken out in Boston, he slipped away, borrowed a musket, and joined the militia who were marching to the aid of the American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Whether he actually participated in the battle or not is unclear, but he made his way safely back to his sister’s home.

Battle of Bunker Hill, Painting, Moran
The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first engagement of the American Revolutionary War after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Otis in His Later Years

Otis lived the last years of his life in Andover.

In 1778, he went to Boston and argued a case, but found it to be too much for him, and he went back to Andover.

In 1783, John Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts, held a dinner to celebrate Otis. However, Otis was not able to handle it, and his family was forced to take him away.

Before he died, he burned most of his personal letters and papers.

Death of James Otis

On May 23, 1783, Otis was at the home of Isaac Osgood with some other people. Otis was standing in the doorway, telling a story, when the house was struck by lightning. Otis was killed instantly. He was 58 years old.

He is buried at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts.

Oddly enough, Otis had once told his sister, Mercy, “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.”

Some years after he died, John Adams wrote, “He has left a character that will never die while the memory of the American Revolution remains.”

James Otis on Slavery

Otis was an advocate for freedom for all men, regardless of the color of their skin. In “Rights of the British Colonies,” he wrote, “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.”

James Otis Significance

James Otis Jr. is significant because of his vocal opposition to British policies and the legal arguments he constructed against them and published in pamphlets. He was also important in bringing the colonies together for the Stamp Act Congress and was a Boston Sons of Liberty member.

His influence can be found in the Bill of Rights, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Was James Otis a Founding Father?

Otis should be considered a Founding Father. He was undoubtedly one of the most important voices in the early days of the American Revolution. Despite his habit of flying into fits of rage and likely mental disorder, he developed clear, consistent legal arguments that showed Parliamentary taxation on the American Colonies was unconstitutional.

His interpretation of the search and seizure laws laid the foundation for the Fourth Amendment, a key piece of the United States Constitution.

Otis was also ahead of his time, in that he believed all men should be free.

If he had been able to keep his mind clear, it is likely he would have made even more contributions to the political and legal foundation of the American Revolution.

Visit the Grave of James Otis, Jr.

James Otis APUSH Notes and Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study Jame Otis, the Sugar Act, and Stamp Act for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

James Otis APUSH Definition

James Otis was a prominent American lawyer and political activist during the pre-Revolutionary period in the American colonies. He is best known for his vehement opposition to British policies, particularly the Writs of Assistance and the Stamp Act. Otis argued that these measures violated the colonists’ rights, laying the intellectual groundwork for the broader struggle for American independence. His famous quote, “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” encapsulates his perspective on colonial grievances against British taxation and control.

James Otis Video for APUSH Notes

This video from the Center for Civic Education discusses James Otis and Writs of Assistance.

APUSH Terms and Definitions for James Otis

Writs of Assistance

Writs of Assistance were legal documents issued by British colonial authorities in the mid-18th century. They granted customs officials broad powers to search and seize property, specifically to enforce trade and navigation laws. These writs, seen as invasive and arbitrary by colonists, were a source of tension and played a pivotal role in the growing discontent that led to the American Revolution. James Otis’s opposition to them set the stage for larger debates about individual rights and British authority in the colonies.

Sugar Act

The Sugar Act of 1764, also known as the Revenue Act, was a British law aimed at increasing revenue from the American colonies. It imposed taxes on imported sugar and molasses, along with stricter enforcement of customs regulations. The Sugar Act was met with significant resistance from colonial merchants and contributed to the broader discontent that culminated in the American Revolution. It highlighted the colonists’ objection to taxation without their consent.

James Otis vehemently opposed the Sugar Act, arguing that taxation without colonial representation violated their rights as British subjects, setting the stage for broader colonial discontent.

Stamp Act Crisis

The Stamp Act Crisis of 1765 was a pivotal event in pre-Revolutionary America. It imposed a direct tax on various printed materials, including legal documents, newspapers, and playing cards, through the use of stamped paper. Colonists vehemently protested this tax, arguing that it violated their rights as British subjects. The Stamp Act Congress, convened in 1765, marked the first coordinated colonial response against British taxation and set the stage for future resistance efforts that ultimately led to the American Revolution.

James Otis was a vocal critic of the Stamp Act, helping to organize colonial opposition and contributing to the broader ideology that ultimately led to the American Revolution.

Massachusetts Circular Letter

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was a document drafted by Samuel Adams and James Otis in 1768. It was circulated among the American colonies to protest the Townshend Acts, which imposed duties on various imports. The letter called for a non-importation agreement, encouraging colonists to boycott British goods in protest of these acts. The British government’s response, dissolving Massachusetts’ colonial assembly, further escalated tensions and contributed to the deteriorating relationship between the American colonies and Britain in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War.