James Otis, though “one of the most passionate and effective protectors of American rights,” is little remembered. The reason is sad. At the peak of his influence, mental illness took virtually everything from him.
Otis was an advocate general in the vice-admiralty court. His duties included prosecuting smuggling, which Britain’s onerous trade restrictions had turned many to. Then the Crown created writs of assistance, broad search warrants enabling customs officials to enter any business or home without advance notice, probable cause or reason in search of contraband, to crack down. Otis, who considered them unconstitutional, resigned his post.
Afterwards, Otis represented Boston merchants’ efforts to stop the writs. For five hours, he argued that the writs violated citizens’ natural rights, putting them beyond Parliament’s powers. A young John Adams listened to Otis’ oration, at which “the child independence was then and there born.” Adams also said “I have never known a man whose love of country was more ardent or sincere, never one who suffered so much, never one whose service for any 10 years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of his country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770.”
Otis lost the case, but public wrath discouraged officials from employing the writs. Otis became influential, his role growing with American grievances. He led the Massachusetts committee of correspondence in 1764. He wrote pamphlets. He argued against Parliament’s power to tax colonists, particularly in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, and was a leader at the Stamp Act Congress. Otis joined Samuel Adams to pen a circular to enlist other colonies in resisting the Townshend Duties. Then he began suffering bouts of mental illness, which ended his contributions. Yet we can still profit from revisiting his insights that helped create America. And it is fitting that we do so on his February 5 birthday.
[We] are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all man are…
A man is accountable to no person for his doings.
[O]ne of the most essential branches of…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…would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please…break…everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court may inquire.
Everyone with this writ may be a tyrant…in a legal manner [who] may control, imprison, or murder anyone within the realm.
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.
All precedents are under the control of the principles of the law…An act against the Constitution is void; an act against natural equity is void.
Every British Subject born on the continent of America…is by the law of God and nature, by the common law, and by act of parliament entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent and inseparable rights of our fellow subjects in Great-Britain.
Parliaments are in all cases to declare what is good for the whole; but it is not the declaration of parliament that makes it so.
The end of government being the good of mankind…It is above all things to provide for the security, the quiet and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. There is no one act which a government can have a right to make, that does not tend to the advancement of the security, tranquility and prosperity of the people…The necessity of a common, indifferent and impartial judge, makes all men seek one; though few find him in the sovereign power…
[P]ersons on whom the sovereignty is conferred by the people shall incessantly consult their good. Tyranny of all kinds is to be abhorred, whether it be in the hands of one, or of the few, or of the many.
There can be no prescription…to supersede the law of nature, and the grant of God almighty; who has given to all men a natural right to be free, and they have it…in their power to make themselves so, if they please.
[H]istory will abundantly show [that] As the people have gained upon tyrants, these have been obliged to relax, only till a fairer opportunity has put it in their power to encroach again.
Whenever the administrators [in government]…deviate from truth, justice and equity, they verge towards tyranny, and are to be opposed…
Taxation without representation is tyranny.
Can there be any liberty where property is taken away without consent?
James Otis’ mental instability has undermined our appreciation of his contributions to America’s creation. In a world where, today, every disability must be accommodated, his reputation and his insights merit reconsideration.