Otis, James, Jr.

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Otis, James, Jr.

James Otis Jr.

James Otis Jr. was a Massachusetts lawyer who became a leading colonial political activist in the 1760s. His constitutional challenge to British governance of the colonies in the Writs of Assistance Case in 1761 was one of the most important legal events leading to the American Revolution. A brilliant speaker and writer, Otis faded from the revolutionary scene as he struggled with alcoholism and mental illness.

Otis was born on February 5, 1725, in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. His father, James Otis Sr., was a prominent merchant and political figure in the colony. Otis graduated from Harvard College in 1743 and was admitted to the bar in 1748. He moved his law practice from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Boston in 1750 and was appointed advocate general of the Boston vice-admiralty court in 1756. He served until 1761, when the furor over writs of assistance pushed Otis into becoming an opponent of the colonial government he served.

A writ of assistance was a general Search Warrant that allowed customs officers to command the assistance of any local public official in making entry and seizing contraband goods. Goods seized by use of the writ were brought before the vice-admiralty court, which determined if the goods had been imported lawfully. Smuggling had bedeviled the colonial government for many years, but the need for tax revenue during the course of the French and Indian War led to a crackdown. The use of the writ made revenue collection easier, but it upset the merchant community of Boston.

Otis resigned his position on the vice-admiralty court and agreed to represent the merchants in challenging the legality of the writs of assistance. At trial Otis argued that the writs were a form of tyranny. He coined the phrase "A man's home is his castle" to describe the sanctity and privacy that a citizen deserved from his or her government.

More important, he argued that the writs were unconstitutional under British law. Though England did not have a written constitution, Otis referred to the accumulation of practices and attitudes throughout English history that set limits on the power of government. In his view there were traditional limits beyond which the Parliament or the king could not legitimately go. The writs exceeded these bounds and were therefore null and void. Though he lost the Writs of Assistance case, his theory caught the public's attention. It provided justification for an increasing number of protests against taxation without representation. The case also elevated Otis as a radical colonial leader.

In May 1761 he was elected to the General Court of Massachusetts. This body, which served as the provincial legislature, gave Otis a platform to expound his radical political views. In 1762 he published A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. In the pamphlet he defended the legislature's refusal to pay for ships that England had sent to protect the colony from pirates. He wrote numerous papers to the other colonies and to the government in England arguing for political freedom. His ideas became a part of the address that the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 sent to the House of Commons protesting taxation of the colonies.

As the colonies moved closer to breaking away from England, Otis's influence faded, the result of alcoholism and mental illness. In 1769 he was struck in the head by a customs officer who disliked Otis's views. This injury left him mentally incapacitated and unable to continue in public life. For the remainder of his life, Otis had few lucid moments. He died on May 23, 1783, in Andover, Massachusetts, after being struck by lightning.

Further readings

Purcell, Jeffrey W. 1999. "James Otis: 'Flame of Fire' Revolutionary Opposing the Writs of Assistance and Loyal British Subject?" Massachusetts Legal History 5 (annual): 147–78.


Writs of Assistance Case.

References in classic literature ?
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James Otis, a merchant who railed against the Writs of Assistance, which were essentially blanket search warrants intended to fight smuggling.