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 James Otis

James Otis

Birth
Barnstable, Barnstable County, Massachusetts, USA
Death 23 May 1783 (aged 58)
Andover, Essex County, Massachusetts, USA
Burial Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA
Memorial ID 1501 · View Source
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Revolutionary War Patriot. He coined the phrase "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, he was descended from John Otis, one of the first settlers in Hingham, Massachusetts, who arrived in June 1635. He graduated from Harvard University in 1743, having studied general literature, and began a study of law for the next two years under the tutelage of Jeremiah Gridley, considered one of the best lawyers in America at the time. In 1748, he set up a law practice in Plymouth, but the lack of legal work compelled him to move to Boston in 1750, where he won a reputation of eloquence and integrity, and his legal practice quickly grew. In 1760, he authored the book "Rudiments of Latin Prosody" which became a textbook at Harvard. In 1760, Governor Bernard appointed Thomas Hutchinson as Chief Justice for the Massachusetts Court, a position that James Otis had wanted. He began to attack the new Chief Justice in the newspapers, beginning a general opposition to the crown appointed Massachusetts Governor. Quick witted and very eloquent in his attitude, he opposed the use of "writs of assistance", a generalized search warrant that British customs officers used to search the homes and warehouses of colonial merchants looking for untaxed (i.e. smuggled) trade goods. These writs of assistance were extremely unpopular in the American colonies, and James Otis quickly drew an audience with his legal attacks on these acts. In 1764, while holding the crown office of Advocate General of Massachusetts, he was called upon to defend the writs of assistance in court, to which he promptly resigned his office (losing a very good salary) and took up the cause of defending several Boston merchants, whose warehouses and homes had been searched. In court, he made a five hour legal presentation, which went beyond the immediate legal question, and addressed the question of constitutional relationships between the colonies and the crown, questioning if Americans were bound to give obedience to laws that they had no share in making. John Adams, a lawyer and ardent patriot who was present in the courtroom, later wrote that on that day, "the child Independence was born." In May 1761, James Otis was chosen representative in the Massachusetts general assembly, where he opposed spending money for items that the governor wanted, but that the Massachusetts citizens opposed. He defended the rights of the citizen in a pamphlet "The Rights of the Colonies Vindicated" (1764), in which he argued that the rights of the colonial legislature were as sacred as the rights of British Parliament. In 1765, he attacked the infamous Stamp Act, which generated many demands from the crown, declaring in a fiery speech "Let Great Britain rescind her measures, or the colonies are lost to her forever." In the summer of 1769, while in a Boston coffee-house, he was attacked by a British commissioner of customs, aided by several British officers, and received a severe beating on the head (from a cane or a sword, depending upon the account), from which he never recovered. In court, he obtained 2000 pounds damages from the assailant, but he then refused to accept the fine. As he became slowly insane from the blow, he was placed under the care of his sister, Mrs. Mercy Warren. In June 1775, after hearing the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord, he immediately ran away at the age of 50 and joined the colonial militia, to fight at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Returning home after the battle, he moved to Andover, and in 1783, he was struck by lightning while standing in his front door during a thunderstorm, dying instantly.

Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson


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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 1 Jan 2001
  • Find A Grave Memorial 1501
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for James Otis (5 Feb 1725–23 May 1783), Find A Grave Memorial no. 1501, citing Granary Burying Ground, Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .