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Essex County Massachusetts Freedom Case Participants 1760 - 1783

Mr. James Otis Jr. (1725-1783)


Biography: Lawyer. Wrote on natural rights for all, 'white or black.' Died while being cared for in Andover.


" JAMES OTIS JR. (1725-1783). Harvard 1743. Studied law with Jeremiah Gridley, q.v. Admitted attorney, SCJ, May 1750; barrister, Aug. 1762. Leading pamphleteer, politician, and lawyer for the patriot side in the r 76o's. Son of Col. James Otis Sr., q.v. Practiced first in Plymouth, but in 1749 moved to Boston. One of the most learned and successful lawyers of the period, with serious literary pretensions as well. Appointed Justice of the Peace in 1756, and at about the same time Advocate General in Admiralty. Turned against the Crown in 1760, allegedly because Thomas Hutchinson, q.v., was appointed Chief Justice in preference to James Otis Sr. at the death of Stephen Sewall, q.v. Resigned as Advocate General and in 1761 argued against the application of the customs officers for writs of assistance (No. 44). His argument, as recorded and circulated by JA, became an important piece of patriot propaganda and may have inspired Otis' Rights of the British Colonies (1764) and later pamphlets, which were of major significance in the Revolutionary movement. Represented Boston in the House, 1761-1769, despite growing doubts of his sincerity in the patriot cause, arising from the tortured course both of his political dealings and of the logic of his pamphlets. With Samuel Adams and Joseph Hawley, q.v., acted as a leader of the patriot majority of the House, attending the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. In Sept. 1769, struck on the head in a scuffle with Customs Commissioner John Robinson, an incident leading to protracted litigation, in which JA represented Otis. Thereafter, madness, occasionally apparent earlier, overtook him. Elected in 1771 to the House, but spent the greater part of his remaining years in confinement, or at least retirement, reappearing for brief lucid intervals succeeded by displays of obvious insanity. Killed by a bolt of lightning as he stood in his doorway watching a storm. DAB; 11 Sibley-Shipton, Harvard Graduates 247-287. See also Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, I : 410-417, 546-552 ( Cambridge, Mass. 1965.)"

Note Citation: Adams, John, L. Kinvin Wroth, and Hiller B. Zobel. Legal Papers of John Adams. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965. Volume 1.

" "The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.""

Note Citation: Breen, T. H. 'Subjecthood and Citizenship: The Context of James Otis's Radical Critique of John Locke,' New England Quarterly (Sep., 1998) 71#3, pp. 378403