J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What Was James Otis's Problem?

James Otis, Jr., was a brillant attorney from an upper-class family in Barnstable. He formulated the first arguments against taxation without representation in the early 1760s, even before the Stamp Act, and was Boston's foremost voice for resisting new British taxes for the rest of the decade. By the Revolutionary War, however, Otis was widely recognized as insane. For instance, in August 1771 John Adams wrote in his diary:

Mr. Otis's Gestures and Motions are very whimsical, his Imagination is disturbed—his Passions all roiled. His Servant, he orders to bring up his Horse, and to hold him by the Head at the Stone of his Door, an Hour before He is ready to mount. Then he runs into one Door and out at another, and Window &c. &c. &c.
Although Otis had periods of calm in the early 1770s, he soon became so disabled that he had to retire from politics and from Boston.

The Patriots constructed a narrative to explain this: Otis was so detested and feared by Crown appointees that in 1769 they lured him into the British Coffee-House and assaulted him with canes, causing a brain injury that affected his mental stability. That was the basic thrust of The Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts, written by William Tudor, Jr., in 1823, and remained the standard story in America for another century.

Then scholars began to notice references in John Adams's diary to Otis behaving erratically before his injury, starting on 3 Sept 1769:
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.
And the following day:
Otis indulged himself in all his Airs. Attacked the Aldermen, Inches and Pemberton, for not calling a Town meeting to consider the Letters of the Governor, General, Commodore, Commissioners, Collector, Comptroller &c. charged them with Timidity, Haughtiness, Arbitrary Dispositions, and Insolence of Office. . . . No general Conversation, concerning the Continental Opposition—Nothing, but one continued Scene of bullying, bantering, reproaching and ridiculing the Select Men.—Airs and Vapours about his Moderatorship, and Membership, and Cushings Speakership.—There is no Politeness nor Delicacy, no Learning nor Ingenuity, no Taste or Sense in this Kind of Conversation.
And on the 5th, Otis got into the brawl at the British Coffee-House. And it was a brawl, involving two men with canes, not an ambush. At the time, Otis was clearly in a fighting mood.

A more critical examination of Otis's political writings and statements shows that he often made radical arguments, then pulled back and insisted on deference to the king and governor. Colleagues wrote of feeling frustrated and betrayed. As an example of his revolutionary thinking, Otis was one of the first Patriots to point out that the doctrine of natural rights meant that Africans shouldn't be enslaved—but he never gave up his own slaves. Even Tudor's book contains some anecdotes about Otis behaving erratically as a young man.

It appears, therefore, that Otis might have had a mood disorder or other mental condition long before 1769, which his head injury worsened but didn't cause. Indeed, his extravagant behavior in September 1769 might have led to the brawl rather than the other way around.

At the Old State House a few years ago, someone asked, what exactly was Otis's injury or condition? What would doctors or psychologists term it today? No one can be sure. But I piped up, that whatever the problem, alcohol made it worse. As Tudor wrote:
Even a glass or two of wine had an immediate effect, and created a feverish action on the brain, that prevented self-control, and tended to reproduce itself.
The Boston audience understood that very well.

1 comment:

norman canter md said...

James Otis' behavior was quite characteristic of bipolar affective disorder also known as manic depressive disorder. This is charcterized by elevation of mood with hyperactivity of speech and or activity. Periods of drawing back would represent depression. His inability to control behavior when using alcohol is consistent. Any behavior after his head trauma cannot easily fit the mold.See Nerck ManualN Canter, MD