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.

[ADDENDUM: Update here.]


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

David Hurwitz said...

Is there evidence that James Otis Jr owned slaves--and never freed them? His father, James Otis Sr, owned slaves, so I was wondering if there might be historical confusion on that question. Thank you if you can help with this!

J. L. Bell said...

On that detail I relied on John J. Waters’s The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts: “Inconsistencies certainly marked most of James’s actions. He rejected both slavery and the belief in Negro inferiority, arguing [in Rights of the British Colonies] that as the ‘law of nature’ made all men free it must be applied equally to ‘white or black.’ Yet he never freed his own colored ‘boy.’” Waters wrote about the entire family, so he would have been unlikely to confuse father and son. That said, I don’t know of any examination of Otis’s will or estate that would confirm that statement.

David Hurwitz said...

Thank you for that helpful information! Otis' statements against slavery are so strong it is hard to believe he would own slaves! Sadly, Waters' gave no source for that statement, and no further comment. I did find his will and there was no mention of slaves. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89062857503;view=1up;seq=40 Pages 422-423. On the other hand, when he died in 1783 Massachusetts courts were deciding slavery violated the state constitution and the 1790 U.S. Census showed 0 slaves in Massachusetts.

I'm also trying to determine if his sister Mercy/James Warren owned slaves. While she made numerous references in her History and in letters to being "reduced to a state of slavery," and such, I couldn't find any condemnation of the institution as a violation of human rights.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that link. It indeed doesn’t mention any slaves. But it doesn’t specify other property, either. In such cases, it’s sometimes possible to look at a probate inventory or at heirs’ wills, but often the record is just frustrating.

You’re right that Otis’s death in 1783 came just on the cusp of the end of slavery in Massachusetts. My understanding of that court decision is that it made slavery legally unenforceable in the state, but it took some time for the effects to work through the system. Even as late as 1790, when the U.S. Census listed no slaves in the state, some households probably still contained non-white people doing work in exchange for no payment. That muddles the waters a bit more.

I checked another source: the 1771 tax list, which came online long after this entry. Otis’s listing doesn’t include any “Servants for Life,” which was the official euphemism for slaves. So in the absence of the evidence Waters relied on, that indicates that as of 1771 Otis didn’t own slaves. Unfortunately, the senior James Otis’s listing doesn’t appear in this database.

(Incidentally, the man Otis’s will said was holding some of his estate was Edward Paine. He was one of the people wounded during the Boston Massacre. He was in the insurance business, which is probably why he held money for others.)

J. L. Bell said...

This looks like the 1771 tax listing for James Warren of Plymouth. It doesn’t include as “servants for life” in 1771.

David Hurwitz said...

That is fantastic information! Thank you! I'm also trying to verify that James Otis,Sr. owned one one more slaves. I have sent inquiries out to authors who have mentioned that in their books without including a note giving the source of the information. I am reporting what I am learning, and will be crediting you on Twitter, and sending a link to this page; my renewed interest started with a Tweet by Professor Karin Wulf, Director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture. A Tweet of hers led to me asking whether Mercy Otis Warren owned slaves, which I wouldn't have suspected until I read about her brother owning them. She is helping with that. Also included in the messaging is Professor Rosemarie Zagarri, who has written about her and is familiar with her letters. Professor Zagarri wasn't aware of the topic coming up in Mercy's letters.

As it happens, The Institute of Early American History & Culture (as it was then called) published Waters book. He was born in 1935. If he was the first to publish that James Otis owned a slave, and never freed him, I cannot understand how there wasn't a note to go with the claim which would have occurred between note 3 to Ellen E. Brennan's "James Otis: Recreant and Patriot", and note 4, which was Otis' "Rights of the British Colonies." Since Waters used quotes around "boy" in reference to the child, it seems there must be some note that exists that uses that term. It would seem Otis' slave had died young if Otis was an adult when that was written, if he never freed him, and given that Otis apparently didn't have a slave by 1771.

I also read Brennan's 25 page journal article available on JSTOR for free. The author contrasts the differences in what Otis wrote after his 1764 Rights of the British Colonies, but no mention is made about the remarkable antislavery passages that Otis wrote.

David Hurwitz said...

I also forgot to mention that Professor Margo Minardi, in her book "Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts"
in note 49 for pages 89-94 wrote: “Bill of sale for “a Negro boy” from Joshua Green to James Warren, in MHSP, 1st ser. 13 (1876):101.” I found the original journal online but it was Dr. Joseph Warren that made the “purchase.” http://bit.ly/2sdFeTX
I have pointed this out to Professor Minardi and she agrees that was an error.

J. L. Bell said...

The vital records of Barnstable include listings for the marriage of “Amaritta and Primus, servants to Col. Otis,” in 1748 and “London, servant to James Otis Esqr and Bathsheba Towardy, an Indian,” in 1760.

That latter matches Waters’s mention of an Otis family slave named London. The elder James Otis also had several Native Americans indentured to him, and Waters gives court records citations for those. Legally different from slavery, but in practice very similar.

As for the term “boy,” that may not be a reliable clue about age since American culture has sometimes called males of African descent boys well into adulthood. Waters might have been using scare-quotes instead of signaling a definite source.

It’s unfortunately not surprising that Ellen Brennan’s 1939 article about Otis overlooked what he had to say about slavery and race. Lots of American historians in the first half of the century ignored those topics.

David Hurwitz said...

Thanks for another great source of information!

With certain qualifications to follow, it does seem that James Otis Sr. owned slaves. Even though it was early in history, there already had been voices against slavery such as Ralph Sandiford, Benjamin Lay, John Woolman, and Anthony Benezet. But only a few…

The link you provided (as you probably know, but as an aid to readers) was to a compilation from issues of The Mayflower Descendant, which doesn’t seem to be a scholarly journal. The journal was printed from 1900 to 1937 with the “Barnstable, Mass., Vital Records Transcribed by the Editor.” The editor was George Ernest Bowman. Volume 23 of the journal, which was printed in 1921, contained the marriage information about London. I found an earlier document that contained the exact same information about London and Bathsheba Towardy. Its’ title is either “Library of Cape Cod History & Genealogy- Barnstable Town Records”, or just “Barnstable Town Records” printed in 1912. It isn’t clear who compiled it but it contains entries going back to the middle of the 17th Century (with lots of ye’s) and was fascinating. It doesn’t have a table of contents or index, and it seems thrown together. Here it is via Google Books: http://bit.ly/2rDib3D On page 36 there is an Oct. 23d 1734 reference to “James Otis Esq.” it had to be James Sr. since Jr. was about 9 years old then. On page 37 is the reference to London and Bathsheba’s wedding in 1760. After that on the same page is the notice of the birth of “Their son James born 5th Fery 1724-5.” Then on the same page it jumps to an 1772 event which includes: “Voted to give the Hon. James Otis Esq. Thanks for his good services he has done this Town” 45 years.” Thus the reference is still to Otis Sr. at that point, so relying on that document London would be connected with James Sr.

Without a thorough search, the only names I saw in common between the “Barnstable, Mass., Vital Records” derived list from the Mayflower Descendant, and the “Barnstable Town Records” were London and Bathsheba. Only the former also mentioned a marriage of Bathsheba Towardy to someone else almost two years earlier. Maybe the 1912 compiler was being selective in entries and included a famous name. Might London have been an indentured servant or paid servant? It doesn’t seem clear that marriage would have been registered in the Barnstable Town Records in 1760 if he was a slave and she “an Indian.” That entry seems pretty unique from the browsing I did of the Barnstable Town Records.

Returning to Waters, London was mentioned in the part of the book mostly on James, Sr. when his children were living at home. I would hope for a note giving the source of the information about London, and the description of him as a slave, but there is none where expected between note 11: “First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren,” and note 12 which refers to a surviving example of Mercy Otis Warren’s needlework.

Of course indentured servant lives must have been difficult, but it was presumably voluntarily entered ( unless it was the price of getting out of prison), and of finite duration, and probably didn’t involve the brutal mistreatment slaves were subjected to.

Sadly, I noticed that the 1771 Massachusetts tax records for Samuel Adams showed one “servant for life.” I came across your mention of his “servant” Surry in your Jan. 8, 2009 post, http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2008/01/samuel-adamss-servant-surry.html I wonder if they were one and the same. Perhaps there were laws on the books against freeing slaves in Massachusetts between 1765 and 1771.