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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Saturday, December 02, 2006

James Otis, Jr., Irks John Adams

One of the liveliest entries in John Adams's pre-Revolutionary diaries came on Tuesday, 27 Oct 1772, when his legal consultation with James Otis, Jr., turned into a tense conversation.

Adams was at the Edes & Gill printshop, where the radical Boston Gazette was published. Whig leaders used the "Long Room" room over that shop for meetings.

At the Printing Office this Morning. Mr. Otis came in, with his Eyes, fishy and fiery, looking and acting as wildly as ever he did. — "You Mr. Edes, You John Gill and you Paul Revere, can you stand there Three Minutes." — Yes. — "Well do. Brother Adams go along with me."
Edes, Gill, and their occasional engraver Revere were mechanics—they all worked with their hands. As committed as all three obviously were to the Patriot cause, they may not have met Otis's snobbish standards. He wanted to speak to Adams, a fellow lawyer and gentleman, and he wanted to speak privately. As for "acting as wildly as ever he did," by 1772 Otis had had his first episodes of madness, but people hoped he had recovered.
Up Chamber we went. He locks the Door and takes out the Kee. Sit down Tete a Tete. — "You are going to Cambridge to day" — Yes. — "So am I, if I please. I want to know, if I was to come into Court, and ask the Court if they were at Leisure to hear a Motion" — and they should say Yes — And I should say 'May it please your Honours I have heard a Report and read an Account that your Honours are to be paid your Salaries for the future by the Crown, out of a Revenue raised from Us, without our Consent. As an Individual of the Community, as a Citizen of the Town, as an Attorney and Barrister of this Court, I beg your Honours would inform me, whether that Report is true, and if it is, whether your Honours determine to accept of such an Appointment?'

"Or Suppose the substance of this should be reduced to a written Petition, would this be a Contempt? Is mere Impertinence a Contempt?"
This was the big political issue of late 1772, an otherwise quiet year: Was the London government planning to pay provincial judges, thus freeing them from dependence on the local legislature and the people they judged? Indeed it was. Those salaries came from the tea tax.
In the Course of this curious Conversation it oozed out that [Thomas] Cushing, [Samuel] Adams, and He, had been in Consultation but Yesterday, in the same Chamber upon that Subject.
John Adams had started the conversation thinking that Otis was asking his opinion especially, but at some point he realized ("it oozed out") that the older lawyer had already talked with other Whigs before him. And I suspect he felt a little miffed.

The two gentlemen turned to gossip.
In this Chamber, Otis was very chatty. He told me a story of Coll. [John] Erving [head of the Boston militia regiment], whose Excellency lies, he says, not in military Skill, but in humbugging.

Erving met Parson [John] Morehead near his [Presbyterian] Meeting House. You have a fine Steeple, and Bell, says he, to your Meeting House now. — Yes, by the Liberality of Mr. [John] Hancock and the Subscriptions of some other Gentlemen We have a very hansome and convenient House of it at last. — But what has happened to the Vane, Mr. Morehead, it dont traverse, it has pointed the same Way these 3 Weeks. — Ay I did not know it, I'l see about it. —

Away goes Morehead, storming among his Parish, and the Tradesmen, who had built the Steeple, for fastening the Vane so that it could not move. The Tradesmen were alarmed, and went to examine it, but soon found that the fault was not in the Vane but the Weather, the Wind having sat very constantly at East, for 3 Weeks before.

He also said there was a Report about Town that Morehead had given Thanks publicly, that by the Generosity of Mr. Hancock, and some other Gentlemen, they were enabled to worship God as genteely now as any other Congregation in Town.
Hancock was a Congregationalist, son and grandson of ministers, and he attended the Rev. Dr. Samuel Cooper's fashionable Brattle Street Meeting. But he also knew the political value of contributing to other churches—in a most visible way.
After We came down Stairs, something was said about military Matters. — Says Otis to me, Youl never learn military Exercises. —

Ay why not?

That You have an Head for it needs no Commentary, but not an Heart. —

Ay how do you know—you never searched my Heart.

"Yes I have — tired with one Years Service, dancing from Boston to Braintree and from Braintree to Boston, moaping about the Streets of this Town as hipped as Father Flynt at 90, and seemingly regardless of every Thing, but to get Money enough to carry you smoothly through this World."

This is the Rant of Mr. Otis concerning me, and I suppose of a thirds of the Town. —
Adams had indeed gone through a psychological or medical doldrum in 1771-72. He left the General Court after one term (which opened that seat for Otis again), said he would retire from politics, and even went to Stafford Springs in Connecticut to try the water cure. Adams wrote about all that in his diary.

But it was different to hear someone else comment on it! Especially someone he admired. And especially since Adams had started to think that everyone had bad things to say about him. So Adams laid into Otis—though only on this page of his diary:
But be it known to Mr. Otis, I have been in the public Cause as long as he, 'tho I was never in the General Court but one Year. I have sacrificed as much to it as he. I have never got Father chosen Speaker and Councillor by it [James Otis, Sr., held these posts, but well before James Otis, Jr., became a prominent politician], my Brother in Law [James Warren of Plymouth] chosen into the House and chosen Speaker by it, nor a Brother in Laws Brother in Law [okay, now I'm lost] into the House and Council by it.

Nor did I ever turn about in the House, betray my Friends and rant on the Side of Prerogative, for an whole Year, to get a father into a Probate Office, and a first justice of a Court of Common Pleas, and a Brother [Samuel A. Otis] into a Clerks Office.
Contemporaries and historians have indeed noted how Otis occasionally backtracked from his radical rhetoric, though the reasons aren't as obvious as Adams made them out to be.
There is a Complication of Malice, Envy and jealousy in this Man, in the present disordered State of his Mind that is quite shocking.

I thank God my mind is prepared, for whatever can be said of me. The Storm shall blow over me in Silence.
Oh, yeah. Adams was calm.

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