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, February 26, 2011

James Otis Tries a New Type of Politics

In 1760, Boston’s four representatives to the lower house of the Massachusetts General Court were John Phillips, Royall Tyler (father of the author who took the same name), Thomas Flucker, and Samuel Welles.

In early 1761, Flucker moved to Charlestown. Phillips, who had served off and on for decades, apparently decided not to run again; he had by far the highest vote total in 1760, and I know no reason he wouldn’t have been reelected.

That opened up two slots for other gentlemen. At a town meeting in May 1761, the qualified voters chose:

Boston’s merchants, and the mariners and businessmen who depended on them, no doubt trusted Cushing and Otis to represent their interests.

Before that moment, Otis had filled appointive offices in the royal patronage system rather than elected offices that depended on maintaining popularity with the voters. These were two parallel tracks for rising within government in the eighteenth-century British Empire. As a brilliant, learned man who was sometimes snobbish and moody, Otis made a better fit for the patronage track. Royall Tyler reportedly had to give him tips on winning over voters.

But Otis had apparently soured on the patronage system when the new governor, Francis Bernard, had dismissed the previous governor’s promise to appoint James Otis, Sr., as chief justice. He resigned his royal appointment in the Vice Admiralty court system and offered his services to the Boston merchants. That party in return supported his election to the Massachusetts House, where the senior Otis was already a representative for Barnstable and the Speaker.

The legislative records aren’t as clear as we might want, but they say that the younger Otis began to serve on lots of committees, a sign of influence. Within a short time he was recognized as a leader of the “country party” or Whigs who usually opposed the royal governor’s policies. Cushing also rose in the House, becoming Speaker in 1766. (Oxenbridge Thacher, Otis’s co-counsel in the writs case, would join them in the House in 1763, but died in 1765 before the Revolutionary arguments really heated up.)

TOMORROW: The next round of the writs of assistance argument.


Mr Punch said...

How did reps get committee assignments in those days? Today they're appointed by the Speaker - with whom JO Jr had an in.

J. L. Bell said...

The workings of colonial legislatures are mysterious (at least to me). Committees were ad hoc rather than year-long assignments. I get the sense that men volunteered for the task or were nominated by colleagues. Often a committee included men from opposing sides of an issue, who were supposed to find an acceptable compromise.

James Otis, Sr.’s seat as Speaker in 1760-61 undoubtedly made his son more prominent in his first term than other rookie lawmakers. But in 1762 the older man was elevated to the Council, and the younger continued to be a Whig leader for several years.

Bob in Hemlock said...

Thank you so much for this series on Mr. Otis. For some reason, he's one of the minds of this era that fascinates me most, and I don't completely understand my fascination because so little really known of him. But I've really enjoyed the last few days of Boston1775, so thank you.