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, March 08, 2011

James Otis Sets the Terms of the American Argument

After arguing the writs of assistance case (unsuccessfully) and standing for office as one of Boston’s legislative representatives (successfully), James Otis, Jr., became the leader of Massachusetts’s Whig or “country” party. Like the equivalent party in London, these Whigs opposed the growing power of the royal establishment.

In 1764 Otis published a major pamphlet, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. It took some of the arguments he’d used against writs of assistance and applied them to a much broader swath of British imperial laws, especially those on taxation.

That pamphlet proved to be very important to the American political resistance over the next ten years, for several reasons:

  • It grounded the American colonists’ anti-tax positions in the “natural rights” philosophy that many British thinkers shared. This provided a stronger intellectual basis for demanding rights than “It’s in our charter” and “Because we want it this way.”
  • Its arguments spoke to all the colonies in the British Empire, and to all sorts of laws promulgated by Parliament, rather than the narrow desires of regional or economic interest groups.
  • Although Otis didn’t use the phrase “taxation without representation,” he linked those political concepts.
The Rights of the British Colonies… thus set the terms for the American political argument against the Stamp Act that Parliament enacted in 1765, and the Townshend duties of 1767.

Otis expanded on his arguments in 1765 in Considerations on Behalf of the Colonists, but later that year pulled back from the same ideas in Vindication of the British Colonies. That prompted rumors in Boston that royal officials had bribed him—not with money, but with an appointment for his father. There’s no evidence of such a deal. Indeed, for Massachusetts’s “court party” Otis remained their main enemy, and their continued attacks on him might have restored his credibility with voters.

Historians have offered different theories about Otis’s wavering. Some tie it to his mental stability, suggesting he made grandiose arguments which he couldn’t sustain. Others say that his basically aristocratic outlook made him back away from radical arguments. Political scientist Richard A. Samuelson argues that Otis was in some way convinced by William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England that Parliament had to be sovereign in the British Empire, above the colonial legislatures.

By the late 1760s, Otis’s feuds with the men around Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson had become more personal than philosophical. In late 1769, he got into a physical altercation in a coffee shop—i.e., a small bar brawl—with Customs Commissioner John Robinson. Otis suffered a severe blow on the head, which probably didn’t precipitate the complete mental breakdown that followed, but certainly didn’t help.

In the early 1770s Otis had intermittent periods of mental coherence and political activity, but it was clear that he could no longer lead the Massachusetts Whigs. Samuel Adams stepped in as legislative leader. John Adams began to write the big legal arguments. Many other men and at least one woman contributed to the Whig side of the debate. However, they basically operated on an intellectual battlefield that Otis had laid out.

All that said, I doubt we’d remember James Otis’s writs of assistance argument if not for one man, and his resentment of Virginia.

TOMORROW: John Adams looks back.

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