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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Wednesday, March 09, 2011

John Adams Looks Back on the Writs of Assistance Case

The reason we remember the February 1761 “writs of assistance case” without really remembering what writs of assistance are, I think, is not because of James Otis, Jr. It’s because of John Adams (shown here, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society).

Adams was in the courtroom as a young lawyer in training. He took notes on the attorneys’ speeches and probably wrote up an “abstract” by 3 April, when his diary quotes some teasing from Col. Josiah Quincy of Braintree about it. Over the next decade Adams’s summary circulated in the Boston legal community.

In 1773, after Otis had fallen into intermittent mental illness, an Adams trainee named Jonathan Williams Austin published a version of the abstract in the Massachusetts Spy. Decades later, Adams complained that Austin had stolen the document and added erroneous commentary.

On 3 July 1776, as Adams told his wife Abigail about the Continental Congress’s vote for independence the previous day, he added:

When I look back to the Year 1761, and recollect the Argument concerning Writs of Assistance, in the Superiour Court, which I have hitherto considered as the Commencement of the Controversy, between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole Period from that Time to this, and recollect the series of political Events, the Chain of Causes and Effects, I am surprized at the Suddenness, as well as Greatness of this Revolution. Britain has been fill’d with Folly, and America with Wisdom, at least this is my Judgment.—Time must determine.
So Otis’s argument did hold great meaning for him.

In the quarter-century that followed, Adams drafted the Massachusetts constitution, served as a diplomat in Europe, and was elected Vice President and then President of the United States. After being turned out of office, he looked back on his career, first in anger and then, in his manuscript “Autobiography,” with a little more nostalgia.

Around 1804 Adams once again described the writs of assistance case. But this time, more than four decades afterward, he declared that Otis’s arguments had made him foresee the same split with Britain whose suddenness had “surprized” him in 1776:
In February Mr. James Otis Junr. a Lawyer of Boston, and a Son of Colonel Otis of Barnstable, appeared at the request of the Merchants in Boston, in Opposition to the Writ. This Gentlemans reputation as a Schollar, a Lawyer, a Reasoner, and a Man of Spirit was then very high. Mr. [James] Putnam while I was with him [as a clerk] had often said to me, that Otis was by far the most able, manly and commanding Character of his Age at the Bar, and this appeared to me in Boston to be the universal opinion of Judges, Lawyers and the public.

Mr. Oxenbridge Thatcher whose amiable manners and pure principles, united to a very easy and musical Eloquence, made him very popular, was united with Otis, and Mr. [Jeremiah] Gridley alone appeared for [Customs official James] Cockle the Petitioner, in Support of his Writ.

The Argument continued several days in the Council Chamber [of the Town House], and the question was analized with great Acuteness and all the learning, which could be connected with the Subject. I took a few minutes, in a very careless manner. . . . I was much more attentive to the Information and the Eloquence of the Speakers, than to my minutes, and too much allarmed at the prospect that was opened before me, to care much about writing a report of the Controversy.

The Views of the English Government towards the Collonies and the Views of the Collonies towards the English Government, from the first of our History to that time, appeared to me to have been directly in Opposition to each other, and were now by the imprudence of Administration, brought to a Collision. England proud of its power and holding Us in Contempt would never give up its pretentions. The Americans devoutly attached to their Liberties, would never submit, at least without an entire devastation of the Country and a general destruction of their Lives. A Contest appeared to me to be opened, to which I could foresee no End, and which would render my Life a Burden and Property, Industry and every Thing insecure.
As with many of Adams’s anecdotes, the story eventually came down to:
  1. making the right choice despite the many formidable obstacles and opponents ranged against…
  2. John Adams.
Because Adams didn’t write his autobiography for publication, his view of Otis’s 1761 argument as the start of America’s Revolution remained a private opinion.

That changed in 1817, when a Virginia lawyer named William Wirt published his best-selling biography of Patrick Henry.

TOMORROW: “Virginian geese are always swans.”

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