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, August 01, 2012

Correcting a James Otis Misattribution

Pablo del Real of Ppoll.org asked me in a comment on this post whether James Otis, Jr., deserves credit for the following words:

Does he [our representative] know us? Or we, him? No. . . . Is he acquainted with our circumstances, situation, or wants? No. What then are we to expect from him? Nothing but taxes without end.
This was an argument that “virtual representation” wasn’t enough for the North American colonies. At the time some royal officials argued that even though the American colonists didn’t elect any members of Parliament, some M.P.’s represented their interests because of commercial or familial ties. The “virtual representation” argument doesn’t affect most U.S. citizens today, only those in the District of Columbia and non-state possessions.

Some websites do credit those words to Otis, but in fact they come from an essay published in William Rind’s Virginia Gazette in 1768 by “Monitor,” a pseudonym for Arthur Lee. Brother of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, Arthur Lee was a Virginian educated in Britain. He worked as a lawyer in London for a while and later served unhappily as an American diplomat.

How did Lee’s words get put into Otis’s mouth? I suspect the confusion arose from how those words were quoted in Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (first published in 1967). In a long paragraph on pages 168-9, Bailyn quoted Otis on the problems of virtual representation; then another, unnamed author on the same topic; and finally a long passage from Arthur Lee that included the words above.

In the scholarly style of his time, Bailyn then offered one footnote for the entire paragraph.
Someone reading quickly would therefore see the little number “8” at the end of the long passage, glance down at the footnote, and see the name of James Otis. But that citation refers to the first of the three quotations in the paragraph. The second set of words turns out to come from our old friend Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., and the long passage from Lee.


Mr Punch said...

In addition to the argument of connections (attributed here to "some royal officials") there was of course the argument for virtual representation usually associated with Edmund Burke: that MPs ought to represent the common good rather than the specific interests of the constituents who elected them.

Mary Jean Adams said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't Otis the first to utter something like "taxation without representation is tyranny" leading to the well-remembered phrase "no taxation without representation"?

On a related note, I've intrigued by Otis's sister, Mercy, more than the man himself. If you can recommend some good reading that has more detail on her, please do.

J. L. Bell said...

James Otis, Jr., is often credited with coining the phrase “taxation without representation,” but, as I discussed back here, it doesn’t look like he did. He raised the issue in his writings, but didn’t describe it in such a memorably pithy and rhyming way. That phrase was current in the Revolutionary era, but exactly who came up with it is still a mystery to me.

As for Mercy Warren, née Otis, there was a recent biography of her.

J. L. Bell said...

The argument for “virtual representation” is mainly attributed to George Grenville, prime minister from 1763 to 1765. But it was taken up by other politicians, and Grenville himself allied with Pitt and the Whigs for the last five years of his life. That’s why I was vague about who exactly was making the argument.