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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Sunday, December 08, 2019

“James Otis having ever entertain’d a most consummate Contempt of seeking a Purse”

On 14 Sept 1772, a little more than three years after James Otis, Jr., and John Robinson got into a fight inside the British Coffee-House, the lead item on the front page of Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette spelled out the end of that dispute.

Otis had sued Robinson for assault, won a whopping jury award of £2,000, and then moved on to the appeals level. Before the legal case came up in the court’s August term, however, the parties reached a settlement, as laid out in the newspaper:
BE IT REMEMBERED, That this same Term in a Case here depending, wherein James Otis of said Boston is Appellant and original Plaintiff against John Robinson, late of said Boston, Esq; the said John Robinson, Esq; by James Boutineau, Esq; his Father-in-Law and Attorney, comes into Court and on the Behalf and in the Name of said John Robinson, Esq; who is now in Parts beyond Sea, to wit, in the Kingdom of Great-Britain, being thereunto fully empower’d as by his Letters of Attorney on File in the Case may appear, FREELY confesses that in the Assault committed by him the said John Robinson, Esq; on him the said James Otis, in presumptuously attempting to take him the said James Otis by the Nose was the first Assault, which occasioned and brought on all the consequent Insults, Wounds and other Injuries whereof the said James Otis in his Declaration more particularly complains; HE the said John Robinson, Esq; was greatly in Fault, is very sorry for his Conduct and Behaviour that Night towards the said James Otis, and asks the Pardon of the said James Otis.
Boutineau signed that statement on behalf of his son-in-law.

The newspaper then published another document, written by Otis himself:
WHEREUPON the said James Otis being personally present here in Court, duly reflecting that he has ever been as ready to give, as to ask or demand Gentleman-like Satisfaction for an Insult real or suppos’d, at the same Time being fully conscious, and, as he apprehends, able abundantly to prove, that he then publickly offer’d that Kind of Satisfaction to the said John Robinson, Esq; previously to the said first Assault, as on the Part and in Behalf of the said John Robinson, Esq; by his Attorney James Boutineau, Esq; is above confess’d—

And the said James Otis having ever entertain’d a most consummate Contempt of seeking a Purse or pecuniary Reparation for a personal Insult, if any other more Gentleman-like could be obtained, by the Consent of the Parties, and that consistently with the Laws of his Country: ACCEPTS of the above Submission here in Court in full for the Assault, Insults, Injuries and Damages above complain’d of in the Declaration of the said James Otis and confess’d as above.

And upon the same Submission, so far as the said John Robinson, Esq; was concern’d in the Assaults, Insults and Injuries above mention’d and confess’d, as he thinks a Gentleman and Christian ought in such Case and on such Submission, freely forgives the said John Robinson, Esq; and by these presents remiseth, releaseth, acquitteth and dischargeth him the said John Robinson, Esq; from all Actions, Suits and Demands, by Reason of or occasion’d by the Premises; and also, all Right and Cause of Action in the Declaration specified.

FURTHERMORE the said James Otis knowing full and right well that by the Operation of the Law hereupon, he also of Course releaseth and dischargeth the alledged and suppos’d Confederates of the said John Robinson from all Demands supportable on the Premises by our Laws, but the said James Otis would by no Means be understood to give up any other Demands he may hereafter make by Reason of the Premises against any of the alleg’d or suppos’d Confederates—
At this point the original document on file with the Massachusetts courts contained a phrase that Otis crossed out before signing: “should he ever meet with either of them in a state of nature, or without the reach of municipal laws.” In other words, he threatened his enemies with a physical attack. (After all, that had gone so well for him before.) Ultimately, Otis decided not to make that bluster part of his legal and public statement.

The official document continued:
At the same Time the said James Otis of his own free Will and meer Motion thinks fit to give it under his Hand, to remain on Record in Favour of the said John Robinson, Esq; as the said James Otis has often privately and publickly, in the hearing of his Friends and others, and even in the Court of Common Pleas declared, as he now does in this honourable Court, That he looks on the said John Robinson, Esq; to be infinitely less to Blame in this (for both Parties in the Suit) very unhappy Affair, than those, who the said James Otis, were he inclin’d to give himself the Trouble, thinks, and is perswaded, he could fully prove artfully and most insidiously as well as maliciously incited the said John Robinson, Esq; to so very unworthy an Action.
Despite no longer openly threatening violence, Otis still had to include insinuations of a conspiracy behind the incident.

The final paragraph of Otis’s statement laid out what payments he wanted Robinson to make:
  • £13.10s.8p. as “Common Costs of Court.”
  • £30 for each of his attorneys—Samuel Fitch, John Adams, and Sampson Salter Blowers.
  • £7.12s. for “the Doctors Bills.”
  • £1.8s. for “taking Affadavits out of Court.”
  • “not a Farthing for the Use of the said James Otis, he having (as before observ’d) a most thorough Contempt for a pecuniary Recompense when a better can be obtain’d.”
Thus, instead of £2,000 or more, Robinson had to pay only £112.11s.8d. and be done with the whole mess. In his accounts, John Adams noted receiving his £30 payment as “a genteel Fee.”

Those settlement documents ran also in the Boston Evening-Post, Essex Gazette, New-Hampshire Gazette, Providence Gazette, Boston News-Letter (after a week’s delay blamed on “Want of Room”), Connecticut Gazette, Pennsylvania Chronicle, and Connecticut Courant. Otis and his allies made sure everyone in New England knew about what they saw as his moral victory.

As I read that settlement, though, I can’t help but see the similarities between its language and the statements Otis was publishing back in September 1769, just before the fight. Once again, Otis was deploying the language of genteel honor (and dueling), hinting at conspiracies against him, threatening violence. In 1769, that mood led him into the conflict with Robinson. Three years later, a similar feeling of extravagance drove his proposal to make a public settlement.

Otis’s colleagues and successors praised his magnanimity at this moment. But they also knew that the leader of Boston’s Whigs in the 1760s had lost a great deal and would never be the same man again.

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