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, November 28, 2006

James Otis, Jr., and Slavery

Jonathan Coats kindly writes:

Thank you for your blog. It's nice to see someone with obviously high intelligence write in a style which includes humor without the cutting edge so often associated with, well, writers of high intelligence.
(To which I can only surmise that Mr. Coats caught me on a nice day.)
I did not know that James Otis owned slaves until I read it on your site. Considering Otis' strong writing on the subject, I was shocked to learn that bit of information. Can you provide anything further concerning his slave holdings?
James Otis, Jr., did indeed write some very powerful arguments against slavery as he discoursed on inalienable natural rights, particularly in his 1764 pamphlet The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved:
Does it follow that 'tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face? Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men's liberty will soon care little for their own.
John Adams recalled Otis speaking against slavery even earlier, during his argument against the writs of assistance in 1761. Adams recalled the moment this way:
He asserted that these rights were inherent and inalienable. That they never could be surrendered or alienated but by idiots or madmen and all the acts of idiots and lunatics were void and not obligatory, by all the laws of God and man. Nor were the poor Negroes forgotten. Not a Quaker in Philadelphia or Mr. Jefferson in Virginia ever asserted the rights of Negroes in stronger terms. Young as I was and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught...
However, Adams wrote that half a century after the event, there is no contemporaneous confirmation of his memory, and some of his details are clearly wrong. I've previously written about how Adams's memories aren't any more accurate at that remove than anyone else's. (Except maybe George R. T. Hewes.) So I suspect Adams was thinking about Otis's 1764 pamphlet, or his general arguments during the 1760s, rather than that specific event.

In any case, Otis was the first American politician in decades to attack the institution of slavery. He also changed the basis of the argument from Christian compassion (as in Massachusetts Chief Justice Samuel Sewall's The Selling of Joseph in 1700) to natural rights. Sylvia Frey, author of Water from the Rock, states in her essay "Antislavery Before the Revolutionary War" at HistoryNow.org:
it was the intriguingly strange James Otis whose intellectual originality brought the secular antislavery argument into sharper focus.
Nevertheless, the Otis household continued to include slaves. I base that comment on John J. Waters's The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts (1968):
Inconsistencies certainly marked most of James’s actions. He rejected both slavery and the belief in Negro inferiority, arguing that as the "law of nature" made all men free it must be applied equally to "white or black." Yet he never freed his own colored "boy."
Why the contradiction between words and deeds? Well, Otis certainly wasn't alone in demanding liberty for himself in the most forceful terms while continuing to enjoy the benefits of being a wealthy upper-class man in a slaveowning society. What made him unusual was his intellect and his willingness to describe the outcome of his logic, which in the context of his times was sometimes so far-reaching that he could just as well have been arguing ad absurdum. As another example, in 1764 Otis also argued that natural rights applied to women:
Are not women born as free as men? Would it not be infamous to assert that the ladies are all slaves by nature?
Yet he never suggested political rights for his wife Ruth or other females.

In fact, Otis's rhetoric often reveals a genteel snobbishness. For example, one of his arguments against the writs of assistance was:
by this writ not only deputies, etc., but even their menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. What is this but to have the curse of Canaan with a witness on us: to be the servants of servants, the most despicable of God's creation?
That appeal is based less on due process than on social hierarchy. In another example, Otis's first biographer quotes him as saying in 1769:
The council are governed by his excellency [Gov. Francis Bernard], his excellency by lord Hillsborough [the Colonial Secretary], lord Hillsborough by his majesty, his majesty by lord Bute [former tutor and first minister to George III], and lord Bute by the Lord knows who. This recalls to mind what used to be said when I was a student at this place [Harvard]. It was observed at that time, that the president directed the scholars how they should act, madam directed the president, Titus their black servant governed madam, and the devil prompted Titus!
Again, Otis's argument was based on his hearers' shared conviction that there was something wrong when a "black servant"—i.e., a slave—made decisions for white gentlemen. There's no hint of natural rights and equality in that passage.

In sum, James Otis, Jr., came from an elite family in Barnstable and was a top lawyer in Boston. As long as he remained rational, he never gave up the prejudices or the privileges of a gentleman, even as his political philosophy led the way for the Patriot movement.

[ADDENDUM: Update here.]

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