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, February 05, 2008

James Otis’s Lessons in Human Nature

As Massachusetts and many other states vote today, it seems like a good time to take another look at politicking in pre-Revolutionary Boston, as portrayed in William Tudor’s 1823 biography of James Otis, Jr.

This passage recounts a conversation that lawyer had with a “gentleman of great shrewdness and capacity, who was one of the delegates” to the Massachusetts General Court when Otis was first elected in 1761. Three men fit that description, all merchants:

  • John Phillips, who died in 1763
  • Thomas Cushing, who was Speaker of the Massachusetts House during the 1760s and early 1770s, and later a delegate to the Continental Congress and a Lieutenant Governor
  • the elder Royall Tyler, who held other Boston offices as well
Tudor also wrote that this gentleman “was chosen from the House to the Council,” moving into the upper house of the legislature. Of the three delegates, only Tyler made that shift before the Revolution, which implies he was the subject of this anecdote.

Reportedly, the gentleman told Otis:
“You will never succeed in the General Court.”

“Not succeed! and why not pray?”

“Why, Mr. Otis, you have ten times the learning, and much greater abilities than I have, but you know nothing of human nature.”

“Indeed! I wish you would give me some lessons.”

“Be patient and I will do so with pleasure. In the first place what meeting do you go to?”

“Dr. Sewall’s [i.e., Old South Meeting-house]”

“Very well, you must stand up in sermon time, you must look devout and deeply attentive: Do you have family prayers?”


“It were well if you did: what does your family consist of?”

“Why only four or five commonly, but at this time I have in addition one of Dr. Sewall’s saints, who is a nurse of my wife.”

“Ah! that is the very thing: you must talk religion with her in a serious manner, you must have family prayers at least once while she is in your house: that woman can do you more harm or more good than any other person; she will spread your fame throughout the congregation.

“I can also tell you, by way of example, some of the steps I take: two or three weeks before an election comes in, I send to the cooper and get all my casks put in order: I say nothing about the number of hoops. I send to the mason and have some job done to the hearths or the chimnies: I have the carpenter in to make some repairs in the roof or the wood house: I often go down to the ship yards about eleven o’clock, and enter into conversation with them. They all vote for me.”
Tudor went on to write that after this gentleman ascended to the Council, he stopped making so many “friendly visits” to the shipyards. The next time he showed up, one man remarked “that since he had got into the Council, he did not come to see them so often.”

The expert politician reportedly answered, “O yes, that was true, but my time was so taken up; and then you know, it is the House of Representatives, that chooses the Council.” He no longer needed the town meeting’s votes.

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