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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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Press Response to the Writs of Assistance Argument

Given how much American chroniclers have made of James Otis, Jr.’s arguments against writs of assistance, we might expect writers of his time to have a lot to say about the case. But in fact it received virtually no attention in the press in 1761.

In his 1939 article on “Writs of Assistance as a Cause of the Revolution,” Oliver M. Dickerson wrote:

Careful search of these [newspapers] discloses no general information about applications for writs of assistance nor much discussion of the question of issuing them, except that contained in the Journal of the Times [a series of essays published in 1768-69]. So far, no contemporary pamphlet that has come to light has been devoted mainly to a discussion of writs of assistance. On the other hand, there are many such pamphlets dealing with practically every other issue connected with the British treatment of the American colonies.
With digital databases now available, I decided to check Dickerson’s findings. I searched for “James Otis” and “Oxenbridge Thacher” in newspapers and pamphlets published in 1761. I searched for “writ of assistance,” “writs of assistance,” and, given the quirks of O.C.R. scanning, “writ of afsiftance.” And indeed there’s practically nothing in that year. The pertinent hits are:
  • In the 9 Mar 1761 Boston Post-Boy, Otis swore under oath that he had not written a recent newspaper satire on “Charles Froth, Esq.”—Customs official Charles Paxton. This suggests the lawyer had gotten a reputation for attacking the Customs office.
  • In the 7 Dec 1761 Boston Gazette, an essay signed “A Fair Trader” complained that the Customs office in Boston was much stricter than those in other ports. Among the problems:
    WRITS OF ASSISTANCE are now established and granted to the Officers of the Customs, who were tho’t by many Persons, to have had full Power enough over us before.—If it be said that all this is no more than the Law prescribes, I again ask, Whether the Law is carried to these Extremities in any other Province?
    This essay is quoted in M. H. Smith’s The Writs of Assistance Case, published in 1978.
  • Newspapers and legislative records note the election of Otis to the Massachusetts General Court as a representative of Boston in the middle of that year.
  • [ADDENDUM: A different type of search turned up a report on the second and decisive court session about this case in November, again from the Boston Gazette.]
Some historians say Boston newspapers might not say much about local events since the printers expected readers to have already heard the news. There were fewer than 8,000 adults in town, after all, and the newspapers were weeklies. But there’s nothing at all in the newspapers for other colonies, either.

Otis’s argument simply wasn’t big news in 1761. Only in the following years, as he and his Whig colleagues expanded their argument against Parliament making laws for the colonies, did it take on wider significance.

TOMORROW: James Otis’s political career and writings.


Unknown said...

That's disappointing and fascinating, all at once. I'm not sure what to make of it. Did you also know that online sources attribute Otis' famous quote, "Taxation without representation is tyranny," to Patrick Henry?

J. L. Bell said...

I think colonial Americans realized, or built up, the significance of the writs of assistance case only after 1761.

As for the “taxation without representation” quote, I don’t think Otis ever said it. A similar phrase was actually John Adams’s paraphrase of Otis’s argument, decades after the “taxation without representation” phrase was popularized by other writers during the Revolution.

But the rivalry for credit between fans of Otis and fans of Henry is crucial to how this story has been told, I think.

Bill West said...

Fascinating series. Is there a link to that database with the early American newspapers?

J. L. Bell said...

I access the Archive of Americana database through the Boston Public Library, using a card available to me as a citizen of Massachusetts. (I had to go to B.P.L. to apply for that card, but now can access the databases from home, one city out.)

Some university libraries offer similar access. The New England Historic Genealogical Society offers its members access to the Early American Newspapers database, part of the Archive of Americana.

The offerings for free are much spottier. Colonial Williamsburg has an index and images of the Virginia Gazettes. Google has some late-eighteenth-century newspapers in the volumes it’s scanned.

Bill West said...

I have a NEHGS membership so I'll look there!

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Speaking of the study of Law in the Colonies and perhaps Boston in particular...

"This study readers men acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defence, full of resources. In other countries, the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze."

Edmund Burke,