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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Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Downfall of James Otis

Earlier this month the Smithsonian magazine website shared Erick Trickey’s article on James Otis, Jr.—“Why the Colonies’ Most Galvanizing Patriot Never Became a Founding Father.”

In the 1760s, only Patrick Henry and John Dickinson rivaled Otis as a leading voice for resistance to Crown policies—as advocate for the Boston merchants in the writs of assistance case; as a pamphleteer; and as a politician at the head of Boston’s town meeting, the Massachusetts General Court, and the Stamp Act Congress of 1765.

Trickey writes:
All that defiance damaged Otis’ marriage. Ruth, a loyalist, disagreed with her husband’s politics. “He mentioned his wife—said she was a good wife, too good for him—but she was a Tory,” John Adams wrote in his diary. “She gave him certain lectures.” Meanwhile, as tensions rose in Boston, Otis worried that the colonies would soon reach a boiling point. “The times are dark and trying,” he told legislators in 1769. “We may soon be called on in turn to act or to suffer.”

His words proved all too true. That summer, he learned that the four British customs commissioners [actually only four of the five] in Boston had complained about him in letters to London. Enraged, he accused them of slander in a local newspaper. They were “superlative blockheads,” he wrote, threatening to “break [the] head” of commissioner John Robinson. The next night, Otis found Robinson at the British Coffee House near Boston’s Long Wharf and demanded “a gentleman’s satisfaction.” Robinson grabbed Otis by the nose, and the two men fought with canes and fists. The many loyalists in the coffee house pushed and pulled Otis and shouted for his death. British officers stood by and watched.

Otis was left bleeding. Months later, he still had a deep scar; “You could lay a finger in it,” John Adams recalled. The trauma unhinged his already fragile psyche. He started drinking heavily, expressing regret for opposing the British, and wandering Boston’s streets.
The fight between Otis and Robinson always makes me think of dueling, though New England men of their generation weren’t actually good at that practice. The nose grab, the beating with a cane—those were ways one gentleman showed contempt for another, implying he wasn’t on the same social level. In this case, each man tried to mete out the same treatment at the same time. Otis got the worst of the moment, but Robinson had to leave America.

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