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, June 08, 2017

James Otis, Jr., and Slavery Revisited

Back in 2006, this blog’s first year, I wrote a couple of essays describing James Otis, Jr., as a slaveholder.

For those postings I relied on and quoted a passage from 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 [in Rights of the British Colonies] 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.”
Waters didn’t provide a citation for that statement. However, his book was and remains the best study of Otis and his relatives, getting beyond the hagiographies of the nineteenth century. And anyone looking at Revolutionary America finds a lot of men who wrote about the blessings of liberty, the evils of the slave trade, and even the problems and immorality of slavery itself without actually detaching themselves from the slavery system.

Recently David Hurwitz asked about the evidence behind Waters’s statement because he’s looking into whether James’s sister Mercy and her husband, James Warren of Plymouth, owned slaves. So I went back to primary sources to see what evidence I could find on the question.

To begin with, it’s clear that James and Mercy’s father, James Otis, Sr., of Barnstable, did own slaves. The vital records of that town list the marriages of “Amaritta and Primus, servants to Col. Otis,” in 1748 and “London, servant to James Otis Esqr and Bathsheba Towardy, an Indian,” in 1760. What’s more, the elder James Otis had a number of Mashpee people indentured to him, as cited in detail by Waters; while legally that was a different situation, in practice it was a lot like slavery.

But what about James Otis, Jr., who left Barnstable to become a leading attorney in Boston? Some of the province’s 1771 tax records survive, and in the years since my original postings they’ve been digitized at Harvard. The entry for James Otis, Esq., of Boston doesn’t list any “Servants for Life” as taxable property. That was Massachusetts’s legal euphemism for slaves. (Likewise, James Warren’s 1771 tax valuation doesn’t list any “Servants for Life.”)

Another place to look for evidence of slaveholding is in people’s wills or estate inventories. David found Otis’s will transcribed in this book. That document is dated 31 Mar 1783, just a few weeks before Judge William Cushing began to declare in court that the new Massachusetts constitution had made slavery illegal. Therefore, if Otis did own slaves in March, he would still have considered them his legal property and could have bequeathed them to heirs. He didn’t.

However, the fact that Otis didn’t mention slaves in his will doesn’t mean he didn’t own any. He didn’t have to list all of his property. Otis devoted most of his will to criticizing his daughter Elizabeth for marrying a British army officer, Leonard Brown, bequeathing her only five shillings. (Here’s more about that couple.) Otis left almost his whole estate to his wife Ruth and daughter Mary, also making them his executrices in charge of dividing it as they chose. They could have dealt with any slaves in the estate without filing an inventory with the probate court—especially since Cushing would soon rule slavery null and void anyway.

This evidence still doesn’t prove that James Otis, Jr., never owned slaves. He could have done so as a young man, before 1771. He could even have inherited slaves from his father, who died in 1778. But historians don’t have the burden of proving a negative, given the gaps in the historic record. Rather, our responsibility is to assemble evidence for the statements we make.

And in this case, based on all I’ve seen, I now revise my 2006 remark. James Otis, Jr., and his siblings grew up in a slaveholding family, but I’ve seen no evidence that as an adult he owned slaves, and in 1771 he definitely didn’t.


Don Carleton said...

Another fine example of your scrupulously-conducted research, John! And I like the fact that you've corrected your own prior statement re Otis based on the latest available evidence...

Given your extreme care for ensuring that historical analysis is always based in verifiable evidence, I think you'd be a fine staff researcher for a special counsel.

Maybe you should send in your resume!


David Hurwitz said...

Thank you for revisiting the question of whether or not James Otis Jr owned slaves in view of his strong antislavery sentiment expressed in his 1764 Rights of the British Colonies. Here is a link via the University of Oxford to the full document: http://tei.it.ox.ac.uk/tcp/Texts-HTML/free/N07/N07655.html (the antislavery part starts in the section "Of the natural
Rights of Colonists" and in particular the passage beginning with "The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black."

If I may clarify one point where you write : “London, servant to James Otis Esqr and Bathsheba Towardy, an Indian,” in 1760." Well, two things: The main point is that the paragraph also mentions “Col. Otis,” with the implication that the reference to James Otis Esqr may be to James Otis Jr. This leads to an examination of “the vital records” of Barnstable which indicates the reference is to James Otis Sr., also referred to as Col. Otis.

The link you provided for Barnstable Vital Records is to a compilation from issues of The Mayflower Descendant, and notes the volume and page of the original source for each entry. The Mayflower Descendant doesn’t seem to be a scholarly journal, though. The journal was printed from 1900 to 1937 with the “Barnstable, Mass., Vital Records Transcribed by the Editor.” The editor was George Ernest Bowman. Volume 23 of the journal, which was printed in 1921, contained the marriage information about London. I found an earlier document that contained the exact quotation about London and Bathsheba Towardy. Its’ title is either “Library of Cape Cod History & Genealogy- Barnstable Town Records”, or just “Barnstable Town Records” printed in 1912. It isn’t clear who compiled it but it contains entries going back to the middle of the 17th Century (with lots of ye’s) and was fascinating. It doesn’t have a table of contents or index, and it seems thrown together. Here it is via Google Books: http://bit.ly/2rDib3D On page 36 there is an Oct. 23d 1734 reference to “James Otis Esq.” It had to be James Sr. since Jr. was about 9 years old then. On page 37 is the reference to London and Bathsheba’s wedding in 1760. After that on the same page is the notice of the birth of “Their son James born 5th Fery 1724-5.” Then on the same page it jumps to an 1772 event which includes: “ ‘Voted to give the Hon. James Otis Esq. Thanks for his good services he has done this Town’ 45 years.” Thus the reference is still to Otis Sr. at that point, so relying on that document London would be connected with James Sr.

I wonder if there is a scholarly or accessible source of the Barnstable Town Records so it can be verified that the reference is to James Otis, Sr.? The actual quote from the Barnstable Town Records was “London, Negro man, servant to James Otis Esq and Bathsheba Lowardy, an Indian, Dec’r 19, 1760.” The compiled list you linked to varied on this from the link that the compiled list itself supplied to a copy of the page from the actual Mayflower Descendant. I wonder if it was possible that London was not a slave? Would London’s marriage have been included in the Barnstable Town Records if he was a slave?

Sadly, I noticed that the 1771 Massachusetts tax records for Samuel Adams showed one “servant for life.” I came across your mention of his “servant” Surry in your Jan. 8, 2009 post, http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2008/01/samuel-adamss-servant-surry.html Perhaps the entry is for Surry. I wonder if there were laws, or other impediments on the books against freeing slaves in Massachusetts between 1765 and 1771?

J. L. Bell said...

In the context of Barnstable in 1760, “James Otis, Esqr” was the colonel because his son the lawyer was settled in Boston. The suffix “Sr.” was conditional in the eighteenth century, applied only when people saw potential for confusion. That’s why I included the two Barnstable references in one sentence that related to the colonel.

(It’s conceivable that a note on “London, servant to James Otis Esqr,” taken out of context might have been the source of John Waters’s statement that Otis the lawyer owned a “colored ‘boy.’” However, in his book Waters referred to London as the colonel’s slave, so there would have had to be further confusion.)

Starting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, genealogical societies published the vital records of many Massachusetts towns. Those volumes weren’t exact transcriptions of the records in chronological order; instead, they sorted the names into alphabetical order with “Negroes” in a separate and unequal section. I linked to the VItal Records of Massachusetts website, which is based on such a publication, because it’s the easiest to access. Different transcribers can sometimes read the same handwriting in different ways, so Bathsheba Towardy appears in some transcriptions as Bathsheba Lowardy. (Incidentally, there was an intention of marriage between her and another enslaved man, Micah, about two years before the intention for London.)

The term “servant” in the mid-1700s was used exclusively for an enslaved person. If London had not been enslaved, he would have been noted in the record as “Negro” or “free Negro” instead of “servant of James Otis.” New England town records note many marriages involving enslaved people because that was significant for the deeply Christian community.

Yes, the one slave owned by Samuel Adams and his wife was Surry, a black woman who was reportedly a gift to Adams’s wife and remained with the family even after slavery became unenforceable in the state. There were no laws in colonial Massachusetts against freeing slaves or requiring an owner to post bond as were later enacted in other states.

Cyberscribbler said...

Has anyone seen information about James Otis adopting (legally or in nformally) a native American. Teaching him the law? I cant find the source where i read , saying that they would walk in Boston, his ‘son’ also dressed like his father, as a lawyer and carrying law books - so townspeople called him “ Otis Two” ?(anntares@yahoo.com)

J. L. Bell said...

James Otis, Sr., had at least three Mashpee people indentured to him in the early 1700s. He was also the province-appointed guardian for the Mashpee community, and fancied himself an expert on Indian affairs.

I can’t find any example of the story of the younger James Otis having a Native man in his household, family, or office.

David Hurwitz said...

Some time after this conversation you retweeted a book that mentioned that James Otis' niece had stated that Otis had turned down a "gift' of a slave. I have gone nuts trying to relocate the source!

Brooklyn said...

Am not entirely certain that Otis tolerated or practiced slavery. A Google search revealed this: https://www.google.com/search?q=james+otis+opposed+slavery&rlz=1CAKSOU_enUS772US772&oq=james+otis+opposed+slavery&aqs=chrome.0.69i59.5576j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

''In 1764, slavery was an open question, with many calling it an abomination. James Otis that year came out against slavery in the protest pamphlet Rights of the British Colonies. He wrote, “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.”

''“I will to my dying day oppose, with all the powers and faculties God has given me, all such instruments of slavery on the one hand, and villainy on the other, as this writ of assistance is.” – 1761

The incongruity of arguing for their own freedom and liberty while enslaving others was openly discussed by American revolutionaries during the period leading up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and beyond. In his most famous pamphlet, The Rights of British Colonists Asserted and Proved, James Otis (1725–1783) asserted that the slave trade is "the most shocking violation of the law of nature." He also stated that "It is a clear truth, that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own."

I do not claim to be an "expert" on any of this. However, these sources appear to contradict any notion that James Otis approved of or practiced slavery.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t recall that tweet, David Hurwitz. There’s a new book about James Otis and Mercy Warren titled Minds and Minds by Jeffrey H. Hacker. It doesn’t include the anecdote you described, but it does discuss both siblings’ public arguments against slavery.

That anecdote sounds like one that Samuel Adams’s descendants told about him and a woman working in his household named Surry. It seems clear that Adams and his second wife accepted Surry as a gift and later granted her freedom. What’s not clear is how much time passed between those actions.

As for the comments from Brooklyn, there’s no doubt Otis published strong arguments against “slavery.” Sometimes, as in that quote about the writs of assistance, he clearly didn’t mean the chattel slavery of the sort his father practiced. At other times he clearly did refer to enslaved Africans and their natural rights.

The question about Otis is how his actions matched his words. Plenty of American gentlemen of his time deplored slavery in theory and depended on it in practice. Colonial Massachusetts and Virginia legislatures voted to end the transatlantic slave trade, which Otis decried, but that wasn’t the same thing as ending the practice of slavery and slave-trading within those colonies.

John Waters wrote in his biography of the Otis family that even as James Otis, Jr., criticized slavery in his political writing he continued to keep an enslaved servant. However, that book contains no citation for that particular statement, and we haven’t been able to find evidence for it. It may yet be out there, or Waters might be mistaken.

Massachusetts’s 1771 tax record doesn’t list James Otis, Jr., as owning anyone. It’s possible that he never owned slaves, or that he owned someone earlier in his life and chose to stop, or that his enslaved servant(s) died or escaped and thus relieved him of the dilemma. If any new evidence comes to light, I’d be happy to share it here.

J. L. Bell said...

Sorry, the new book about Otis and Warren is Minds and Hearts.