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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Saturday, December 07, 2019

James Otis’s Legal Recovery

As James Otis, Jr., recovered physically from the blow on his head with the help of top Boston doctors, he also took legal steps with the help of top Boston lawyers.

In order of seniority, the three men Otis hired to represent him were:
Interestingly, Fitch and Blowers were already leaning toward the Crown politically and became Loyalist refugees during the war.

Of course, Otis himself was one of the province’s leading attorneys, and he no doubt directed his legal strategy.

Otis sued Customs Commissioner John Robinson for £3,000 in damages. To put that figure in perspective, in 1770 Paul Revere bought his house in the North End for a little over £213. When Thomas Hutchinson became royal governor of Massachusetts in 1770, the Crown granted him a salary of £1,500.

In In a Defiant Stance: The Conditions of Law in Massachusetts Bay, the Irish Comparison, and the Coming of the American Revolution, John P. Reid pointed out that any colonial jury award of £300 or more could be appealed to courts in Britain, which would have been much less sympathetic to Otis than one from Suffolk County. In other words, if Otis wanted to maximize his chance of receiving money, he could have asked for £299, and Robinson would have had no appeal. Otis’s huge demand was making a public point.

The court case came up in the January 1770 term, but was continued with the agreement of both parties. And then continued again.

In the meantime, on 5 Oct 1769 Robinson married Anne Boutineau (born 1748, shown above). After the Boston Massacre, the couple sailed for London, carrying documents showing the Crown side of that event. John Robinson never returned to New England.

The case of Otis v. Robinson finally went to court in July 1771. By that time Otis had suffered some very public episodes of madness, but he was back in the Massachusetts General Court. The jury awarded him less than he asked for but still a whopping £2,000. Both parties appealed, Robinson’s side asking for a smaller award and Otis’s for a larger one.

After further delays, that appeal came up in August 1772. Robinson’s father-in-law, merchant James Boutineau, acted as his attorney—probably meaning that he spoke for Robinson, not that he practiced lawyer. By then Otis no longer held public office, his mental instability having become apparent after one legislative session. However, he was still steering his case.

TOMORROW: James Otis’s magnanimity, and how he wanted everyone to know about it.

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