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, April 23, 2020

Why There Are No James Otis Papers

When James Otis, Jr., died in 1783, John Adams was in Europe as one of the U.S. of A.’s first diplomatic ministers.

While occasionally peeved by Otis’s moods, Adams admired the older man greatly for his learning, legal skills, and early resistance to claims of greater royal authority.

On 14 Jan 1818, Adams wrote to the newspaper editor and American chronicler Hezekiah Niles:
After my return from Europe [in 1788], I asked his daughter [Mary Lincoln] whether she had found among her father's manuscripts a treatise on Greek prosody.

With hands and eyes uplifted, in a paroxysm of grief, she cried, “Oh! Sir, I have not a line from my father's pen. I have not even his name in his own handwriting.”

When she was a little calmed, I asked her, “Who has his papers? Where are they?”

She answered, “They are no more. In one of those unhappy dispositions of mind, which distressed him after his great misfortune, and a little before his death, he collected all his papers and pamphlets, and committed them to the flames. He was several days employed in it.”
Adams evidently also told this story to Ezekiel Sanford (1796-1822), who four years after graduating from Yale College published A History of the United States before the Revolution, with Some Account of the Aborigines (1819). In an appendix he quoted letters and newspaper reports about Otis’s fight with John Robinson and then stated:
The wounds received in this encounter, were, at length, the occasion of his death. He became, at times, extremely melancholy; and, in one of his fits, he committed all his papers to the flames. The business occupied him several days; and ‘it was by this means,’ says Mr. John Adams, ‘that we have lost the history of our revolution.”
I thought that quotation might have appeared in Adams’s letter to Niles, but I can’t find it there or anywhere else, making me think Sanford heard or received it directly from Adams.

The Massachusetts Historical Society and the Columbia University libraries both have significant collections of Otis Family papers. But those documents come from James Otis, Sr., and his other two sons, Joseph and Samuel Allyne Otis. “There are a few letters from and relating to…James Otis of Boston (1725-1783) who was one of the more colorful and incendiary figures in pre-revolutionary New England,” says the Columbia catalogue.

It seems that at the end of his life James Otis, Jr., was indeed a Great Incendiary.

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