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Otis, James 1725-

Statesman; born in West Barnstable, Mass., Feb. 5, 1725; graduated at Harvard University in 1743, and studied law with Jeremiah Gridley. He began the practice of his profession at Plymouth, but settled in Boston in 1750, where he soon obtained a high rank as a lawyer and an advocate at the bar. Fond of literary pursuits, and a thorough classical scholar, he wrote and published Rudiments of Latin prosody in 1760, which became a text-book at Harvard. He entered public life as a zealous patriot and gifted orator when the writs of assistance (q. v.) called forth popular discussion in 1761. He denounced the writs in unmeasured terms. At a town-meeting in Boston in 1761, when this government measure was discussed by Mr. Gridley, the calm advocate of the crown, and the equally calm lawyer Oxenbridge Thacher, the fiery Otis addressed the multitude with words that thrilled every heart in the audience and stirred every

James Otis.

patriotic feeling of his hearers into earnest action. Referring to the arbitrary power of the writ, he said, “A man's house is his castle; and while he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter—may break locks, bars, everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. . . . I am determined to sacrifice estate, ease, health, applause, and even life, to the sacred calls of my country, in opposition to a kind of power the exercise of which cost one king his head and another his throne.” The same year he was chosen a representative in the Massachusetts Assembly, and [48] therein became a leader of the popular party. In 1764 he published a pamphlet entitled The rights of the colonies vindicated, which attracted great attention in England for its finished diction and masterly arguments. Otis proposed, June 6, 1765, the calling of a congress of delegates to consider the Stamp Act. He was chosen a delegate, and was one of the committee to prepare an address to the Commons of England (see Stamp act Congress). Governor Bernard feared the fiery orator, and when Otis was elected speaker of the Assembly the governor negatived it. But he could not silence Otis. When the ministry required the legislature to rescind its circular letter to the colonies, requesting them to unite in measures for redress (Massachusetts), Otis made a speech which his adversaries said was “the most violent, abusive, and treasonable declaration that perhaps was ever uttered.” He carried the House with him, and it refused to rescind by a vote of 92 to 17. In the summer of 1769 he published an article in the Boston Gazette which greatly exasperated the customhouse officers. He was attacked by one of them (Sept. 9), who struck him on the head with a cane, producing a severe wound and causing a derangement of the brain, manifested at times ever afterwards. Otis obtained a verdict against the inflicter of the wound (Robinson) for $5,000, which he gave up on receiving a written apology. In 1777 Otis withdrew to the country on account of ill-health. He was called into public life again, but was unable to perform the duties; and finally, when the war for independence (which his trumpet-voice had heralded) had closed, he attempted to resume the practice of his profession. But his death was nigh. He had often expressed a wish that his death might be by a stroke of lightning. Standing at his door at Andover during a thunder-shower, he was instantly killed by a lightning-stroke on May 23, 1783.

Writs of assistance.

The following is the substance of an address by Mr. Otis before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts in February, 1761:

May it please your honors,—I was desired by one of the court to look into the books and consider the question now before them concerning writs of assistance. I have accordingly considered it; and now appear, not only in obedience to your order, but likewise in behalf of the inhabitants of this town, who have presented another petition, and out of regard to the liberties of the subject. And I take this opportunity to declare that, whether under a fee or not (for in such a cause as this I despise a fee), 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 villany on the other as this writ of assistance is.

It appears to me the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English law-book. I must, therefore, beg your honors' patience and attention to the whole range of an argument that may, perhaps, appear uncommon in many things, as well as to points of learning that are more remote and unusual; that the whole tendency of my design may the more easily be perceived, the conclusions better descend, and the force of them be better felt. I shall not think much of my pains in this cause, as I engaged in it from principle. I was solicited to argue this cause as advocate-general; and, because I would not, I have been charged with desertion from my office. To this charge I can give a very sufficient answer. I renounced that office, and I argue this cause from the same principles; and I argue it with the greater pleasure, as it is in favor of British liberty, at a time when we hear the greatest monarch upon earth declaring from his throne that he glories in the name of Briton, and that the privileges of his people are dearer to him than the most valuable prerogatives of his crown; and as it is in opposition to a kind of power the exercise of which in former periods of history cost one king of England his head, and another his throne. I have taken more pains in this cause than I ever will take again; although my engaging in this and another popular cause has raised much resentment. But I think I can sincerely declare that I cheerfully submit myself to every odious name for consciencea sake; and from my soul I despise all those whose guilt, malice, or folly, has made them my foes. Let the consequences be [49] what they will, I am determined to proceed. The only principles of public conduct that are worthy of a gentleman or a man are to sacrifice estate, ease, health, and applause—and even life—to the sacred calls of his country.

These manly sentiments, in private life, make the good citizen; in public life, the patriot and the hero. I do not say that, when brought to the test, I shall be invincible. I pray God I may never be brought to the melancholy trial; but if ever I should, it will be then known how far I can reduce to practice principles which I know to be founded in truth. In the mean time, I will proceed to the subject of this writ.

Your honors will find in the old books, concerning the office of a justice of the peace, precedents of general warrants to search suspected houses. But in more modern books you will find only special warrants to search such and such houses, specially named, in which the complainant has before sworn that he suspects his goods are concealed; and will find it adjudged that special warrants only are legal. In the same manner, I rely on it that the writ prayed for in this petition, being general, is illegal. It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer. I say I admit that special writs of assistance, to search special places, may be granted to certain persons on oath; but I deny that the writ now prayed for can be granted, for I beg leave to make some observations on the writ itself, before I proceed to other acts of Parliament. In the first place, the writ is universal, being directed “to all and singular justices, sheriffs, constables, and all other officers and subjects” ; so that, in short, it is directed to every subject in the King's dominions. Every one with this writ may be a tyrant; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner; also, may control, imprison, or murder any one within the realm. In the next place, it is perpetual; there is no return. A man is accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him, until the trump of the archangel shall excite different emotions in his soul. In the third place, a person with this writ, in the daytime, may enter all the houses, shops, etc., at will, and command all to assist him. Fourthly, by this writ, not only deputies, etc., but even their menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. What is this but to have the curse of Canaan with a witness on us; to be the servant of servants, the most despicable of God's creation? Now one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one's house. A man's house is his castle; and, while he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Customhouse officers may enter our houses when they please; and we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient. This wanton exercise of this power is not a chimerical suggestion of a heated brain. I will mention some facts. Mr. Pew had one of these writs, and when Mr. Ware succeeded him, he endorsed this writ over to Mr. Ware; so that these writs are negotiable from one officer to another; and so your honors have no opportunity of judging the persons to whom this vast power is delegated. Another instance is this: Mr. Justice Walley had called this same Mr. Ware before him, by a constable, to answer for a breach of the Sabbath-day acts, or that of profane swearing. As soon as he had finished, Mr. Ware asked him if he had done. He replied, “Yes.” “Well, then,” said Mr. Ware, “I will show you a little of my power. I command you to permit me to search your house for uncustomed goods” ; and went on to search the house from the garret to the cellar; and then served the constable in the same manner! But to show another absurdity in this writ: if it should be established, I insist upon it every person, by the 14th Charles II., has this power as well as the customhouse officers. The words are: “It shall be lawful for any person or persons authorized,” etc. What a scene does this open! Every man prompted by revenge. ill-humor, or wantonness to inspect the [50] inside of his neighbor's house may get a writ of assistance. Others will ask it from self-defence; one arbitrary exertion will provoke another, until society be involved in tumult and in blood.

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