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
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
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.
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
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.
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: