Otis, James

Otis, James,

1725–83, American colonial political leader, b. Barnstable co., Mass. A lawyer first in Plymouth and then in Boston, he won great distinction and served (1756–61) as advocate general of the vice admiralty court. He resigned to oppose the issuing of writs of assistance by the superior court of Massachusetts; the writs, which authorized customs officials to search for smuggled goods, were virtually general search warrants. Arguing eloquently before the court, Otis claimed that the writs violated the natural rights of the colonials as Englishmen and that any act of Parliament violating those rights was void. Otis lost the case but soon became the leader of the radical wing of the colonial opposition to British measures. He was elected (1761) to the colonial assembly and was made head (1764) of the Massachusetts committee of correspondence. In his speeches and pamphlets, Otis defined and defended colonial rights. He proposed and participated in the Stamp Act Congress (see Stamp ActStamp Act,
1765, revenue law passed by the British Parliament during the ministry of George Grenville. The first direct tax to be levied on the American colonies, it required that all newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents, commercial bills, advertisements, and other papers
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), and his ideas were used in the protests drafted by that body. Hated by the conservatives, his election (1766) as speaker of the assembly was vetoed by the royal governor. After the passage of the Townshend Acts (1767) Otis helped Samuel Adams draft the Massachusetts circular letter to the other colonies denouncing the acts. In 1769, Otis was struck on the head during a quarrel with a commissioner of customs. He subsequently became insane and took no further part in political affairs.


See C. F. Mullett, ed., Some Political Writings of James Otis (1929); biography by W. Tudor (1823, repr. 1970).

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Otis, James

(1725–83) lawyer, political thinker; born in West Barnstable, Mass. He led the resistance to the revival of the Sugar Act in 1761 and objected to the British use of writs of assistance (general search warrants). He wrote numerous political pamphlets, the most famous being The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764). He was the main political leader in Massachusetts until 1769 when he suffered a severe head injury while scuffling with a British officer. From that point on he became mentally imbalanced and political power passed to others. Although he was a strong defender of colonial rights, he opposed violence and he did not anticipate the coming separation from Great Britain.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.