James Otis, though “one of the most passionate and effective protectors of American rights,” is little remembered. And the reason is unusual. At the peak of his influence, mental illness took virtually everything from him.
When the British crown created writs of assistance, which were broad search warrants enabling customs officials to enter any business or home without advance notice, probable cause or reason in search of contraband, to crack down on smuggling, which Britain’s onerous trade restrictions had turned many to, Otis resigned his post, which required prosecuting that offense. He then represented Boston merchants’ efforts against those writs. For five hours, he argued in court that they violated citizens’ natural rights, putting them beyond Parliament’s powers. John Adams said “the child independence was then and there born.”
Otis lost the case, but public wrath kept officials from employing the writs. Otis’ revolutionary role then grew with American grievances. He led the Massachusetts committee of correspondence in 1764. He wrote pamphlets. He wrote against Parliament’s power to tax colonists, particularly in “The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved,” and was a leader at the Stamp Act Congress. Otis and Samuel Adams penned a circular to enlist other colonies in resisting the Townshend Duties. Then bouts of mental illness ended his contributions. Yet we can still profit from revisiting his insights that helped create America on his Feb. 5 birthday.
[We] are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all man are.
A man is accountable to no person for his doings.
One of the most essential branches of … liberty is the freedom of one’s house.
A man’s house is his castle; and whilst 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.
Everyone with this writ may be a tyrant.
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 villainy on the other, as this Writ of Assistance is.
All precedents are under the control of the principles of the law … An act against the constitution is void; an act against natural equity is void.
Every British subject … is by the law of God and nature, by the common law, and by act of parliament entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent and inseparable rights of our fellow subjects in Great Britain.
Parliaments are in all cases to declare what is good for the whole; but it is not the declaration of parliament that makes it so.
The end of government being the good of mankind … It is above all things to provide for the security, the quiet, and happy enjoyment of life, liberty, and property. There is no one act which a government can have a right to make, that does not tend to the advancement of the security, tranquility and prosperity of the people. If life, liberty and property could be enjoyed in as great perfection in solitude, as in society, there would be no need of government. But … [men] cannot live together without contests … The necessity of a common, indifferent and impartial judge, makes all men seek one; though few find him in the sovereign power of their respective states.
[Those] on whom the sovereignty is conferred by the people shall incessantly consult their good. Tyranny of all kinds is to be abhorred, whether it be in the hands of one, or of the few, or of the many.
[Even] if every prince … had been a tyrant, it would not prove a right to tyrannize. There can be no prescription old enough to supersede the law of nature, and the grant of God almighty; who has given to all men a natural right to be free, and they have it ordinarily in their power to make themselves so, if they please.
Whenever the administrators, in any [government], deviate from truth, justice and equity, they verge towards tyranny, and are to be opposed.
Taxation without representation is tyranny.
Can there be any liberty where property is taken away without consent?
If we are not represented, we are slaves.
James Otis had a sad end. Today, sadder is how his mental instability has undermined our appreciation of his contributions to America’s creation. He didn’t invent the “safety elevator” (that was Elisha Otis, in 1852), but he elevated American independence. In a world where every disability must be accommodated, his reputation deserves rehabilitation.
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