James Otis

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 Act), 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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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