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Taxation Without Representation and the Madness of James Otis

Taxation without representation was a common complaint among American colonists dating at least back to 1750. James Otis made it his rallying cry: Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny, he preached, and is credited with popularizing the expression though he was not the first to use it.

taxation without representation

Portrait of James Otis by Henry Blackburn

Otis, a lawyer and mentor/friend to John Adams, was one of the most outspoken critics of the British Taxation without representation in America in his day. Born in Barnstable, Mass. in 1725 he died in Andover in 1783 just months before the country fully earned its independence. His pamphlets and speeches inspired many of the Revolutionaries of his day.

In 1761, Otis – who had been until recently an official of the colonial government – made a lengthy public argument in Boston against the British use of “writs of assistance,” court orders that allowed the government to search colonists homes and businesses, often in pursuit of undeclared imports.

The speech was, historian John T. Morse wrote, “the first log of the pile which afterward made the great blaze of the Revolution.” Or as John Adams wrote, “Then and there the child Independence was born.”

Here are 10 facts about the curious campaigner against Taxation without Representation:

  1. He Opposed Slavery. In 1764, how America would and should treat slaves was an open question, with many suggesting slavery was an abomination. In 1764, Otis declared he was with the faction that opposed continuation of slavery writing in the protest pamphlet Rights of the British Colonies, “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.”


  1. He was Struck by Lightning. For such a galvanizing figure, it’s perhaps fitting that his end came dramatically in a burst of lightning. The Boston Gazette of May 26, 1783 described the event: “… last Friday Evening, the House of Mr. Isaac Osgood was set on Fire and much shattered by Lightning, by which the Hon. JAMES OTIS, Esq., of this Town, leaning upon his Cane at the front Door, was instantly killed. Several Persons were in the House at the Time, some of whom were violently affected by the Shock, but immediately recovering ran to Mr. Otis’s Support, but he had expired without a Groan.”


  1. He was Unbalanced. “It is said the man is mad.” Those were the words of Lord Mansfield, spoken in the English parliament when debating Otis’ writings.


Mansfield was not alone in his opinion. John Adams in his diary compared Otis to the vulgar British Admiral Montagu. “As to the Admiral his continual Language is cursing and damning and God damning, "my wifes d--d A--se is so broad that she and I can’t sit in a Chariot together" -- this is the Nature of the Beast and the common Language of the Man. Admiral Montagu's Conversation by all I can learn of it, is exactly like Otis's when he is both mad and drunk.” In another entry in 1770, he wrote: “At Club this Evening, Mr. Scott and Mr. Cushing gave us a most alarming account of O [Otis]. He has been this afternoon raving Madraving vs. Father, Wife, Brother, Sister, Friend &c.”


But colonial Governor Hutchinson, Otis’ nemesis, noted in his diary that Otis’ madness seemed to come and go. After Otis carried an anti-British vote in the Massachusetts’ legislature, he wrote: “Otis appeared and spoke so well against it that he prevented its passing, as otherwise it would have . . . He dressed himself very decently on that occasion, but soon returned to his sordid dress and demeanor about the streets.”


  1. Otis Predicted His Own Death. On one of his visits to his sister Mercy, according to family lore, Otis spoke about how he hoped to die, saying, "My dear sister, I hope when God Almighty, in His righteous providence, shall take me out of time into eternity, that it will be by a flash of lightning.'' He got his wish.


  1. He was beaten by the British in Boston. In September of 1769, Otis published a protest against the customs commissioners in the Boston Gazette because they had written letters critical of him. He hunted down Customs Commissioner John Robinson at the British Coffee House and “demanded satisfaction.” Robinson caught hold of Otis by the nose and the two struck each other with canes and fists. Apparently aided by some of his friends, Robinson inflicted a deep wound on Otis’ face. Otis would sue and win £2000 in damages. Otis relinquished his claim in return for a published apology from Robinson.


  1. He Sacrificed his Personal Life for the Revolution. John Adams noted that the Revolution cost Otis more than almost any man in the patriot cause. When he joined the legislature and began taking political positions, it cost him much of his law practice. This made Adams grateful he had been more temperate in his positions. Adams noted in his diary: “Otis by getting into the general Court, has lost his Business. -- Felix quem faciunt aliena Pericula cautum (which roughly translated means fortunate is the man who can learn from others’ mistakws).” Of Otis’ schedule of speaking out against Britain at town meetings, Adams would note: "That way madness lies."And indeed, Otis often lost hold of reason as he grew older, all but abandoning his legal practice and relying on friends and family for support.


  1. He Carried a Grudge that Turned Him Against the British. In 1761 when Otis led the charge against British Writs of Assistance there was, in the background, a personal grievance that motivated him. British colonial governor Shirley had promised that Otis’ father would be made a judge, Otis believed. But when Justice Stephen Sewall died in 1760, then-Governor Bernard declined to make the appointment, giving the position to Thomas Hutchinson. Otis resigned his position in the government in protest and immediately took up the opposition to the Writs of Assistance.


John Adams noted in his diary:  “The origin of all his Bustle is very well known. I heard a Gentleman say he would give his oath that Otis said to him if his father was not made a judge, he would throw the Province into flames if it cost him his Life. For that one Speech, a Thousand other Persons would have been indicted.


  1. His Family was Divided. One of Otis’ most outspoken critics was his beautiful, wealthy wife Ruth. She so opposed Otis’ public opinions that she refused to sleep with him as long as he opposed British rule. One of his daughters would marry a loyalist and Otis disowned her. Ruth would outlive Otis, and never abandoned her loyalist preferences.


  1. His Sister Became a Revolutionary. Mercy Otis Warren, James’ sister, was an outspoken proponent of American independence. Unlike many women of her age, Mercy was free with her opinions. As war approached, Mercy penned a series of satirical poems that were published in the newspapers criticizing Governor Hutchinson and British rule. Mercy and Abigail Adams would become good friends.


  1. Otis was a Pretty Good Dancer. No good dancer is good for anything else. So said John Adams, though he allowed that Otis wasn’t a bad dancer. Adams wrote: “I never knew a good Dancer good for anything else. I have known several Men of Sense and Learning, who could dance, Otis, Sewal, Paine, but none of them shone that Way, and neither of em had the more Sense or Learning, or Virtue for it. I would not however conclude, peremptorily, against sending Sons or Daughters to dancing, or Fencing, or Musick, but had much rather they should be ignorant of em all than fond of any one of em.”

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