On May 23, 1783 James Otis of Massachusetts left this world in the most incredible and dramatic of ways.
According to Otis’s biographer, John Clark Ridpath, Otis had once said to his famous sister, Mercy Otis Warren, who wrote a 1,300 page history of the American Revolution, “I hope when God Almighty in his Providence shall take me out of time into eternity, it will be by a flash of lightning!” If Otis really did utter that phrase, then he got his wish.
Standing on a friend’s doorstep, Otis was hit by a lightning bolt and died instantly. It was a fitting way to go out for a man with such a meteoric rise and fall in the public eye.
While Otis is often left off the list of great Founding Fathers, his impact on the American Revolution was immense. He was of Benjamin Franklin’s generation, a little older than most of the other famous Founders, and a trailblazer for the ideas and arguments that would turn the Revolution into a principled and cohesive stand against tyranny instead of merely being a convulsive, frustrated rebellion against legitimate authorities.
Sadly, information on Otis is relatively sketchy, and he has had few biographers. This is due to the fact that in a fit of madness, a madness that plagued his later years, Otis burned his letters, writings and correspondences. This was a sad blow to future Americans who must now learn about Otis through second-hand accounts.
Otis was famous during the time of America’s founding for several reasons. He was a great orator, close to Patrick Henry in skill and eloquence, a great legal mind, as he argued one of the most famous cases in American colonial history, and is given credit for being the originator or the phrase, “Taxation without representation is tyranny!”
On top of his accomplishments, Otis was a great expounder of liberty who influenced many important Founders and future generations. Otis was even an early abolitionist who abhorred the practice of slavery.
“Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black,” Otis said.
The slave trade and practice of slavery was odious to Otis, and he thought it antithetical to the principles of the enlightenment.
Otis said in 1764:
Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own.
Otis’s ideas about human equality would have to wait several generations to become popular, but the influence on his generation to break the bonds of British tyranny was direct and appreciated in his time.
The most important colonial court case before American independence was the “writs of assistance” case in 1761, which pitted Boston merchants against the British legal authorities. Otis defended the traditional, British liberties that he thought belonged to American colonists as well. Even though Otis lost the case, he inspired a generation of Americans to fight for the cause of liberty.
John Adams, who would come to be called the “Colossus of Independence” and would be elected as the second president of the United States, witnessed the writs of assistance trial and was deeply inspired by Otis’s performance.
“It was a moral spectacle more affecting to me than any I have seen upon the stage, to observe a pupil treating his master with all the deference, respect, esteem, and affectation; while he baffled and confounded all his authorities, confuted all his arguments, and reduced him to silence!” Adams said.
Otis’s health declined steeply in 1770 after he was attacked and beaten with a cane, and slashed by the sword of one of his political enemies. The serious blow that Otis took to his head never healed, and he suffered through pain and mental incoherence for the rest of his life. Sadly, this meant that Otis would have little part to play in the revolution that he helped spark.
The final patriotic act that Otis committed was at Bunker Hill in 1775. Observing the commotion before the battle, Otis borrowed a friend’s musket and headed for the battlefield. However, Otis never made it and ended up wandering aimlessly in the dark.
A great patriot like James Otis deserves to be recognized by Americans for more than his bizarre death. His inspirational words that became a rallying point for lovers of liberty fueled the American Revolution and gave other patriots the resolve to carry out a war against the most powerful country in the world. Otis created lasting liberty for his posterity.