The Ghost of James Otis Jr.

Whenever something goes missing or falls off the wall or shelf in the Old State House, the staff like to blame it on the ghost of James Otis Jr. In honor of Halloween and our favorite ghost story, we'd like to share the life story of James Otis Jr., before he became a spectral troublemaker.

James Otis Jr. was a brilliant orator and one of the most prominent lawyers in Boston during the 18th century. He also had a strong connection to the Old State House: it was here that he argued his case against the Writs of Assistance in 1761 and voiced his opposition to British taxes. Otis led a fascinating and eventful life and unfortunately suffered an untimely and strange death.  

James Otis, Jr. was born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts on February 5, 1725. His father, James Otis, Sr., was a prominent lawyer in Massachusetts, as well as a militia officer. Otis, Jr. attended Harvard University at the age of 14, and after he graduated in 1743 he studied law under Jeremiah Gridley, one of the best lawyers in the colonies at the time. In 1748, Otis established a law practice in Plymouth, and two years later he moved his practice to Boston. He was regarded as one of Boston’s most esteemed lawyers, a man of intelligence and eloquence, and as a result his business flourished. 

In 1760, Otis was appointed Advocate General of the Admiralty Court, a position he held for only a short amount of time. When called upon to defend the Writs of Assistance that were used by British officials, Otis resigned rather than do so. Writs of Assistance were general search warrants issued by courts in England and the colonies. The purpose was to allow the British government to enforce trade and navigation laws by allowing officials to search any home, ship, business, or warehouse for smuggled goods. By doing so, the government could ensure that proper duties were paid on trade items. The warrants did not have to specify which ship or building was to be searched or what items officials were looking for. There was no need for probable cause, as there is today, and officials had broad search powers. The writs had been used for over 100 years, but were not protested until they were used in the 1760s to enforce taxes and import restrictions. 

Otis was retained as a lawyer by a group of Boston merchants challenging the writs before the Superior Court of Massachusetts. During the course of a five-hour speech in February 1761 at the Old State House, he argued that the writs were unconstitutional and as British subjects, colonists were entitled to the same rights as Englishman. Included among those rights was the right to representation in Parliament if the crown was to levy taxes on the colonists. Otis stated that the writs were, “to me the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English law-book.” John Adams, a fellow lawyer, was present in court that day and later wrote, “Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born.” Otis lost the case, but in the process, he further publicized the issue. 

Three months after Otis argued against the Writs of Assistance, he was appointed to the General Court in Massachusetts. He was reelected for several years, and in 1766 was appointed Speaker of the House, although the position was rescinded by the royal governor due to Otis’ opposition to British taxes and policies. In 1764, he published The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. In this pamphlet, Otis argued for American rights and limits on British authority. He stated that, “The very act of taxing, exercised over those who are not represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights.” 

In 1765 Parliament announced the Stamp Act, which would place a tax on almost all printed documents, including newspapers, legal documents, and playing cards. When the Stamp Act Congress met in New York City in October 1765 to debate the issue, Otis was chosen as a delegate. Two years later, when the Townshend Acts went into effect, Otis and Samuel Adams co-wrote a letter of protest known as the Massachusetts Circular Letter. The letter was passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives in February 1768 and sent to the other colonies. In this letter, Adams and Otis stated that the Townshend Acts, which placed a tax on tea, paper, lead, glass, and paint, was not legal because the colonists did not have representation in Parliament. It was the same argument Otis had put forth 7 years prior during his argument against the Writs of Assistance. 

While in a coffee house in Boston during the summer of 1769, Otis was attacked by British custom officers and struck in the head. The incident seems to have intensified a slow mental deterioration that had been occurring for several years. For the next 15 years, Otis had periods of lucidity but for the most part his days of public life were over. On May 23, 1783, while standing in the doorway of a house, Otis was struck by lightning. He died instantly. 

Most histories of the American Revolution mention little about Otis, if he is mentioned at all. Along with Thomas Paine, he is generally one of the forgotten Founding Fathers of this country, likely due to the fact that most of his contributions to the Revolution occurred before the war began. But Otis’ connection to the American Revolution should not be overlooked. He laid the foundation for American independence and his arguments against the Writs of Assistance stirred anger amongst the colonists against British policies. It would take further policies and taxes for colonists to resist British authority more strongly, but when they did, it was James Otis, Jr.’s belief they frequently voiced: taxation without representation is tyranny.