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James Otis

The American Revolution started in 1775 with the battles of Lexington and Concord. However, before the war, the fighting took place in the courts. Throughout the Colonies, lawyers were arguing the finer points of the rights of Englishmen. The Colonists felt that Parliament was infringing upon their rights. Examples of this infringement were, searching and seizing property without a search warrant, taxation without representation, and the Coercive Acts.

 

The one infringement of Englishmen's rights that inflamed the antagonism of the Colonists the most was the General Writs of Assistance. This blanket search warrant allowed customs and other Royal officials to search private establishments and homes and seize private property without cause or due process. This issue allowed James Otis to rise to the pantheon of Patriots of the American Revolution.

James Otis was the Advocate-General of the Crown in Boston at the time the Grenville Administration implemented new customs laws that not only implemented new taxes but also gave customs officials the tool to enforce them. This tool was the Writs of Assistance. These Writs were blanket search warrants that allowed the sheriff and other duly appointed crown officials to search for and seize anything that was contraband by English law, as often as they wished. As Advocate-General, Otis was required to obtain these Writs of Assistance for these officials and enforce them in court.

To Otis these Writs violated the common rights of Englishmen, especially their rights to privacy in the home; therefore, he resigned his lucrative post as Advocate-General in 1760 so that he would not have to enforce these abuses of arbitrary power. Upon hearing about his resignation, Boston merchants asked him to represent their case against the Writs. He enthusiastically did so without pay.

In a dramatic four-hour speech on the Stamp Act  at a court hearing in February 1761, he defended Colonist's rights against illegal search as provided under the English Constitution. His arguments were so effective that Thomas Hutchinson; the Chief Justice postponed the court's ruling until the following year, so that he could get clarification from England. To the citizenry of Massachusetts Otis had won the case.

Three months after the case at Boston's next town meeting, the citizens overwhelmingly voted to send Otis to the Massachusetts legislature. He served until 1769 and with Samuel Adams shared the political leadership of Massachusetts. Otis was an active member of the Sons of Liberty and other patriotic groups. In the legislature, Otis made the motion that resulted in the Massachusetts legislature's circular letter inviting all the Colonies to send delegates to New York City for the Stamp Act Congress of 1765.

In 1769 the king's customs commissioners in Boston described Otis as a "malignant incendiary" and accused him of treason. Otis retorted hotly in an article that appeared in the Boston Gazette of September 4. The next evening he entered a Boston coffeehouse where some commissioners had assembled. A brawl resulted, where Otis received a blow on the head. He became insane, perhaps because of this blow.

Otis regained sanity for a time and in 1771, Bostonians re-elected him as their representative in the legislature. He soon exhibited new signs of derangement, however, and a court declared him insane. A bolt of lightning killed Otis on May 23, 1783, in Andover, Massachusetts.

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