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Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889 and 1999. Virtualology.com warns that these 19th Century biographies contain errors and bias. We rely on volunteers to edit the historic biographies on a continual basis. If you would like to edit this biography please submit a rewritten biography in text form . If acceptable, the new biography will be published above the 19th Century Appleton's Cyclopedia Biography citing the volunteer editor

 



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James Otis

OTIS, James, statesman, born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, 5 February, 1725; died in Andover, Massachusetts, 23 May, 1783. He was descended in the fifth generation from John Otis, one of the first settlers of Hingham. This John Otis came with his family front Hingham, in Norfolk, England, in June, 1635. His grandson, John, born in Hingham, Massachusetts, in 1657, removed to Barnstable, where he died, 30 November, 1727. He was for eighteen years colonel of militia, for twenty years representative, for twenty-one years member of the council, for thirteen chief justice of common pleas, and judge of probate. Two of his sons, John and James, were known in public life. John was representative for Barnstable, and afterward for several years a member of the council until his death in 1756. James, born in Barnstable in 1702, became eminent at the bar. Like his father, he was colonel of militia, justice of common pleas, and judge of probate, and was for some time a member of the council. He married Mary Allyne, or Alleyne, of Wethersfield, Connecticut, daughter of Joseph Allyne, of Plymouth. Of their thirteen children, several died in infancy. The eldest son, James, the subject of this sketch, was fitted for college under the care of the Reverend Jonathan Russell, of Barnstable, and was graduated at Harvard in 1743. After two years spent in the study of general literature he began the study of law in 1745 in the office of Jeremiah Gridley, who was then one of the most distinguished lawyers in this country. In 1748 he began the practice of law at Plymouth, but soon found that the scanty business of such a place did not afford sufficient scope for his powers. He removed to Boston in 1750, and soon rose to the foremost rank in his profession. His business became very lucrative, and he won a reputation for extraordinary eloquence, while his learning and integrity were held in high and well-deserved esteem. It was in those days noted as remarkable that he was once called as far as Halifax in the dead of winter to act as counsel for three men accused of piracy. He procured the acquittal of his clients, and received the largest fee that had ever been paid to a Massachusetts lawyer. Until this time he continued his literary studies, and in 1760 published " Rudiments of Latin Prosody," which was used as a text-book at Harvard. A similar work on Greek prosody remained in manuscript until it was lost, along with many others of his papers. Early m 1755 Mr. Otis married Miss Ruth Cunningham, daughter of a Boston merchant. Of their three children, the only son, James, died at the age of eighteen; the elder daughter, Elizabeth, married Captain Brown, of the British army, and ended her days in England ; the younger, Mary, married Benjamin, eldest son of the distinguished Gem Lincoln. Mr. Otis seems always to have lived happily with his wife, but she failed to sympathize with him in his political career, and remained herself a stanch loyalist until her death, 15 November, 1789 His public career began in 1761. On the death of Chief-Justice Sewall in 1760, Governor Bernard appointed Thomas Hutchinson to succeed him. James Otis, the father, had sat his heart upon obtaining this place, and both father and son were extremely angry at the appointment of Hutchinson. The latter, who was a very fair-minded man and seldom attributed unworthy motives to political opponents, nevertheless declares in his " History of Massachusetts Bay" that chagrin and disappointment had much to do with the course of opposition to government which the Otises soon followed. The charge deserves to be mentioned, because it is reiterated by Gordon, who sided with the patriots, but it is easy to push such personal explanations altogether too far. No doubt the feeling may have served to give an edge to the eloquence with which Mr. Otis attacked the ministry; but his political attitude was too plainly based on common sense, and on a perception of the real merits of the questions then at issue, to need any other explanation. On the accession of George III. it was decided to enforce the navigation acts, which for a long time American shipmasters and merchants had habitually evaded. One of the revenue officers in Boston petitioned the superior court for " writs of assist-ante," which were general search-warrants, allowing officials of the custom-house to enter houses or shops in quest of smuggled goods, but without specifying either houses or goods. There can be little doubt that the issue of such search-warrants was strictly legal. They had been authorized by statute of Charles II., and two statutes of William III. had expressly extended to custom-house officers in America the same privileges that they enjoyed in England. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the issue of such warrants in general terms and without most sedulous provisions against arbitrary abuse was liable to result in a most odious form of oppression. It contravened the great principle that an Englishman's house is his castle, and it was not difficult to show that men of English blood and speech could be counted on to resist such a measure. The conduct of Mr. Otis on this occasion is an adequate answer to the charge that his conduct was determined by personal considerations. Ha then held the crown office of advocate-general, with an ample salary and prospects of high favor from government. When the revenue officers called upon him, in view of his position, to defend their cause, he resigned his office and at once undertook to act as counsel for the merchants of Boston in their protest against the issue of the writs. A large fee was offered him, but he refused it. " In such a cause," said he, " I despise all fees." The case was tried in the council chamber at the east end of the old town-hall, or what is now known as the " Old State-House." at the head of State street, in Boston. Chief-Justice Hutchinson presided, and Gridley argued the case for the writs in a most powerful and learned speech. The reply of Otis, which took five hours in the delivery, was probably one of the greatest speeches of modern times. It went beyond the particular legal question immediately at issue, and took up the whole question of the constitutional relations between the colonies and the mother country. At the bottom of this, as of all the disputes that led to the Revolution, lay the ultimate question whether Americans were bound to yield obedience to laws that they had no share in making. This question, and the spirit that answered it flatly and doggedly in the negative, were heard like an undertone pervading all the arguments in Otis's wonderful speech, and it was because of this that John Adams, who was present, afterward declared that on that day "the child Independence was born." No doubt the argument must have gone far in furnishing weapons for the popular leaders in the contest that was impending. Hutchinson reserved his decision until advice could be had from the law-officers of the crown in London; and when next term he was instructed by them to grant the writs, this result added fresh impetus to the spirit that Otis's eloquence had aroused. At the ensuing election, in May, 1761, Mr. Otis was chosen representative, and in the following year he opposed the motion for granting a sum of money to make good the expenses of a naval expedition to the northeast, which Governor Bernard had made upon his own responsibility. When taken to task for this conduct, Mr. Otis justified himself in a pamphlet entitled "The Rights of the Colonies Vindicated" (1764). In this masterly argument the author planted himself squarely upon the ground that in all questions relating to the expenditure of public money the rights of a colonial legislature were as sacred as the rights of the house of commons. In June, 1765, Mr. Otis moved that a congress of delegates from all the colonies be called together to consider what should be done about the stamp-act. In that famous congress which met in October in New York he was a delegate and one of the committee for preparing an address to parliament. In 1767, when elected speaker of the Massachusetts assembly, he was negatived by Governor Bernard. On the news of Charles Townshend's revenue acts, the assembly prepared a circular letter to be sent to all the colonies, inviting concerted resistance. The king was greatly offended at this, and instructions were sent to Bernard to dismiss the assembly unless it should rescind its circular letter. In the debate upon this royal order Otis made a fiery speech, in which he used the expression: " We are asked to rescind, are we! Let Great Britain rescind her measures, or the colonies are lost to her forever."

In the summer of 1769 he got into a controversy with some revenue officers, and attacked them in the Boston "Gazette." A few evenings afterward, while sitting in the British coffee-house, he was assaulted by one Robinson, a commissioner of customs, supported by several army or navy officers. Mr. Otis was savagely beaten, and received a sword-cut in the head, from the effects of which he never recovered. He had already shown some symptoms of mental disease, but from this time he rapidly grew worse until his reason forsook him. He brought suit against Robinson, who was assessed in £2,000 damages for the assault" but when the penitent officer made a written apology and begged pardon for his irreparable offence, Mr. Otis refused to take a penny. With this lamentable affair his public career may be said to have ended, for, although in 1771 he was again chosen to the legislature, and was sometimes afterward seen in court or in town-meeting, he was unable to take part in public business. In June, 1775, he was living, harmlessly insane, at the house of his sister, Mercy Warren, at Watertown. When he heard the rumor of battle on the 17th, he stole quietly away, borrowed a musket at some farm-house by the roadside, and joined the minute-men, who were marching to the aid of the troops on Bunker Hill. He took an active part in that battle, and after it was over made his way home again toward midnight. The last years of his life were spent in Andover. Early in 1778, in a lucid interval, he went to Boston and argued a case in the common pleas, but found himself unequal to such exertion, and after a short interval returned to Andover. Six weeks after his return, as he was standing in his front doorway in a thunder-shower, leaning on his cane and talking to his family, he was struck by lightning and instantly killed. It was afterward remarked that he had been heard to express a wish that he might die in such a way. He was a man of powerful intelligence, with great command of language and a most impressive delivery, but his judgment was often unsound, and his mental workings were so fitful and spasmodic that it was not always easy to tell what course he was likely to pursue. For such prolonged, systematic, and cool-headed work as that of Samuel Adams he was by nature unfit, but the impulse that he gave to the current of events cannot be regarded as other than powerful. His fame will rest chiefly upon the single tremendous speech of 1761, followed by the admirable pamphlet of 1764. His biography has been ably written by William Tudor (Boston, 1823). --His brother, Samuel Alleyne, statesman, born in Barnstable, Massachusetts, 24 November, 1740" died in Washington, D. C., 22 April, 1814, was graduated at Harvard in 1759. He studied law, but turned his attention to mercanthe business. He was chosen a representative in 1776, and in 1784 was speaker of the house. He was a member of the board of war, and in 1780 was a member of the convention that framed the constitution of Massachusetts. In 1787 he was one of the commissioners sent to negotiate with Daniel Shays and his insurgents, and in the following year he was a delegate to the Continental congress in its last session. After the adoption of the Federal constitution he was secretary of the United States senate. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Harrison Gray, receiver-general of Massachusetts.--Their son, Harrison Gray, statesman, born in Boston, 8 October, 1765" died there, 28 October, 1848, was graduated at Harvard in 1783. He was admitted to the bar in 1786, and two years afterward delivered the Fourth-of-July oration in Boston. In 1787 he was captain in the militia, and served as aide-de-camp to General Brooks in the campaign against the Shays insurgents. He soon rose to distinction at the bar. His courtly manners and winning address made him a favorite in society, and his style of oratory was much admired. In 1796 he was chosen to the state legislature, and in 1797-1801 was a member of congress, and prominent among the Federalist leaders. Returning to Massachusetts, he was district attorney in 1801, speaker of the house in 1803-'5, and president of the state senate in 1805-'11. In 1814 he was appointed justice of common pleas, and held that office for four years. In the Hartford convention, 1814, he took a prominent part, and thus laid himself open to imputations of disloyalty, which to some extent diminished his popularity, he was nevertheless chosen United States senator in 1817, and retained that place until 1822, when he resigned his seat to become a candidate for the office of mayor of Boston. Up to that time Boston had re-rained its old town government by town-meetings and selectmen, and to be chosen first mayor of Boston was felt by many of its citizens to be an honor for which one might willingly exchange a very high office. The war record of Mr. Otis is thought to have redounded to his disadvantage. Before election-day his name was withdrawn from the canvass, and John Phillips was elected with a near approach to unanimity. In 1829 Mr. Otis was elected mayor, and in his inaugural address took occasion to repel the charge of disloyalty to the Union, which had been repeatedly brought against the members of the Hartford convention. "At no time in the course of my life," said he, "have I been present, at any meeting of individuals, public or private, of the many or the few, or privy to any correspondence of whatever description, m which any proposition having for its object the dissolution of the Union, or its dismemberment in any shape, or a separate confederacy, or a forcible resistance to the government or laws, was ever made or debated, and I have no reason to believe that any such scheme was ever meditated by distinguished individuals of the old Federal party." Such a declaration may serve to show that the dangerous tendencies latent in such movements as that of the Hartford convention were not always comprehended even by the leading actors, and it may be instructively compared with statements often made on the eve of the Declaration of Independence, to the effect that the American colonies had no intention of breaking off their connection with the British empire. Among the other noteworthy speeches of Mr. Otis may be mentioned especially his eulogy on Alexander Hamilton in 1804, and his argument in the United States senate on the Question of the admission of Missouri to the Union m 1820. See James S. Loring's "The Hundred Boston Orators" (Boston, 1852).--His son, George, educator, born in 179'7; died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1828, was graduated at Harvard in 1815, studied for the ministry, and became a clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal church. From 1820 till 1826 he was tutor at Harvard and in 1826-'7 he was professor of Latin. On leaving the college he became rector of Christ church, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he remained until his death, he published " Perfectibility," "An Address to the Humane Society at Newburyport in 1818," and a " Ser-men," delivered at Cambridge in 1826.--The second Harrison Gray's wife, Eliza Henderson, born in Boston, Massachusetts, 27 July, 1796; died there, 21 January, 1873, was the daughter of William Bordman, a Boston merchant, and on 6 May, 1817, married Mr. Otis, after whose death she went to Europe, residing there for several years to educate her children. Upon her return to Boston she became a leader in social circles, and was active in works of charity. She was the first to celebrate George Washington's birthday regularly, and finally induced the legislature to make the 22d of February a legal holiday. During the civil war she was interested in the relief of soldiers and was a leader in the Evans house aid committee, receiving a vote of thanks from the mayor and council. Her portrait, by George P. A. Healy, is possessed by the Bostonian society, in the old South church. She was the author of "The Barclays of Boston," a novel (Boston, 1854) ; and contributed to the Boston "Transcript" under the signature of "One of the Barclays."

Edited Appletons Encyclopedia, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM

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