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11 Fascinating Facts About James Otis, the Revolutionary Who Went Insane

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James Otis made taxation without representation a cause of the American Revolution, but when war broke out he had pretty much disappeared from the scene.

Though James Otis didn’t coin the phrase, ‘Taxation Without Representation,” he preached it and popularized it. His pamphlets and speeches inspired many of the revolutionaries of his day, including his friend John Adams.

James Otis

Otis, a brilliant lawyer, became one of the most outspoken critics of taxation without representation in America in his day.

Born in Barnstable, Mass., on Feb. 5, 1725, he died in Andover in 1783 just months before the country fully earned its independence.

James Otis by Henry Blackburn

James Otis originally supported Britain’s policies toward the Massachusetts colony. Though he held appointed positions in the colonial government, he gradually grew disenchanted with the English Parliament.

In 1761, Otis gave a tirade in Boston against the British use of writs of assistance. The writs, or court orders, allowed the government to search colonists’ homes and businesses. Their purpose: to seize undeclared imports that deprived the British treasury of funds.

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.”

Within a decade, James Otis had descended into madness. Adams wrote he “rambles and wanders like a ship without a helm.”

Here are 11 facts about James Otis, the curious campaigner against taxation without representation,

1. He Opposed Slavery.

In 1764, slavery was an open question, with many calling it an abomination. James Otis that year came out against slavery in the protest pamphlet Rights of the British Colonies. He wrote, “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.”

2. Lightning Killed James Otis.

For such a galvanizing figure, his end came fittingly 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.”

3. A Boston Customs Collector Beat Him Up.

Feelings ran high in 1769, and customs collectors had publicly criticized  James Otis. 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 fractured Otis’ skull. Otis sued and won £2000 in damages. Otis relinquished his claim in return for a published apology from Robinson.

4. He Went Insane.

James Otis had already shown signs of mental instability when Robinson beat him up. The beating may have driven him over the edge. His sister wrote, “the future usefulness of this distinguished friend of his country was destroyed, reason was shaken from its throne.” And Lord Mansfield expounded in Parliament. “It is said the man is mad.”

5. He Had His Good Days, However.

Colonial Gov. Thomas Hutchinson noted in his diary that Otis’ madness seemed to come and go. After Otis carried an anti-British vote in the Massachusetts Legislature, Hutchinson 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.

Thomas Hutchinson in 1750.

6. James Otis Predicted How He Would Die.

On one of his visits to his sister Mercy, according to family lore, James Otis described 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

7. He Sacrificed his Personal Life for the Revolution.

John Adams thought the Revolution cost James Otis more than almost any man in the patriot cause. When he began taking political positions and won election to the Legislature, he lost much of his law practice.  “Otis by getting into the general Court, has lost his Business,” wrote Adams.  He also spoke out against Britain at town meetings. “That way madness lies,” wrote Adams. And indeed, as Otis lost hold of his reason, he all but abandoned his legal practice and relied on friends and family for support.

8. A Personal Grudge Turned Him Against the British.

In 1761, James Otis had a personal grievance that motivated him to fight the writs of assistance. British colonial Gov. William Shirley had promised Otis’ father a judgeship, Otis believed. But when Justice Stephen Sewall died in 1760, then-Gov. Sir Francis Bernard gave the post instead to Hutchinson. Otis, then the colony’s advocate general, resigned in protest. He immediately began to oppose the writs of assistance. John Adams noted in his diary:  “The origin of all his Bustle is very well known…Otis said … if his father was not made a judge, he would throw the Province into flames if it cost him his Life.”

9. He Feuded With His Family.

One of Otis’ most outspoken critics was his beautiful, wealthy wife Ruth. She so disapproved of Otis’ public opinions that she refused to sleep with him as long as he opposed British rule. One of his daughters married a Loyalist and Otis disowned her. Ruth would outlive Otis, and never abandoned her Loyalist preferences. In 1770, Adams 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 Mad vs. Father, Wife, Brother, Sister, Friend &c.”

Mercy Otis Warren by John Singleton Copley. Courtesy Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

10. His Sister Also Became a Famous Revolutionary.

Mercy Otis Warren, James’ sister, was an outspoken proponent of American independence. Unlike many women of her age, Mercy freely expressed her opinions. As war approached, Mercy penned a series of satirical poems published in the newspapers criticizing Hutchinson and British rule. Mercy and Abigail Adams became good friends.

11. James Otis Was a Pretty Good Dancer.

John Adams counted James Otis among several ‘men of sense and learning who could dance.’ The prim Adams didn’t approve. Neither Otis, Sewal nor Paine shone as dancers, wrote Adams. ‘And neither of em had the more Sense or Learning, or Virtue for it.’

This story was updated in 2022.

1 comment

Judy Gonyeau June 29, 2017 - 10:12 am

Entertaining and well written as always. I love these emails.

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