Today in history, on Feb. 5, 1725, James Otis Jr., a Massachusetts patriot who many considered indispensable to the cause of liberty, was born.
A fiery orator and fierce defender of traditional Whig principles, Otis’ role as a colonial agitator was truly pivotal. As America’s first whistleblower, he tirelessly argued against the writs of assistance and published pamphlets highly critical of British tax policy.
Viewing the colonial writs as a blatant violations of privacy rights, Otis believed the crown had desecrated principles held paramount by the British constitutional system, going all the way back to the Magna Carta. He believed strongly in the inalienable rights of all, strongly condemning taxation levied by bodies outside of the direct local assemblies of the people. He also fiercely attacked slavery. “The colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black,” he wrote.
Although Otis lost a famous case that challenged the legitimacy of the writs in 1761, his arguments left a clear impression upon patriot minds. Many future figureheads stood in awe, and Otis received widespread popularity. John Adams was so moved by the persuasive power of his railings against the Writs of Assistance, he wrote the following of Otis’ most famous speech against the policy:
“American independence was then and there born. The seeds of patriots and heroes, to defend the vigorous youth, were then and there sown. Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance…Mr. Otis’s oration against Writs of Assistance, breathed into this nation the breath of life.”
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