James Otis: Contribution to American Literature

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      JAMES OTIS (1725-1783) was born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard. He studied literature for two years after he graduated and then became a lawyer. He was appointed to the position of king's advocate-general, a high-salaried office. There came an order from England, allowing the king's officers to search the houses of Americans at any time on mere suspicion of the concealment of smuggled goods. Otis resigned his office and took the side of the colonists, attacking the constitutionality of a law that allowed the right of unlimited search and that was really designed to curtail the trade of the colonies. He had the advantage of many modern orators in having something to say on his subject, in feeling deeply interested in it, and in talking to people who were also interested in the same thing. Without these three essentials, there cannot be oratory of the highest kind. We can imagine the voice of Otis trembling with feeling as he said in 1761:—

James Otis
James Otis

      "Now one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one's house. A man's house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses, when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court, can inquire."

      We may to-day be more interested in other things than in the homes and unrestricted trade of our colonial ancestors, but Otis was willing to give up a lucrative office to speak for the rights of the humblest cottager. He, like the majority of the orators of the Revolution, also possessed another quality, often foreign to the modern orator. What this quality is will appear in this quotation from his speech:— "Let the consequences be what they will, I am determined to proceed. The only principles of public conduct that are worthy of a gentleman or a man are to sacrifice estate, ease, health, and applause, and even life, to the sacred calls of his country. These manly sentiments, in private life, make the good citizen; in public life, the patriot and the hero."

      John Adams, who became the second President of the United States, listened to this speech for five hours, and called Otis "a flame of fire." "Then and there," said Adams, with pardonable exaggeration, "the child Independence was born."

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