The Demise of James Otis
John Rowe’s Diary Entry April 23, 1769
On this day in 1769, John Rowe reported on the demise of James Otis. James was the vocal precursor to Sam Adams. Rowe's diary entry is highlighted below.
"April 22. — This afternoon Mr. Otis behaved very madly, firing guns
out of his window, that caused a large number of people to assemble
James was one of the first to shout-out against taxation. He coined the phrase, “taxation without representation is tyranny.” This quote can be found on his tombstone in the Old Granary Burial Ground.
James was a well-respected lawyer and one of the first to challenge the Townshend Acts of 1767. His nemesis was Thomas Hutchinson the Lt. Governor and head of the Superior court system in Boston. Often, they wrestled for control of the Massachusetts legislature, each abruptly boycotting or closing the legislative session. Each event having something to do with proper representation.
Neither Hutchinson nor Otis would admit to personal jealousy, but the possibility existed. Thomas obtained his position as Chief Justice of the Superior Court appointment over Otis’ father, one of the several likely candidates. Hutchinson was an unusual pick as he was not a lawyer but a historian.[i] James was very vocal in his opposition to anything the government might do in the future. Of this, he was certainly clear, yet he took his anger one giant step further. Irrationally, one day, he engaged in a brawl with the customs officials at the English Coffee House. This was an unfortunate choice of venue as it was frequented by British officers along with customs officials and paid informants.
The brawl did not go well. Otis emerged with a large cut on his head, and probably the trauma accelerated his mental disorder. The two events above gave a clear signal to the Sons of Liberty, the legislature and to Sam Adams that James Otis was deteriorating mentally.
By November, James was relegated to his son's farm in Andover Massachusetts. His physical and mental health seemed to stabilize over a few years. Unfortunately, while standing in the doorway of his son’s house, lightning struck the home and ran down the door frame while he was leaning against it. He did not survive. Historical references are suggesting this was the second time Otis was struck by lightning.
Politically, Otis led the fight for representation in the decade of 1760. Unintentionally, his demise brought on his successor, Samuel Adams, and issues of representation were escalated to a demand for independence.
[i] Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston massacre. New York: W.W. Norton, 1970. Print. P.9, 147-149.
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