Quick As Lightning

This Day in History

Most of us are familiar with the rousing war-cry “no taxation without representation,” that so eloquently encapsulated the mounting frustration that was palpable in the spirit of the American colonists. Many of us do not know that it was a young colonial lawyer with a lightning wit named James Otis, Jr. who first uttered the clarion call for liberty.

But this was not the only time Otis spoke his mind regarding the oppressive regime of the Mother country. In fact, on this day in 1768 James Otis, Jr. used rather “salty” language to describe members of the British House of Commons wherein he referred to them as, “button-makers, horse jockey gamesters, pensioners, pimps and whore-masters” when he spoke before Boston lawmakers. 

He, like many other colonists, did not always have such disdain for England and in fact was quite enamored with his beloved Tory wife, Ruthie. But as was the case with many a patriot, the dissatisfaction grew and festered over time as he bore witness to their constant mistreatment in the form of unfair taxation, forced quartering of British soldiers in colonists’ dwellings, and absolutely no voice in the royal government, who had complete control over how their tax money was allocated.

James Otis, Jr. Engraving

Otis gained knowledge of the “affairs of the day” in the legal profession and through his family’s political connections. Interestingly, he was in line to be advocate general which would have involved the vigorous prosecution of colonists caught smuggling goods on ships in order to avoid paying unreasonable import duties. Rather than represent the Crown, he elected to defend the colonists charged, free of charge!

But alas, his passionate case against the legality of the Writs of Assistance (1760) which allowed for extensive and liberal searches of property to obtain contraband proved futile as it was ultimately determined to be lawful.

James Otis, Jr. indisputably made significant contributions to the patriot cause, but tragically also suffered from “mental instability” which was made markedly worse when he was stricken in the head by the sword of a Boston tax collector reportedly over inflammatory remarks made by Otis. He was believed to never quite be the same after such a violent brain injury.

One very familiar phrase attributed to Otis may be surprising. He once proclaimed that “a man’s home is his castle.” He stated on many occasions that he was willing to die there – and there he did, albeit at a friends home. He once remarked to his sister Mercy Otis Warren that, “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.” God accommodated his wishes when in May of 1783 He sent a lightning bolt down from the heavens to take him home at the age of 58.

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