February 5 - 1725: James Otis Jr. was born

1725: Revolution-era "Flame of Fire" is born in Barnstable
James Otis Jr. shares the front lawn of the Barnstable County Courthouse in Barnstable Village with his sister, Mercy Otis Warren. Photo by Maggie Kulbokas.

1725: James Otis Jr. was born on this day in West Barnstable

Author of landmark phrase "A man's home is his castle"

On this day in 1725, James Otis Jr., one of the most influential figures in fomenting revolution against Great Britain by the 13 colonies that formed the United States, was born in the village of West Barnstable.

The oldest of 13 children, Otis was educated at Harvard and began his law practice in Plymouth before relocating to Boston in 1750. A decade later, he was appointed to the prestigious position of Advocate General of the Admiralty Court, which oversaw maritime affairs. Otis soon resigned, however, rather than argue in favor of the Writs of Assistance, vaguely worded warrants that allow searches of colonial property and vessels without warning or probable cause.

In a dramatic five-hour speech at the old State House in February 1761, Otis represented pro bono the merchants who challenged the legality of the writs before the Superior Court, a predecessor to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

"A man's house is his castle," Otis argued, "and whilst he is quiet, he is well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Customhouse 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 may inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient."

... Every man prompted by revenge, ill humor, or wantonness to inspect the inside of his neighbor's house, may get a writ of assistance," Otis went on to say. "Others will ask it from self-defense; one arbitrary exertion will provoke another, until society be involved in tumult and in blood."

 

Among those who heard Otis was future president John Adams, who described the Barnstable native as "a flame of fire; with a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical events and dates, a profusion of legal authorities."

Adams would later write that "the child independence was then and there born,[for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance."

(Illustration credit, billofrightsinstitute.org)


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