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James Otis (1725-1783)

60 min

Students will:

  • explain the concept of inalienable rights.
  • explain colonists’ objections to writs of assistance.
  • understand James Otis’s opinion of slavery.
  • analyze statements of natural rights.
  • appreciate James Otis’s contributions to the revolutionary period.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of James Otis.

    James Otis was a Patriot leader in Boston. He argued against British use of writs of assistance and wrote essays and pamphlets criticizing British tyranny. He also defended the natural rights of Africans and condemned slavery. His assault by a British customs official ended his public career.

He was called the most important American of the 1760s by no less an authority than John Adams. A trained lawyer and master of argument, James Otis was a leader of the Patriot movement in Boston in those years. Initially a prosecutor for the British authorities, Otis changed sides in 1761, when he argued against writs of assistance (broad search warrants that British officials employed to search the homes and businesses of colonists). During the 1760s, Otis led the intellectual attack against British tyranny, composing ringing defenses of liberty that won Americans to the revolutionary cause and helped to inspire the well-known slogan, “No taxation without representation.”

Otis was also one of the first well-known Americans to defend the natural rights of Africans and to condemn slavery. In doing so, he demonstrated his intellectual honesty and consistency, as well as his personal bravery. John Adams and many others were alarmed by his arguments about race, though Adams knew that they could not be refuted.

Already an eccentric, high-strung and unsteady man, Otis suffered brain damage when a British official whom Otis had singled out for criticism in a newspaper essay attacked him in 1769. The assault incapacitated Otis and ended his public career. His contributions to the American resistance movement were largely forgotten, not only by his contemporaries but also by later generations.

Ask students if they agree with Otis and Locke that people are born with inalienable rights. Conduct a large group discussion to answer the question: What happens when one person’s rights conflict with someone else’s? Ask students to consider examples such as: bans on public smoking, school dress codes, or speed limits. Do citizens have an inalienable right to smoke? To dress any way they want? To speed? If so, should citizens surrender these rights for the good of society?

Students may say that everyone can exercise their rights only as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights. Society is challenged by balancing everyone’s right to liberty as evidenced by the three examples: Some governments ban public smoking because of the health risk to others; students’ right to express themselves through dress cannot infringe on others’ rights to a good learning environment; people have the right to mobility but not to drive in an unsafe manner.

  1. Have students write a four-paragraph essay entitled The Rights of Students Asserted and Proved. Have them explain and justify their choice of four inalienable rights of students at their school.
  2. Have students examine the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. In another document, Otis states, “A supreme legislative and supreme executive power, must be placed somewhere in every commonwealth: Where there is no other positive provision or compact to the contract, those powers remain in the whole body of the people.” How did this idea foresee the principle articulated in the Tenth Amendment?

Have students write a one-page comparison of Otis’s essay The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764) to Samuel Adams’s The Rights of the Colonists (1772). Essays should answer the questions: Whose argument is more radical? How did Otis’s argument provide a foundation for Adams’s essay? In what ways did Adams retreat from Otis’s arguments?

“The Rights of the Colonists: Samuel Adams.” Constitution Society. <>.
“The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved.” <>.

Student Handouts

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