As you may have noticed in the Welcome section on the homepage, I am not only a cycling junky who loves history, but I am also a PhD student at Liberty University. I am now at the point of my studies where work on my dissertation has begun and the excitement of realizing that I have come from a humble, blue-collar background to this point just amazes me. But researching, analyzing, interpreting, and writing a dissertation is a joint effort, through the support of family, friends, and other interested parties. You my friends are the other interested parties. So why should you care that I am writing about an individual little known to American Revolution history but one who played an integral part in the revolutionary fervor in Boston during the 1760s?
Well, let me begin by introducing my subject, James Otis. James Otis was a lawyer from Boston who in 1761 argued against the writs of assistance. The writs were basically an open search warrant granted by the court to customs officials who suspected an individual of illicit crimes, most notably smuggling. Otis argued that the writs violated the basic human rights of Englishmen and their right to privacy since the writs afforded open searches and seizures (if applicable) thus the violation of privacy. Otis’s arguments would set the precedent for the 4th amendment to the Constitution. But in terms of the revolution, John Adams, who witnessed Otis’s arguments against the writs in 1761 wrote many years later that Otis was a “flame of fire!” by performing in the “first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain” and laid the foundation for the “child independence” being born.(1)
You may be asking yourself, why should I care about James Otis? My dissertation will seek to answer that question by examining his role in the development of revolutionary thinking of the 1760s and how those thoughts spread to the American Revolution. Keep in mind however that Otis was not calling for American independence but merely reforms to the British political system that would make things fair for all British subjects. He simply wanted an even playing field for British subjects, especially those in the American colonies who were not represented in Parliament. When British officials who were faced with an enormous debt incurred by the Seven Years War sought to enact more stringent enforcement of the Navigation Acts to curb smuggling and increase revenue as well as enact new tax measures such as the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Townshend Duties (1767) Otis and Samuel Adams led the Sons of Liberty in the protests against these decisions being passed by Parliament without colonial representation or say.
Otis played a pivotal role as a leader of the Sons of Liberty in Boston and led the charge in protesting these acts of Parliament primarily with his writings that were published in the Boston Gazette. Samuel Adams, who worked closely alongside Otis in the Sons of Liberty contributed his own opinions through the press but also led the formal protests and marches in Boston. In 1765, the two men worked together to call for the Stamp Act Congress, bring together political figures from the other colonies to work as a whole against the usurpation of Parliamentary rule and in 1767 the two men issued the Circular Letter beginning what would become the Committees of Correspondence within the colonies.
The problem for Otis however was that he suffered from mental illness in what some modern historians consider to be possible bi-polar disorder and manic depression. The downfall of Otis related to his mental illness would come in September 1769 when brain injuries suffered at the hands of British tax official John Robinson would exacerbate his mental illness and lead to Otis departing the stage of the American Revolution. Numerous accounts in diaries, letters, and newspaper articles speak of Otis not being in “his perfect mind” and by November 1771 Otis was declared “a distracted, or lunatic person.”(2) Otis would leave the revolutionary scene entirely when he resigned his position on the Boston Committee of Correspondence at the end of 1774 and would live the remainder of his life in the shadows of the American Revolution. He would die in May 1783, when he was struck by lightning, never seeing the end of the American Revolution of which he was so instrumental in starting.
In order to provide a complete analysis of James Otis, his contribution to the American Revolution and his downfall due to mental illness, analysis of primary and secondary sources are just the beginning. The methodology of this research will take me into published and digitized primary sources such as diaries, letters, and newspapers. Unfortunately none of these primary sources are penned by Otis as he on several occasions burned his papers in fits of lunacy as recorded by numerous of his contemporaries.
Numerous sub-fields, many of which I had not considered will require research and analysis. These include 18th century mental illness, Enlightenment period political theorists and the influence of their writings on revolutionary leaders, the relationship between Otis and Royal Governor Francis Bernard and Lt Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and many others. Most notably, the sub-field of the historiography of James Otis, or lack thereof will be an important component of the project.
In searching for material, the obvious answer is to search library catalogs, digital archives, and online databases such as JSTOR. But I have discovered one search engine that has proven to be highly successful in my research. That being social media, especially Twitter. With my many contacts on Twitter, simply asking where I might find sources or asking historian colleagues questions has provided such important leads for me to pursue. I highly recommend adding this approach to research methodology.
Stand by for updates to the dissertation process. I am really excited about this journey and I hope that you will enjoy seeing my progress over the next couple of years.
(1) From John Adams to William Tudor, 29 March 1817,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-6735.
(2) A Report of the Record Commission of the City of Boston Containing the Selectmen’s Minutes from 1769 through April 1775 (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, 1893), 103.