A Long Time Ago in Boston: Part I

It's hard to imagine the United States existing without James Otis and Samuel Adams. It was Otis, in fact, who got the Revolution underway in a marathon courtroom speech in 1761. But it was Adams who carried his contemporaries home, the man perfectly suited to lead a revolt. The fiery Otis wavered in his convictions and eventually deteriorated mentally so much he was retired to a farm. Loss of one's health was the going price in politics back then. Though about the same age as Otis, Adams looked a generation older during Boston's political wars of the 1760s and 1770s. An inherited palsy instilled a permanent unsteadiness in his hands and head, and his hair turned gray early. The tremor in his hands was so intense he had difficulty writing, yet he was able to pen essays and deliver speeches that mark turning points in American history. Stress also took its toll on their political foils, Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard and Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson. As a man with no stomach for violent opposition, Bernard frequently pleaded with London to bring him back to England and reassign him. The personally brave Hutchinson suffered a mild stroke from his political battles with Otis and Adams. Even after achieving his life goal of governor, he was soon pleading with his English superiors to replace him with a more effective man. And they did. What made those days so stressful? Primarily three things: (1) The arrogance of Crown and Parliament in believing they could dictate policies for the colonies, (2) an unrealistic understanding of colonial trade, and (3) the unremitting determination of Samuel Adams to establish independence. Make no mistake ' Boston was the driving force of the American Revolution, and Adams and Otis were doing the driving. Otis inaugurates revolutionary thoughts Both men studied John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers at Harvard and took the philosophy of man's rights and limited government to heart. Otis became a distinguished lawyer and later worked for the Crown as advocate general prosecuting smugglers in Boston's Vice-Admiralty Court. His life changed forever on November 13, 1760, however, when Bernard appointed Hutchinson to the Superior Court instead of Otis' father, who had been promised the position by previous governors. Otis believed he had talked Hutchinson into recommending his father for the position. When Hutchinson was named to the post instead, Otis resigned in a rage. A few months later he exacted a measure of revenge against Hutchinson. In a famous court case in which Hutchinson presided, Otis defended town merchants against the use of general search warrants called writs of assistance. In a speech that mesmerized his audience for over four hours, Otis raised the writs issue to philosophical levels and spoke at length about the connection of British law to natural rights. Man's rights, he said, took precedence over everything, even the survival of the state. Since the writs violated natural law and the unwritten English constitution, they were void the instant Parliament had created them. Other lawyers in the courtroom scribbled notes while he spoke, and his statements became the literature of the Revolution. Having a sparse legal background, Hutchinson postponed a ruling on the matter and months later got the court to decide in favor of the writs. Though Hutchinson had his way in a legal sense, he handed Otis a major political victory. Otis had exposed Hutchinson and Bernard as oppressors of merchant rights and won enough support to get elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in the spring of 1761. Adams opposes the 'power to abuse' Samuel Adams' father, Deacon Adams, had also suffered at the hands of Hutchinson. Around 1740, the Deacon and some associates founded a private bank that issued paper money using their land and homes as security. Two years later Hutchinson helped kill the bank, leaving the senior Adams deeply in debt. Samuel and his father managed to keep Massachusetts officials from seizing their home, but it was an episode that haunted young Adams for a long time. Samuel made his first political speech at his Harvard graduation ceremony in 1743, at age 20. With Governor Shirley and his council present, Adams delivered his talk entirely in Latin about the lawfulness of revolting against unjust government, though taking care not to mention the Crown officials present. During the 1750s, while Otis was learning his law, Adams wrote and spoke against the governor's administration, insisting the Crown had too much power and the province too little. Citing a trend we now take for granted, Adams said Massachusetts was giving up its rights by the hourglass method, a little at a time. He said it was right and necessary to criticize abuses of power, and anyone who disagreed was himself a rebel. Adams took this position repeatedly in later years, meaning it was the tyrant and his court who were out of line, not the ones opposing them, because government's sole purpose was to preserve liberty. The Stamp Tax ' the first major crisis The difference between Adams and most other colonists, including James Otis, could be seen in their reactions to the announcement of the Stamp Tax in 1765. While others responded variously with approval, rage, or grudging submission, Adams saw the coming tax as a blessing, because it presented an opportunity to move the colonies closer to independence. Adams was skilled at winning the support of Boston's tough guys, the blacksmiths, dockhands, sailors and other workers who would do most of the fighting if war with England broke out. He had already gained favor with them as a lenient tax collector by never pressing for payment when they were broke. Although many workers thought the Stamp Tax was unfair, they believed it would rarely affect them. But wait, Adams would tell them, consider this: you will be paying taxes on your marriage certificates, your children's school diplomas, the bills of sale on the houses and land you buy, even the playing cards you use. The workers' indignation was thus righteously stoked. In this manner he organized the 'Sons of Liberty,' a name extracted from a remark made by Colonel Isaac Barre, who had predicted to Parliament that 'those sons of liberty' across the Atlantic would fight the new tax. Always working behind the scenes, Adams sent them into action on August 14, 1765 in what became known as the Boston Stamp Act riot. The mob razed the houses of Thomas Hutchinson and pending stamp commissioner Andrew Oliver and sent Bernard fleeing to Castle William in the harbor. A month later Adams won a close vote for a House seat to replace the deceased Oxenbridge Thacher, co-counsel with Otis in the 1761 writs case. In the House Adams hammered away at the Stamp Tax and everyone who supported it, especially the governor, who had told the representatives the law must be obeyed. Bernard was so upset at the rioting and the savage verbal assaults that he predicted the end of government when the act took effect on November 1. 'The people here are actually mad,' he said. 'No man in Bedlam more so.' Otis meanwhile was representing the province as part of a three-man delegation to the Stamp Act Congress in New York, an intercolonial assembly he had organized earlier that year. In a radical mood when he left Boston, Otis became visibly conservative while in New York, where he dined with British General Thomas Gage. Back in Boston on November 5, Otis delivered a Pope's Day speech that Bernard described as 'a most inflammatory harangue.' Otis had coined the phrase, 'Taxation without representation is tyranny,' and believed the solution to colonial grievances was representation in the House of Commons. Adams convinced him representation would never work because London was too far away. Otis had been writing newspaper articles under the name Hampden, and the more he wrote, the further away from reconciliation with England he moved. With a change in his convictions came a decline in his health; he started having nosebleeds. In England, the colonies had enough supporters to get the Stamp Act repealed. Aside from the Whigs in Parliament, their greatest allies were British merchants who had incurred painful losses from the colonies' boycott of British goods. But along with repeal came a guarantee of more trouble to come: Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, asserting its power to legislate for the colonies.

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George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.