James Otis, an American orator, born at Great Marshes, now called West Barnstable, Mass., Feb. 5, 1725, died in Andover, May 23, 1783. He graduated at Harvard college in 1743, studied law in Boston, was admitted to the bar in 1748 in Plymouth, where he began to practise, and in 1750 removed to Boston. In 1760 he published a treatise entitled " The Rudiments of Latin Prosody, with a Dissertation on Letters, and the Principles of Harmony in Poetic and Prosaic Composition." His public career dates from his argument, in 1761, on the question whether the persons employed in enforcing the acts of trade should have the power to invoke generally the assistance of all the executive officers of the colony. Otis was at that time advocate general, but, deeming the writs of assistance illegal, refused to argue in behalf of them, and resigned. He was then employed upon the other side, and produced a profound impression. The judges evaded giving a decision; and the writs, although secretly granted at the next term, wore never executed.
The next year Otis was elected to the legislature, where his eloquence soon placed him at the head of the popular party, and justified his claim to the title of the "great incendiary of New England." On June 6, 1765, he moved that a congress of delegates be called from the several colonies. The motion was adopted, and a circular letter was sent to the other colonies, in consequence of which the stamp act congress met in New York in October of that year. Otis was one of the delegates to this body, and a member of the committee to prepare an address to the house of commons. In May, 1767, he was elected speaker of the provincial house, but was negatived by the governor. When Charles Towns-hend's plan of taxation had passed parliament, the Massachusetts house sent in 1768 another circular letter requesting the colonies to unite in some suitable measures of redress. On the message of Gov. Bernard requiring the letter to be rescinded Otis made a speech, pronounced by the friends of the government to be " the most violent, insolent, abusive, and treasonable declaration that perhaps ever was delivered." The house refused to rescind by a vote of 92 to 17. In the summer of 1769, finding that the commissioners of customs had sent accusations against him to England, charging him with treason, he inserted an advertisement in the "Boston Gazette" denouncing them.
The next evening he met Robinson, one of the commissioners, in a coffee house. An altercation ensued, ending in an affray, in which Otis was overpowered by numbers and severely injured. To a cut in the head received on this occasion his subsequent derangement is attributed. In the action instituted against Robinson, he obtained an award of £2,000, which he gave up on receiving from the defendant a humble written apology. In 1770 he retired to the country for his health, but in 1771 was again chosen a representative. Nearly all the rest of his life he was deranged. He spent his last two years at Andover. At one time his mind was thought to be restored, and he returned to Boston and resumed the practice of law; but the lucid interval proving temporary, he went back to Andover, and was shortly after killed by a stroke of lightning while standing at the door of the house in which he lodged. During his derangement he destroyed all his papers. He had previously published pamphlets entitled " A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives" (1762), "The Rights of the British Colonies asserted" (1764), and "Considerations on behalf of the Colonists" (1765). - See " Life of James Otis," by William Tudor (Boston, 1823).