Wednesday, November 28, 2007

James Otis: Early Abolitionist

Remembering the American Revolution is often done from the perspective of valiant patriots on the battlefield, exerting themselves for the "Glorious cause" of independence. Our national sense of pride comes from heroic stories of fearless soldiers, holding steadfast against the mighty arm of the British Army. Rarely are the contributions of peaceful protesters remembered. We often forget the "American Revolution" of the common citizen.

Such is the case with James Otis. Though not a common citizen, Otis's legacy is often shrouded by the contributions of those that fought in the ranks of the Continental Army. Otis was not a warrior. He never fought for independence (in fact, Otis was quite reluctant to break from Great Britain). yet Otis was undoubtedly one of the first influential voices of the American Revolution. Aside from his protests against the British, Otis was also a powerful voice against slavery (which is often a forgotten part of his legacy). Throughout his life, Otis wrote some stirring arguments against slavery. In a 1764 pamphlet Otis wrote:

Does it follow that 'tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face? Nothing better can be said in favor of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men's liberty will soon care little for their own.

John Adams recalled Otis speaking against slavery even earlier, during his argument against the writs of assistance in 1761. Adams recalled the moment this way:

He asserted that these rights were inherent and inalienable. That they never could be surrendered or alienated but by idiots or madmen and all the acts of idiots and lunatics were void and not obligatory, by all the laws of God and man. Nor were the poor Negroes forgotten. Not a Quaker in Philadelphia or Mr. Jefferson in Virginia ever asserted the rights of Negroes in stronger terms. Young as I was and ignorant as I was, I shuddered at the doctrine he taught...

Remembering Otis as a pioneer for the later abolitionists should not be forgotten. When dressed in this light, Otis's legacy and contributions become every bit as important as those of the men that fought on the battlefield.

***The excerpt from Otis's pamphlet and the John Adams quote were taken from the Boston, 1775 blog (***

1 comment:

Lindsey Shuman said...

Otis is a great figure of this time period. I never knew about the slavery stuff though...fascinating.