Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v1.djvu/151

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.
125
James Otis

impressiveness of style, a noble power of rhetorical form, and a telling incisiveness of phrase which won the instant admiration of English critics, and which stamp the political literature of American national beginnings as superior to the similar literature of any other people anywhere.

Of the first notable contribution to the literary history of the Revolution we have, unfortunately, only a second-hand report. When, in 1761, following the death of George II and the accession of George III, the surveyor-general of customs at Boston applied to the Superior Court of Massachusetts for the reissuance of writs of assistance,[1] granting authority to search for and seize uncustomed goods, some merchants of Boston and others combined to oppose the application. James Otis the younger, for ten years past one of the leaders of the Massachusetts bar, and lately advocate-general, who, unable to support the application for the writs, had resigned his office, made the leading argument for the petitioners. In a great speech, the substance of which has survived only in notes taken at the time by John Adams,[2] then a young lawyer, and more fully written out many years later, Otis challenged the writs as "the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English law-book." At once general in its terms and perpetual in its operation, lacking the exact specification of place and circumstance which a search-warrant ought to contain, such a writ was on both accounts illegal. The freedom of one's house was violated by it; the only precedent for it belonged to the days of arbitrary power under Charles II. "No acts of Parliament can establish such a writ. . . . An act against the constitution is void."

Otis could impede, but he could not defeat, the application, and the writs were eventually issued. He had, however, raised the important question of the application of English law to the colonies, and the nature and extent of the "rights of Englishmen" which the colonial charters, in express terms, had guaranteed. Elected a member of the House of Representatives, he presently led an attack upon Governor Bernard for fitting

  1. A form of writ is given in W. MacDonald, Select Charters, 259–261. The best account of the subject is in Quincy, Massachusetts Reports, 395–540.
  2. Works, II, 124 note, 521–525; x, 246–249, 274–276.