Friday, November 12, 2010

Another Founding Father?

As late as 1760, 16 years before the Declaration of Independence, the British colonists in North America may have had some disputes with London, but the idea that they might one day sever their ties as loyal subjects of the crown was simply unthinkable. This was a time in which a person born a subject of the King of England lived a subject, and died a subject. Any alternative never crossed one's mind.

But, starting in 1761, a new kind of political movement arose: Maybe the colonies didn't have to bow to every whim of the crown after all! The idea of resistance - if not yet actual revolution -began to spread. But what kicked it off?

Historians think that beginning can be traced to one James Otis, a lawyer who was hired by distillers in Boston who objected to British renewal of the "Writs of Assistance": laws that let custom agents board ships when they suspected contraband. The merchants, accustomed to bribing officials to get away with a little fast and loose business dealings, wanted the law struck down.

Otis argued that the Writs of Assistance were unconstitutional under the British Constitution because they violated a person's right to his property. His argument was shot down in court, but during the next few years he wrote pamphlets - "The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved" was one - that were widely read. The concept that colonists were empowered to resist those acts of Parliament they didn't like struck a chord. Refusal to accept "taxation without representation" wouldn't be far behind. President John Adams believed that it was Otis's arguments in the Writs case that helped spark what became the American Revolution.

Otis's story ends badly. Late in the 1760s, after being subjected to constant attacks by political opponents, he began suffering from mental illness. He died in 1783 after being struck by a bolt of lightning.

It is true that resistance was in the colonial air anyway. King George III would keep making make sure of that. Still, looking back 250 years, maybe we should be remembering James Otis as the initial Founding Father.

1 comment:

  1. Mmmm, struck down by lighting. Maybe there is something to this "divine right of kings" stuff?!? ;)