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Friday, July 23, 2010

James Otis: Forgotten Founder

On the Laws of Nature and
Rebellion to Authority


When we think about the great Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, the obvious names that pop up on everyone's radar include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, etc., etc., etc. Rarely does the name James Otis ever show up. In fact, most Americans are probably unfamiliar with this very important and influential man and the brief role he played during the American Revolution.

From the onset of the rising conflict between Britain and its colonies, Otis was an important and passionate participant. And though Thomas Paine would eventually emerge as the Revolution's premiere writer thanks to Common Sense, James Otis was one of the original masters of the pen. His blockbuster piece of the time, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, served to help further the growing belief that the rights of the people were derived not from man but from God and the laws of nature. Otis writes:
Is not government founded on grace? No. Nor on force? No. Nor on compact? Nor property? Not altogether on either. Has it any solid foundation, any chief cornerstone but what accident, chance, or confusion may lay one moment and destroy the next? I think it has an everlasing foundation in the unchangeable will of GOD, the author of nature, whose laws never vary. The same omniscient, omnipotent, infinitely good and gracious Creator of the universe who has been pleased to make it necessary that what we call matter should gravitate for the celestial bodies to roll round their axes, dance their orbits, and perform their various revolutions in that beautiful order and concern which we all admire has made it equally necessary that from Adam and Eve to these degenerate days the different sexes should sweetly attract each other, form societies of single families, of which larger bodies and communities are as naturally, mechanically, and necessarily combined as the dew of heaven and the soft distilling rain is collected by the all-enlivening heat of the sun. Government is therefore most evidently founded on the necessities of our nature. It is by no means an arbitrary thing depending merely on compact or human will for its existence.

[...]

The form of government is by nature and by right so far left to the individuals of each society that they may alter it from a simple democracy or government of all over all to any other form they please. Such alteration may and ought to be made by express compact. But how seldom this right has been asserted, history will abundantly show. For once that it has been fairly settled by compact, fraud, force, or accident have determined it an hundred times. As the people have gained upon tyrants, these have been obliged to relax only till a fairer opportunity has put it in their power to encroach again.

But if every prince since Nimrod had been a tyrant, it would not prove a right to tyrannize. There can be no prescription old enough to supersede the law of nature and the grant of GOD Almight, who has given to all men a natural right to be free, and they have it ordinarily in their power to make themselves so if they please.
And though Otis clearly appeals to the laws of nature justifying resistance to tyrants, taxation, etc., he also acknowledges the sovereignty of the British king and the superiority of the "mother country's" laws:
The sum of my argument is: that civil government is of God; that the administrators of it were originally the whole people; that they might have devolved it on whom they pleased; that this devolution is fiduciary, for the good of the whole; that by the British constitution this devolution is on the King, Lords and Commons, the supreme, sacred and uncontrollable legislative power not only in the realm but through the dominions; that by the abdication, the original compact was broken to pieces; that by the Revolution it was renewed and more firmly established, and the rights and liberties of the subject in all parts of the dominions more fully explained and confirmed; that in consequence of this establishment and the acts of succession and union, His Majesty GEORGE III is rightful King and sovereign, and, with his Parliament, the supreme legislative of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, and the dominions thereto belonging; that this constitution is the most free one and by far the best now existing on earth; that by this constitution every man in the dominions is a free man; that no parts of His Majesty's dominions can be taxed without their consent; that every part has a right to be represented in the supreme or some subordinate legislature; that the refusal of this would seem to be a contradiction in practice to the theory of the constritution; that the colonies are subordinate dominions and are now in such a state as to make it best for the good of the whole that they should not only be continued in the enjoyment of subordinate legislation but be also represented in some proportion to their number and estates in the grand legislature of the nation; that this would firmly unite all parts of the British empire in the greater peace and prosperity, and render it invulnerable and perpetual.
Now, perhaps Otis was simply closing out his pamphlet by offering a brief, brown-nosing compliment to Britain and the King. Perhaps Otis didn't want to cause too many ripples in the pool. Or perhaps Otis is laying some of the early groundwork that would later be used to justify rebellion against kings. In Otis' mind, the British king is the sovereign and rightful executive of government so long as he/she accepts the fact (established by the laws of nature themselves) that all men are inherently free. The king's authority is the result of the people's willingness to concede power into his/her hands and not the result of a heavenly mandate. Otis justifies this belief by appealing to Hobbes' Social Contract theory in which the governors and the governed seek to find an agreeable equilibrium. As a result, Otis' ideas were based more on natural law than on any belief in Divine Right Kingship. In consequence, Otis was able to avoid many of the Romans 13/submit to authority in the name of God arguments, which served to make his argument even more appealing.

And though Otis' views on natural religion and rebellion to authority are hardly unique (their origins go WAAAAAAY back) it is important that we recognize the fact that his works were among the earliest sparks that helped to ignite a virtual lightning storm in the American colonies (appropriate analogy, since it was a lightning strike that killed Otis in 1783). Otis' contributions may have been relatively small when juxtaposed with those of the "key founders" but they are, nonetheless, extremely noteworthy.


***Up next: James Otis on the abolition of slavery***

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