About Corazon

Sunday, August 21, 2011

James Otis: Abolitionist

When we think of our nation's Founding Fathers, we usually remember only the "key" participants (i.e. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin & Co.). Unfortunately, the contributions of lesser known participants take a back seat and regularly go unnoticed.

Such is the case with one James Otis. I have written about James Otis before in a post explaining his views on the laws of nature and rebellion to authority, but today I want to focus on his views regarding race; views which were, in many respects, very ahead of their time.

Though not a common citizen, Otis' legacy is often shrouded by the contributions of those that fought in the ranks of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. 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 early on, Otis was also a powerful voice against slavery. Throughout his life, Otis wrote some of the most stirring arguments against "the peculiar institution", most of which were very unpopular in 18th century America. For example, 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 occasion 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...
In other words, none of the great "key" founders could speak as brilliantly on the issue of slavery as James Otis...probably because none of them wanted to bother. Keeping Blacks in their place was an easier task than to recognize their God-given rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Remembering Otis as a pioneer for the later abolitionists who would follow in his footsteps should not be forgotten. When dressed in this light, Otis' legacy and contributions become every bit as important as those of the men that fought on the battlefield. Though not considered a "key" founder, I find Otis' views regarding abolition to be pretty much "in key" with the ideology of the American founding.

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