The James Otis Lecture Series
The Massachusetts Chapter of The American Board of Trial Advocates
On February 25, 1761, James Otis, Jr., a 37 year old lawyer from the small hamlet of Barnstable, stepped up to make an argument before the Supreme Court of Judicature in the Massachusetts Bay Colony sitting in Boston. Otis argued that the renewed Writs of Assistance, which allowed the Crown or its agents to search any subject’s home or property for contraband or untaxed goods without judicial oversight or just cause to believe a crime had been committed, violated the Natural Rights of Englishmen. Otis contended that neither the King nor the Parliament could impose such a law because it violated the unwritten English Constitution. His argument was founded on the principle that not even the King was above the law that protected the rights of all citizens. It was the first time an argument such as this had ever been made in a courtroom.
Opposing him were his arch enemy, Thomas Hutchinson, the Chief Justice, and four other members of the Court who had been appointed by the Crown, Jeremiah Gridley, Vice – Admiralty Counsel and Otis’s personal mentor in the law, and the entire might of the greatest empire the world had yet known. Otis had only his thoughts, his oratory ability, and reason. It was not a fair fight.
From the outset, Otis made it clear that his argument was based on principle, and that he was not intimidated by the powers that opposed him. He declared: “I will to my dying day oppose, with all the powers and faculties God has given me, all such instruments of slavery on the one hand and villainy on the other as this Writ of Assistance is.”
A young lawyer named John Adams sat enraptured in the back of the courtroom, initially taking down every word of Otis’s oration. When he could no longer keep up, he summarized the balance of Otis’s brilliant five hour argument. Adams left the courtroom that day convinced that all who heard Otis were “prepared to take up arms against the Writs.” Years later, reflecting on the momentous events in his life, Adams attributed Otis’s argument as the beginning of the Revolutionary movement. He wrote “then and there the child Independence was born.”
Although Hutchinson and his Court eventually ruled against Otis (following instructions from London), Otis’s argument prevailed with the people of the the New World, and eventually with all of Western Civilization. Not only did he set in motion the events that lead to the Revolution, but his argument laid the foundation for the Fourth Amendment, the Bill of Rights, and, more broadly, the notion of limited government based on reason and the rule of law.
Despite this remarkable achievement, and Otis’s central role in the Revolution and the foundation of our Constitution, few people today remember who Otis was or what he accomplished. To help revive the memory of this lawyer-patriot, the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates created the James Otis Lecture Series. Principals and teachers from every high school in Massachusetts are invited to nominate students to attend a lecture held annually on Constitution Day, September 17th (except when the 17th falls on a weekend) that addresses important people or events in Massachusetts’s legal history that have helped develop our country as one nation under the Rule of Law.
We hope our series will inspire us all to remember that one person, armed with courage and reason, can accomplish much in a free society.
2008 — “Otis, Josiah Quincy and the Sons of Liberty”
Prof. Daniel Coquillette (Harvard, BC Law) and Robert Cordy, Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court
2009 — “The Remarkable Career of Robert Morris”
Stephen Kendrick (author, Sarah’s Long Walk), Hon. Roderick Ireland (Associate Justice, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court); Hon. Julian T. Houston, Associate Justice, Massachusetts Superior Court;
2010 — “Lincoln and the Law”
Professor Akhil Reed Amar (Yale Law) and Michael Burlingame (author, Abraham Lincoln, A Life)
2011 — “John Adams, An Independent Life”
Margaret Marshall (Chief Justice, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (Ret.) and Professor John Ferling (author, John Adams, A Life);
2012 — “The Gifts of the “Anti-Federalist”
Professor Gordon Wood (Brown Univ. Pulitzer Prize Recipient) and Professor Pauline Maier (MIT, author, Ratification: Americans Debate the Constitution)
2013 — “Lelia Robinson and the Quest for Equality”
Dean Martha Minow (Harvard Univ.), Margot Botsford, Associate Justice, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Jill Norgren (John Jay College, author, Rebels at the Bar), and Professor Virginia Drachman (Tufts Univ., author, Sisters in Law);
2014 — “Magna Carta and the Rule of Law in America”
Professor A.E. Dick Howard (University of Virginia School of Law, author, The Road From Runnymede and Sir Robert Worcester, Trustee, 800th Anniversary Magna Carta Trust, UK);
2015 — “How Worcester County Saved the Jury System (and Why it Matters)”
Professor Andrew G. Ferguson (author, Why Jury Duty Matters) and Hon. Nancy Gertner, United States District Court, D. Mass (Ret.) (Harvard Law).
2016 — “Religion and the Law – Teaching the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses”
Hon. Robert J. Cordy, Associate Justice (Ret.) Supreme Judicial Court, Professor Marci A. Hamilton, distinguished author and Academic Director/CEO CHILD USA, Professor Edward M. Gaffney, Valparaiso University School of Law and Rev. Patrick Conroy, S.J., Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.
2017 — “Interpreting the Constitution in the 21st Century”
Professor Mary Bilder (author, Madison’s Notes) and Akhil Reed Amar (author, The Constitution Today and numerous others);
2018 — “Oliver Wendell Holmes and the First Amendment”
Chief Justice Ralph Gants (Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court) and Professor Thomas Healy (author, The Great Dissent) (September 2018).