The Revolution: James Otis’ The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved

Boston, 1764

The origin of government are more than complicated. It is a subject that “has in all ages no less perplexed the heads of lawyers and politicians, than the origin of evil has embarrassed divines and philosophers.” Regardless of one’s perspective on origin and its mysteries, part of the foundation of every government is the protection of property, wrote James Otis.

“Empire follows the balance of property,” and it is “also certain that property in fact generally confers power, tho’ the possessor of it may not have much more wit than a mole.” Too often, “riches are sought after[] without the least concern about the right application of them.” He continued: “And this is too often the cause, that riches are sought after, without the least concern about the right application of them.”

All of this indicated that property must then not be the only foundation for government. It must also not be based on grace or force or compact. Instead, Otis wrote, the foundation rested on the “unchangable will of GOD, the author of nature, whose laws never vary.” He wrote, “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.”

However, the system, for all its merit, was lacking: “slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that ‘tis hard to be conceived that an english-man, much less a gentleman, should plead for it.” Although many saw the “immense wealth and military glory” of Britain as its highest achievements, Otis contemplated, there were liens on those holdings; slavery was one of those liens. In fact, another might have been the fact that the system was led by just one person, a monarch, who was troublingly portrayed as both omniscient and omnipresent.

For Otis, it was a blessing that the King, “who neither slumbers nor sleeps, but eternally watches for our good” prominently featured in that government. But he was not advocating for despotism: the people themselves must hold power and preside over society. Tyranny, where it exists, must always be abhorred.

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