Page images
[blocks in formation]

we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne! In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free

if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending-if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon, until the glorious object of our contest

shall be obtainedve

ve must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us !

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot ? Sir, we are not weak, if we make the proper use of those means which the God of Nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, -sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat, but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged ! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, peace--but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale, that sweeps from the north, will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have ? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take ; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death !

JAMES OTIS (1725-1783)



E cannot more effectively introduce James Otis than in the

words of President John Adams, who thus describes his famous

speech on the “Writs of Assistance.” “ Otis was a flame of fire. With a promptitude of classical allusions, a depth of research, a rapid summary of historical eyents and dates, a profusion of legal authorities, a prophetic glance of his eye into futurity, and a rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence, he carried away all before him. American independence was then and there born. Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against Writs of Assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain.”

Otis, a native of Massachusetts, was a hard student in youth and became one of Boston's leading lawyers. He had a taste for literature also, and wrote as well as spoke ably. When opposition to the tyranny of King and Parliament began in Massachusetts, he was among its prominent advocates, and in 1761 was selected to defend the merchants against the Crown lawyers on the legality of the Writs of Assistance. This was the occasion of the great speech above eulogized. He afterwards became active in the legislature, but in 1769 was attacked by an enemy and so severely injured that his reason was shattered and his usefulness to his country destroyed. He lived to see the end of the Revolution.

THE WRITS OF ASSISTANCE. [Hardly had George the Third come to the throne in 1760 when acts of oppression against the Colonies began. The severe and unjust commercial laws had roused much opposition, and smuggling had become so common that the duties on imports yielded little to the crown. The new king issued orders that gave the revenue officers

[blocks in formation]

power to compel sheriffs and constables to search any man's house which they thought might contain smuggled goods, by issuing what were called “Writs of Assistance." This tyrannous right of search was bitterly resisted, and gave occasion to Otis's brilliant speech.


I was desired by one of the Court to look into the books, and consider, the question now before them concerning Writs of Assistance. I have accordingly considered it, and now appear not only in obedience to your order, but likewise in behalf of the inhabitants of this town, who have presented another petition, and out of regard to the liberties of the subject. And I take this opportunity to declare, that whether under a fee or not (for in such a cause as this I despise a fee), 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 villany on the other, as this Writ of Assistance is.

It appears to me the worst instrument of arbitrary power, the most destructive of English liberty and the fundamental principles of law, that ever was found in an English law book. I must therefore beg your honors' patience and attention to the whole range of an argument, that may perhaps appear uncommon in many things; as well as to points of learning that are more remote and unusual: that the whole tendency of my design may the more easily be perceived, the conclusions better discerned, and the force of them be better felt. I shall not think much of my pains in this cause, as I engaged in it from principle. I was solicited to argue this cause as Advocate General ; and because I would not, I have been charged with desertion from my office. To this charge I can give a very sufficient answer. I renounced that office, and I argue this cause, from the same principle; and I argue it with the greater pleasure as it is in favor of British liberty, at a time when we hear the greatest monarch upon earth declaring from his throne that he glories in the name of Briton, and that the privileges of his people are dearer to him than the most valuable prerogatives of his crown; and as it is in opposition to a kind of power, the exercise of which in former periods of history cost one king of England his head and another his throne. I have taken more pains in this cause than I ever will take again, although my engaging in this and another popular cause has raised much resentment. But I think I sincerely declare, that I cheerfully submit myself to every odious name for conscience' sake; and from my soul I despise all those whose guilt, malice, or folly has made them my foes. Let the consequences be what they will, I am determined to proceed. The only principles of public conduct that are worthy of a gentleman or a man, are to sacrifice estate,


[blocks in formation]

ease, health and applause, and even life, to the sacred calls of his country. These manly sentiments, in private life, make the good citizen; in public life, the patriot and the hero. I do not say, that when brought to the test I shall be invincible. I pray God I may never be brought to the melancholy trial, but if ever I should, it will be then known how far I can reduce to practice principles which I know to be founded in truth..

I admit that special Writs of Assistance, to search special places, may be granted to certain persons on oath ; but I deny that the writ now prayed for can be granted, for I beg leave to make some observations on the writ itself, before I proceed to other acts of Parliament. In the first place, the writ is universal, being directed “to all and singular justices, sheriffs, constables, and all other officers and subjects;" so that, in short, it is directed to every subject in the King's dominions. Every one with this writ may be a tyrant ; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner also may control, imprison, or murder any one within the realm. In the next place, it is perpetual, there is no return. A man is accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him, until the trump of the archangel shall excite different emotions in his soul. In the third place, a person with this writ, in the daytime, may enter all houses, shops, etc., at will, and command all to assist him. Fourthly, by this writ, not only deputies, etc., but even their menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. What is this but to have the curse of Canaan with a witness on us; to be the servant of servants, the most despicable of God's creation ? Now one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one's house. A man's house is his castle ; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be delcared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court, can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficent. .

The words are, “ It shall be lawful for any person or persons authorized, etc.'' What a scene does this open ! Every man prompted by revenge, ill-humor, or wantonness, to inspect the inside of his neighbor's house, may get a Writ of Assistance. Others will ask for it from selfdefence. One arbitrary exertion will provoke another, until society be involved in tumult and in blood.

JOSEPH WARREN (1741-1775)



MONG the pathetic events of the Revolutionary War there are

none that have appealed more to the sympathy of the American

people than the death of Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the patriots, at the battle of Bunker Hill. Warren, a native of Roxbury, Massachusetts, had made himself eminent as a physician, and in those exciting years at Boston that ushered in the American Revolution was one of the most earnest advocates of the people's rights, supporting the cause of the Colonies by pen and voice. Of his orations, the most fervent and brilliant was that delivered in Boston on March 6, 1775, in commemoration of the “Boston Massacre” of five years before. On April 18th it was he who sent out Paul Revere, on his memorable night ride to warn the patriots at Concord of the coming of the British soldiers. With the events of the next day the Revolution began. Warren threw himself with his whole soul into the contest. As President of the Provincial Congress, he displayed an eminent fitness to meet the emergencies of the time. On June 14, 1775, he was appointed a major-general, and two days afterwards took an active part in the occupation of Bunker Hill. “As surely as you go there you will be slain,” said Elbridge Gerry to him. Warren replied with a Latin quotation, signifying, " It is pleasant and honorable to die for one's country.” On the morning of the fight he rode to the field. Colonel Prescott, the veteran commander, offered him the command, but Warren declined, saying that he had come as a volunteer and to learn the art of war from an able soldier. Borrowing a musket, he plunged into the thick of the fight, encouraging the troops by his courage and daring. After the Americans had fired their last bullet and turned to retreat, Warren was one of the very last to leave the field. As he

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »