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Mr. Otis had always exhibited a most fiery and intractable spirit, had used violent and impulsive language, and had exposed himself to the charge of inconsistency of conduct; so much so as, at times, to render himself extremely unpopular.
Mr. Otis took no pains to conceal his hatred and contempt for the crown officers and the party which they headed. Judge Peter Oliver reports him, in 1762, as having said in the representatives' room that “ Take all the superior judges and every inferior judge in the province, and put them all together, and they would not make one-half of a common lawyer.”1 He abused the judges constantly and openly to their very faces.? Mr. Tudor narrates, that, “ Having cited Domat, in the course of some discussion, Governor Bernard inquired, Who he was. Otis answered, that He was a very distinguished civilian, and not the less an authority for being unknown to your Excellency.'”3 This opposition, whether civil or uncivil in its method, was attributed by Mr. Otis's political enemies to two causes. The first, his resentment at his father's failure of appointment to the Superior Bench, has been already adverted to; the second was insanity. Governors Bernard and Hutchinson, in their letters to the home government, represented him as insane.4 His pamphlet on the “Rights of the British Colonies," which grew out of the fears entertained in the latter part of the year 1763, that the navigation acts and acts of trade were to be strictly enforced, “ gave satisfaction to no party,” says Mr. Tudor.5 “ The book is full of wildness; ... the man is mad," said Lord Mansfield in the House of Lords, in February, 1766. Lord Mansfield would probably have stigmatized any assertions of the principles of freedom as the ravings of a maniac; but in this estimate of Mr. Otis's mental condition, it is now certain that Lord Mansfield and his other detractors were unconsciously right. They hit the truth more nearly than they at all apprehended. Entries in John Adams's diary from as early a date as February, 1763, down to the time when no doubt could be felt as to his insanity, testify to an extravagance of behavior, a looseness of speech, and a violence of temper, which can be accounted for only by the charitable explanation of his mental unsoundness. His political course was, it must
1 2 John Adams's Works, 134.
3 Life of Otis, 36. 4 Quincy, 442.
5 Life of Otis, 172. 6 2 John Adams's Works, 142, 143, 219, 220, 224, 260, 261, 263, 266, 270, 290, 299-301.
be said, inconsistent, and at times he appeared to waver, and rather fall away from the cause of the people which he had so frankly espoused and so nobly battled for. He even seemed, on two marked occasions, to have gone over and voluntarily surrendered himself up to his ancient enemy, Governor Hutchinson. No insanity was pleaded in his behalf in one of these instances at least, and his supposed defection was greeted with a torrent of popular odium. His great influence in the House of Representatives, and the weight which his voice carried with the people of Boston and of the province, had been fully recognized and justly dreaded by Gorernor Hutchinson. But in no manner could the latter have paid a higher tribute to the magnificent powers of Mr. Otis than when, in 1771, he built hopes on Mr. Otis's transient support of the gorernment of the province in the matter of the authority of the governor to remove the sitting of the House from Boston to Cambridge. This was during a brief period when Mr. Otis was supposed to have recovered his mind. “ Mr. Otis," says Governor Hutchinson, and how different is this from his usual tone regarding him, — “Mr. Otis, in his calm moments, had always disavowed any design of a general revolt, or of attaining to a state of independency. He was also evidently dissatisfied with the great influence which Mr. Adams had obtained ; and there was a prospect of his being serviceable in preventing the opposition from going to that extreme which some of them then most evidently intended; but the unhappy state of his mind soon rendered him of no importance.” 2 It is hard, as it must needs be in many cases, to determine the exact time when Mr. Otis became insane, or to trace his insanity to a definite source. The immediate cause, according to the once commonly received supposition, and also it would seem, in Mr. Otis's own estimation, was as follows: Owing to the great mental strain to which he had been for many years subjected, consequent upon his active participation in an incessant and heated political contest, his constitutional violence of temper had been aggravated to an extreme which would hardly admit of any check. Naturally talkative and sociable, he grew imprudent, boisterous, and rude: behaving, at times, in a manner calculated to give great offence to his most intimate friends. This
1 Tudor, 170, 171; 2 John Adams's Works, 141, note. 2 3 Hist. of Mass. 339, 340.
3 10 John Adams's Works, 290.
was exceptional, however; his intercourse with others being generally governed by the principles which directed the actions of those in the same high social position with himself. Being then in a condition where the slightest affront was very sure to assume an exaggerated importance in his eyes, he learned that his conduct had been represented as treasonable by Governor Bernard and the royal commissioners in their official letters to England, and that his transportation to England to undergo trial on such a charge had been recommended by his enemies here.
On the 4th of September, 1769, he accordingly advertised these commissioners of customs in the Boston Gazette, charging them with having falsely accused him, eagerly asserting his own loyalty, and branding them as cowards and liars. The next evening, meeting one of these commissioners, John Robinson, at the British Coffee-house on State Street, Mr. Otis soon fell out with him, when Robinson struck him with a cane. Mr. Otis struck back with his cane. A general affray was the result. The lights were put out, and Mr. Otis was overpowered and badly beaten by Robinson and his comrades : being left alone in their hands with no other support than that of a young man, who, passing by, came to his assistance. Mr. Otis was carried home bleeding, and, on surgical examination, was found to have received a deep wound on the head. The indignant people of Boston, in the heat of the moment, called this attack on their favorite an attempt at assassination. That it was not such a base deed, however, soon became clear. It seems, likewise, equally certain that this wound was not the principal cause of Mr. Otis's insanity. A letter has recently been produced from his brother, Mr. Samuel A. Otis, to their father, “ containing evidence of the existence of a tendency to insanity in the younger Otis, which manifested itself at an early period of his life ;” testimony which has been regarded “as sufficient to refute the received notion that the violence inflicted on him in State Street was the occasion of the sad mental eclipse under which he suffered towards the close of his life.” 1
Mr. Otis brought an action against Mr. Robinson, to recover damages for this assault. It took two days to try the case: the 25th and 26th of July, 1771; and on the 27th the jury returned a verdict in Mr. Otis's favor for two thousand pounds sterling, damages and costs. Being dissatisfied with this verdict, Mr. Otis entered an appeal. Mr. Robinson had left the country, having first given bonds to answer to the suit; and on the filing among the records of the Superior Court of a written apology by his attorney, Mr. Otis, in August term, 1772, released the damages, stipulating, however, that Mr. Robinson should pay the costs, together with the fees of Mr. Otis's counsel (who had attended to the case for three years, and were to receive thirty pounds each for their services), and his doctors' bills.1
1 Mass. Hist. Soc. Proceedings, 1858–1860, p. 53.
By the advice of his physician, he retired for a while into the country : living part of the time at Nantasket, then at his father's house at Barnstable, and during the last few years of his life principally at Andover. During his lucid intervals, and at such times as his malady presented itself in a somewhat milder form, he was still to be seen in his old familiar haunts, at his office, at the club, in the courts, and on the streets; and often was the same rational, social person as ever. It is exceedingly painful to read how he was unwisely and unkindly permitted to frequent the courts when really out of his head, and to display in the scenes of his former greatness his complete mental wreck: to the gibes of his enemies, the laughter of the indifferent, and the profound grief of his friends.
But a veil should be drawn over these scenes, and something of the sanctity of the grave should be wrapped around this period of his life-in-death.
Upon representation to the Probate Court that he was non compos mentis, his brother, Mr. S. A. Otis, was, in December, 1771, appointed his guardian; but it appearing in the following spring that he was restored to his right mind, he was released from guardianship April 24, 1772.3 This restoration was only tempo rary. Mr. S. A. Otis, of Boston, filed his bond May 9, 1777, as guardian of Mr. Otis, “ who is adjudged by the Inquisition of the Selectmen of the said town to be a person non compos.
Mr. S. A. Otis's guardian's account, which was allowed Jan. 14, 1783, runs back however as far as 1773. In the year 1782, he was thought again to have recovered. He returned to Boston, mingled as before in society, and even tried a case in the Court of Common
| Tudor, 359–366, 503–506 ; 2 John Adams's Works, 289.
2 Tudor, 475–481; 1 Thomas's History of Printing, 476 ; 2 Dealings with the Dead, 354. 3 71 Suffolk Probate Records, 158.
4 76 ibid. 4.
Pleas. As before, he could not long endure the excitement of a return to active life, and soon relapsed again. His will, which is short, and contains very slight trace of any mental oddity, is dated March 31, 1783. It was admitted to probate in the following June: two of the subscribing witnesses making oath “that when he so did he was of sound disposing mind and memory according to their best discerning.”? He was struck by lightning at Andover, May 23, 1783, and instantly killed.3 Although fifty-eight years old at the time of his death, his professional life covered, as has been seen, only about twenty years. This period, brief as it was, nevertheless sufficed to make him famous as an American lawyer, to secure for him an honorable, and in this country exceptional, rank as a scholar and author, and to inscribe his name among the first on the roll of American patriots. He had, to be sure, many faults, — faults which, we must bear in mind, if not caused, were at least intensified and brought into stronger relief by the demon of insanity, which dogged him through life. He was naturally quick and elastic in his motions; his apprehension was as quick as his temper. He had a way of twitching his muscles about in thinking. He was very easily irritated and bitter in his speech when aroused; and perhaps he yielded too much to his prejudices.
But with all his failings he was a noble man, and his professional career is one well worth the emulation of the lawyers of our day. It is a career upon which we can look back with pride and satisfaction, either as men, Americans, or lawyers.
1 Tudor, 481-483.