Wife of Founding Father James Otis, Jr.
Image: James Otis, Jr.
Ruth Cunningham, the shy but beautiful daughter of a wealthy Boston merchant, married James Otis, Jr. in 1755. The marriage enhanced Otis’ social standing and improved his financial situation. But his new bride did not share his political and social idealism. They had two daughters.
James Otis Jr. was Boston’s most brilliant young lawyer. James had attended Harvard College, graduating in 1743, but continued his education in law under Jeremiah Gridley, a member of the General Court of Massachusetts. After Otis was admitted to the bar, he launched his law practice in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but relocated to Boston in 1750. His younger sister Mercy Otis Warren and his brother Joseph Otis also rose to prominence.
Though unhappily married, mainly due to political differences, James and Ruth Otis had three children. Otis served the Boston vice-admiralty court as advocate general from 1756 to 1760, and during this time became more active in public as well as legal affairs.
“Every man’s home is his castle,” declared Otis. “And whilst he is quiet he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle.” (Otis did not mention that in his ‘castle,’ his wife had refused to sleep with him so long as he spoke out against the king’s authority).
It was also during this time that the political differences between Otis and his wife grew deeper, and began to unravel the emotional bonds of their marriage. James was an early advocate of the political views that led to the American Revolution. Ruth Otis was a loyalist, and she continued to support the British.
In 1761, as the British pressed the Sugar Act against the unreceptive American Colonies, Otis spoke out against England in the courtroom and through his writings. He ignited a patriot cause that was to become a revolution and a quest for independence. The phrase, Taxation without Representation is Tyranny, is usually attributed to him.
In February 1761, Otis argued brilliantly against the Writs of Assistance in a nearly five-hour oration before a select audience in the State House. These writs enabled British authorities to enter any colonist’s home with no advance notice, no probable cause and no reason given. His argument failed to win his case, although it galvanized the revolutionary movement.
More than thirty years later, John Adams claimed that “the child independence was then and there born, [for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.” In a pamphlet published in 1765, Otis expanded his argument that the general writs violated the British unwritten constitution harkening back to the Magna Carta. The text of his 1761 speech was first printed in 1773 and in longer forms in 1819 and 1823.
Otis did not identify himself as a revolutionary; his peers, too, generally viewed him as more cautious than the incendiary Samuel Adams. Otis at times counseled against the mob violence of the radicals. Yet on other occasions Otis exceeded Adams in rousing passions and exhorting people to action.
Otis effectively made alliances with Boston merchants so that he instantly became a patriot star after the controversy over the Writs of Assistance. He was elected by an overwhelming margin to the provincial assembly a month later. He subsequently wrote several important patriotic pamphlets, served in the assembly and was also was friends with Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense.
Hannah Fayerweather Winthrop, wife of Harvard professor John Winthrop, wrote an unsympathetic letter about Ruth Otis to James’ sister Mercy Otis Warren in 1769.
The letter reads:
I went to see Mrs. Otis the other day. She seems not to be in a good state of health. I received a Visit lately from Master Jemmy [James and Ruth Otis’ son, then age ten]. I will give you an anecdote of him. A gentleman telling him what a Fine lady his mama is and he hoped he would be a good Boy and behave exceeding well to her, my young Master gave this spirited answer, “I know my Mama is a fine Lady, but she would be a much finer if she was a Daughter of Liberty.
Both Warren and Winthrop, and all three women’s husbands, were strongly in favor of a boycott of British goods to protest the Townshend Acts, which levied taxes on goods imported into the American colonies, such as lead, paper, paint, glass and tea. These were items that were not produced in America and that the colonists were only allowed to buy from Great Britain.
James Otis’ constant struggle against the Crown gained political change but also made political enemies. In a scathing attack on crown officials, he criticized customs commissioners in the Boston Gazette. In 1769, one of those commissioners, John Robinson, confronted Otis in a coffee house. They came to blows, and Otis received a gash on his head.
Otis suffered from increasingly erratic behavior as the 1760s progressed. Some believe Otis was a manic depressive or schizophrenic and that his illness could be successfully treated today. John Adams has several examples in his diary of Otis’ mental illness well before 1769. By the end of the decade, Otis’ public life came to an end, but he was able to continue his law practice during times of clarity.
In 1771 he was elected to the legislature, and sometimes afterward appeared in court and in the town meeting, but found himself unable to take part in public business.
In June, 1775, while living in a state of harmless insanity with his sister, Mercy Warren, at Watertown, Massachusetts, he slipped away unobserved, borrowed a musket from some farmhouse by the roadside, and joined the minute men who were marching to the aid of the troops on Bunker Hill. He took an active part in that battle, and after it was over made his way home again after midnight.
The last years of his life were spent at the residence of Mr. Osgood in Andover, Massachusetts. For a brief time it seemed as though his reason was restored. He even took a case in the Court of Common Pleas in Boston, but found he was unequal to the task.
He was persuaded to dine with John Hancock and some other friends. But the presence of his former friends and the memories of previous events shocked his fragile mind, and he was persuaded to go back home.
After his mind had become settled he said to Mrs. Warren, “My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity, that it will be by a flash of lightning,” and this wish he often repeated.
Six weeks later, on May 23, 1783, while standing in the side doorway during a thunder-shower, with his
cane in his hand, and telling the assembled family a story, he was struck by lightning and instantly killed. Not one of the seven or eight persons in the room was injured.
His remains were brought to Boston and interred in the Granary Burying Ground with every mark of respect, a great number of the citizens attending his funeral.
Speaking of James Otis, John Adams said:
I have been young and now I am old, and I solemnly say I have never known a man whose love of country was more ardent or sincere, never one who suffered so much, never one whose service for any 10 years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of his country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770.
James Otis, Jr. died suddenly on May 23, 1783, at the age of 58 when he was struck by lightning while standing in the doorway of a friend’s house,
He is reported to have once said to his sister Mercy, “My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity that it will be by a flash of lightning.”
Ruth Otis outlived both her husband and her son, who died in British captivity in 1777. Of the two Otis daughters, one married a British officer and moved to England; the other married the son of Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln of Hingham. So the family remained split.
Ruth Cunningham Otis never changed her mind politically. When she died in 1789, she reportedly still preferred the British government to the new U.S.A. that her brother-in-law Samuel A. Otis had gone to work for.