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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Letter to a Noble Lord

By James Otis (1725–1783)

[Born in West Barnstable, Mass., 1725. Died at Andover, Mass., 1783. Considerations on behalf of the Colonists. 1765.]

I HAVE read the opusculum of the celebrated Mr. J——s, called “Objections to the Taxation of the Colonies by the Legislature of Great Britain briefly considered.” In obedience to your Lordship’s commands, I have thrown a few thoughts on paper; all, indeed, that I have patience on this melancholy occasion to collect. The gentleman thinks it “absurd and insolent” to question the expediency and utility of a public measure. He seems to be an utter enemy to the freedom of inquiry after truth, justice, and equity. He is not only a zealous advocate for pusillanimous and passive obedience, but for the most implicit faith in the dictatorial mandates of power….

No good reason can, however, be given in any country why every man of a sound mind should not have his vote in the election of a representative. If a man has but little property to protect and defend, yet his life and liberty are things of some importance. Mr. J——s argues only from the vile abuses of power, to the continuance and increase of such abuses. This, it must be confessed, is the common logic of modern politicians and vote-sellers. To what purpose is it to ring everlasting changes to the colonists on the cases of Manchester, Birmingham, and Sheffield, which return no members? If those, now so considerable, places are not represented, they ought to be. Besides, the counties in which those respectable abodes of tinkers, tinmen, and pedlers lie, return members; so do all the neighboring cities and boroughs. In the choice of the former, if they have no vote, they must naturally and necessarily have a great influence. I believe every gentleman of a landed estate near a flourishing manufactory will be careful enough of its interests. Though the great India company, as such, returns no members, yet many of the company are returned, and their interests have been ever very carefully attended to….

Should the British empire one day be extended round the whole world, would it be reasonable that all mankind should have their concerns managed by the electors of Old Sarum and the “occupants of the Cornish barns and alehouses” we sometimes read of? We, who are in the colonies, are by common law, and by act of parliament, declared entitled to all the privileges of the subjects within the realm. Yet we are heavily taxed, without being, in fact, represented. In all trials here relating to the revenue, the admiralty courts have jurisdiction given them, and the subject may, at the pleasure of the informer, be deprived of a trial by his peers. To do as one would be done by is a divine rule. Remember, Britons, when you shall be taxed without your consent, and tried without a jury, and have an army quartered in private families, you will have little to hope or to fear! But I must not lose sight of any man who sagaciously asks “if the colonists are Englishmen when they solicit protection, but not Englishmen when taxes are required to enable this country to protect them?” I ask, in my turn: When did the colonies solicit protection? They have had no occasion to solicit for protection since the happy accession of our gracious sovereign’s illustrious family to the British diadem. His majesty, the father of all his people, protects all his loyal subjects, of every complexion and language, without any particular solicitation. But before the ever-memorable Revolution, the northern colonists were so far from receiving protection from Britain that everything was done, from the throne to the footstool, to cramp, betray, and ruin them; yet against the combined power of France, Indian savages, and the corrupt administration of those times, they carried on their settlements, and under a mild government, for these eighty years past, have made them the wonder and envy of the world….

But Mr. J——s will scribble about “our American colonies.” Whose colonies can the creature mean? The ministers’ colonies? No, surely. Whose then; his own? I never heard he had any colonies. Nec gladio, nec arcu, nec astu vicerunt. He must mean his majesty’s American colonies. His majesty’s colonies they are, and I hope and trust ever will be, and that the true native inhabitants, as they ever have been, will continue to be his majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects. Every garretteer, from the environs of Grub street to the purlieus of St. James’s, has lately talked of his and my and our colonies, and of the rascally colonists, and of yoking and curbing the cattle, as they are by some politely called, at “this present now and very nascent crisis.” I cannot see why the American peasants may not with as much propriety speak of their cities of London and Westminster, of their Isles of Britain, Ireland, Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, and the Orcades, and of the “rivulets and runlets thereof,” and consider them all but as appendages to their sheep-cots and goose-pens. But land is land, and men should be men. The property of the farmer, God hath given to the possessor. These are either sui juris, or slaves and vassals; there neither is nor can be any medium….

The national debt is confessed on all hands to be a terrible evil, and may, in time, ruin the state. But it should be remembered that the colonists never occasioned its increase, nor ever reaped any of the sweet fruits of involving the finest kingdom in the world in the sad calamity of an enormous, overgrown mortgage, to state and stockjobbers. No places, nor pensions, of thousands and tens of thousands sterling have been laid out to purchase the votes and influence of the colonists. They have gone on with their settlements in spite of the most horrid difficulties and dangers; they have ever supported, to the utmost of their ability, his majesty’s provincial government over them; and, I believe, are to a man, and ever will be, ready to make grants for so valuable a purpose. But we cannot see the equity of our being obliged to pay off a score that has been much enhanced by bribes and pensions to keep those to their duty who ought to have been bound by honor and conscience. We have ever been from principle attached to his majesty and his illustrious house. We never asked any pay; the heartfelt satisfaction of having served our King and country has been always enough for us. I cannot see why it would not be well enough to go a-nabob-hunting on this occasion. Why should not the great Mogul be obliged to contribute toward, if not to pay, the national debt, as some have proposed? He is a pagan, an East Indian, and of a dark complexion, which are full as good reasons for laying him under contribution as any I have found abroad in the pamphlets and coffee-house conferences for taxing the colonists….

The gentleman has made himself quite merry with the modest proposal some have made, though I find it generally much disliked in the colonies, and thought impracticable, namely, an American representation in parliament. But, if he is now sober, I would humbly ask him if there be, really and naturally, any greater absurdity in this plan than in a Welsh and Scotch representation? I would by no means, at any time, be understood to intend by an American representation the return of half a score ignorant, worthless, persons, who, like some colony agents, might be induced to sell their country and their God for a golden calf. An American representation, in my sense of the terms, and as I ever used them, implies a thorough beneficial union of these colonies to the realm, or mother country, so that all the parts of the empire may be compacted and consolidated, and the constitution flourish with new vigor, and the national strength, power, and importance shine with far greater splendor than ever yet hath been seen by the sons of men. An American representation implies every real advantage to the subject abroad as well as at home….

It may perhaps sound strangely to some, but it is in my most humble opinion as good law, and as good sense too, to affirm that all the plebeians of Great Britain are in fact, or virtually, represented in the assembly of the Tuskaroras as that all the colonists are in fact or virtually represented in the honorable House of Commons of Great Britain, separately considered as one branch of the supreme and universal legislature of the whole empire. These considerations, I hope, will in due time have weight enough to induce your Lordship to use your great influence for the repeal of the Stamp Act.