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TO H. NILES. - John Adams, The Works of John Adams, vol. 10 (Letters 1811-1825, Indexes) 
The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856). 10 volumes. Vol. 10.
Part of: The Works of John Adams, 10 vols.
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TO H. NILES.
Quincy, 14 January, 1818.
In a former letter I hazarded an opinion, that the true history of the American Revolution could not be recovered. I had many reasons for that apprehension, one of which I will attempt to explain.
Of the determination of the British cabinet to assert and maintain the sovereign authority of Parliament over the Colonies, in all cases of taxation and internal policy, the first demonstration which arrived in America was an order in council to the officers of the customs in Massachusetts Bay, to carry into execution the acts of trade, and to apply to the Supreme Judicature of the province for writs of assistance, to authorize them to break and enter all houses, cellars, stores, shops, ships, bales, casks, &c., to search and seize all goods, wares, and merchandises, on which the taxes imposed by those acts had not been paid.
Mr. Cockle, of Salem, a deputy under Mr. Paxton, of Boston, the collector of the customs, petitioned the Superior Court in Salem, in November, 1760, for such a writ. The Court doubted its constitutionality, and consequently its legality; but as the king’s order ought to be considered, they ordered the question to be argued before them, by counsel, at the next February term in Boston.
The community was greatly alarmed. The merchants of Salem and of Boston applied to Mr. Otis to defend them and their country against that formidable instrument of arbitrary power. They tendered him rich fees; he engaged in their cause, but would accept no fees.
James Otis, of Boston, sprang from families among the earliest of the planters of the Colonies, and the most respectable in rank, while the word rank, and the idea annexed to it, were tolerated in America. He was a gentleman of general science and extensive literature. He had been an indefatigable student during the whole course of his education in college and at the bar. He was well versed in Greek and Roman history, philosophy, oratory, poetry, and mythology. His classical studies had been unusually ardent, and his acquisitions uncommonly great. He had composed a treatise on Latin prosody, which he lent to me, and I urged him to print. He consented. It is extant, and may speak for itself. It has been lately reviewed in the Anthology by one of our best scholars, at a mature age, and in a respectable station. He had also composed, with equal skill and great labor, a treatise on Greek prosody. This he also lent me, and, by his indulgence, I had it in my possession six months. When I returned it, I begged him to print it, He said there were no Greek types in the country, or, if there were, there was no printer who knew how to use them. He was a passionate admirer of the Greek poets, especially of Homer; and he said it was in vain to attempt to read the poets in any language, without being master of their prosody. This classic scholar was also a great master of the laws of nature and nations. He had read Pufendorf, Grotius, Barbeyrac, Burlamaqui, Vattel, Heineccius; and, in the civil law, Domat, Justinian, and, upon occasions, consulted the Corpus Juris at large. It was a maxim which he inculcated on his pupils, as his patron in profession, Mr. Gridley, had done before him, “that a lawyer ought never to be without a volume of natural or public law, or moral philosophy, on his table or in his pocket.” In the history, the common law, and statute laws of England, he had no superior, at least in Boston.
Thus qualified to resist the system of usurpation and despotism, meditated by the British ministry, under the auspices of the Earl of Bute, Mr. Otis resigned his commission from the crown, as Advocate-General, an office very lucrative at that time, and a sure road to the highest favors of government in America, and engaged in the cause of his country without fee or reward. His argument, speech, discourse, oration, harangue—call it by which name you will, was the most impressive upon his crowded audience of any that I ever heard before or since, excepting only many speeches by himself in Faneuil Hall and in the House of Representatives, which he made from time to time for ten years afterwards. There were no stenographers in those days. Speeches were not printed; and all that was not remembered, like the harangues of Indian orators, was lost in air. Who, at the distance of fifty-seven years, would attempt, upon memory, to give even a sketch of it? Some of the heads are remembered, out of which Livy or Sallust would not scruple to compose an oration for history. I shall not essay an analysis or a sketch of it at present. I shall only say, and I do say in the most solemn manner, that Mr. Otis’s oration against writs of assistance breathed into this nation the breath of life.
Although Mr. Otis had never before interfered in public affairs, his exertions, on this single occasion, secured him a commanding popularity with the friends of their country, and the terror and vengeance of her enemies, neither of which ever deserted him.
At the next election, in May, 1761, he was elected, by a vast majority, a representative in the legislature, of the town of Boston, and continued to be so elected annually for nine years. Here, at the head of the country interest, he conducted her cause with a fortitude, prudence, ability, and perseverance, which has never been exceeded in America, at every sacrifice of health, pleasure, profit, and reputation, and against all the powers of government, and all the talents, learning, wit, scurrility, and insolence of its prostitutes.
Hampden was shot in open field of battle. Otis was basely assassinated in a coffee-house, in the night, by a well-dressed banditti, with a commissioner of the customs at their head.
During the period of nine years, that Mr. Otis was at the head of the cause of his country, he held correspondence with gentlemen, in England, Scotland, and various colonies in America. He must have written and received many letters, collected many pamphlets, and, probably, composed manuscripts, which might have illustrated the rising dawn of the revolution.
After my return from Europe, I asked his daughter whether she had found among her father’s manuscripts a treatise on Greek prosody. With hands and eyes uplifted, in a paroxysm of grief, she cried, “Oh! Sir, I have not a line from my father’s pen. I have not even his name in his own handwriting.” When she was a little calmed, I asked her, “Who has his papers? Where are they?” She answered, “They are no more. In one of those unhappy dispositions of mind, which distressed him after his great misfortune, and a little before his death, he collected all his papers and pamphlets, and committed them to the flames. He was several days employed in it.”