Friday, December 30, 2016

James Bowdoin: Post-Revolution Governor of Massachusetts

Feke Painting of James Bowdoin
James Bowdoin was a Bostonian revolutionary during the tumultuous years of America' war for independence. Like many, his position of opposition against British rule was not his initial stance on the topic. His opinion slowly changed over the years and he eventually became a governor in post-war Massachusetts.

Bowdoin was perhaps not as popular as the governor who served before him,–John Hancock–but that may have had something to do with his apparent absence during the American Revolution. He was suffering from what modern historians believe was tuberculosis and was involved with the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, despite his illness. When he felt better, he got right back into politics on a bigger scale. As such, he belongs among the list of Boston patriots, regardless of how undecided and sick he may have been during the war.

James Bowdoin was born in Boston to Hannah and James Bowdoin on August 7, 1726. He was technically James Bowdoin II and is currently referred to as such, though his family didn't distinguish between the two in that manner. His parents were wealthy, thanks to his father's endeavors as a merchant. Bowdoin was able to attend Boston Latin and go on to further his education at Harvard College, from which he graduated in 1745.

Three years after graduation, James Bowdoin married Elizabeth Erving. Two children came from the marriage, one of which was James Bowdoin III, who played a role in starting Bowdoin College in Maine in his father's memory.

James Bowdoin was an active, thoughtful man. He was the owner of extensive tracts of land. He dabbled in being a merchant, science, politics and maritime rescue. He was the founder of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, of which he was the first president. He was a member of the Massachusetts Humane Society–the name of which today is associated with animals but that focused on rescuing survivors of shipwrecks during the American Revolution. He earned an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. Clearly, he was a well thought of man in many circles.

As for political endeavors, Bowdoin was involved with the royal government in Massachusetts as a member of the governor's council from 1756 to the start of the American Revolution. He was off for a brief period when he became vocal about his shifting political views. In 1770, he wrote, "A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre" about the so-called Boston Massacre. By then, he was clearly siding with the rebels.

Whether it had anything to do with his later political leanings or not is unclear, but James Bowdoin did befriend Benjamin Franklin. It is not known precisely when they met, but Bowdoin did know Franklin at least two years before his graduation from Harvard College. The two had an interest in science in common and would send letters back and forth about Franklin's experiments with electricity.

After the American Revolution ended, James Bowdoin recovered from a long flare up of tuberculosis and ran for governor of Massachusetts. He lost to John Hancock. Five years later in 1785, John Hancock resigned for the first time and James Bowdoin became governor. It is generally thought that Bowdoin lost the first campaign by a large margin because of his seeming disdain for the lower class. When Shay's Rebellion took place, he had no sympathy for the affected "common" people. This hurt his campaign, but clearly, he was popular enough to win the second time. Therefore, it may have simply been John Hancock's popularity that killed Bowdoin's first campaign. He was in office for two years before John Hancock became governor yet again. Bowdoin passed away just three years later on November 6, 1790.

Monday, December 5, 2016

James Otis: Lawyer and Patriot

James Otis is one of the Boston men who helped stoke the fires of revolution during the 1760s. In fact, some people may say that he is the man who lit the fire. He is not as well known and he was not as prolific in his speeches and political work as many of his fellow revolutionaries. However, he was among the most intelligent and dedicated of these men. Sadly, his years of dedication and public service ended tragically.

James Otis was born on February 5, 1725 in West Barnstable, Massachusetts to James Otis Sr. and Mary Otis nee Allyne. His father was in politics. James Otis Jr. attended Harvard College. He graduated in 1743, at the age of eighteen. From there, he went to study law under Jeremiah Gridley.

James Otis' career in law began in 1748. He practiced in Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, Plymouth did not have a great need for a lawyer at the time, so two years later, James Otis took his practice into Boston. There, he earned a name for himself as a great speaker and a highly intelligent man. During the 1750s, John won a case that earned him the largest sum ever paid to a lawyer in Massachusetts until that time. His career was looking very promising.

In 1755, James Otis married Ruth Cunningham. The couple would go on to have three children together, James, Elizabeth and Mary. At the time of their marriage, they were both loyalists. That would change for James. Ruth would remain loyal to England for the remainder of her life, which, as it turns out, was longer than James' was.

James Otis shared his wife's beliefs openly until 1961. Around that time, some British revenue officers were given the authority to search the homes and places of business of Boston merchants in search of smuggled goods. James Otis decided to leave his then current position as advocate-general and represent Boston's affected merchants, for free. When the case was heard in what is now known as the Old State House, James Otis gave a roughly five-hour-long speech, addressing this issue and much more. One of his focuses was the fact that colonists had to follow Parliament's laws when the colonists were not represented in Parliament. He lost the case. However, the impact his speech had can be summed up by what future president of the United States John Adams said later. He remarked that it was on that day in the Old State House that "the child independence was born."

Soon after James Otis gave his speech at the Old State House, he was elected to the Massachusetts General Court. In 1764, he became a leader of the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence. That same year, he wrote his famous pamphlet, "The Rights of the Colonies Vindicated." A year later, he attended the Stamp Act Congress in New York City.

In 1769, James Otis made some negative comments in the Boston Gazette that were directed at a few revenue officers. One of those customs officers and some British military men found James a few days later and mercilessly beat him. He sustained a head injury that contributed to the decline of his mental health. James Otis was able to hold on to his sanity for long enough to sue his attacker. He was rewarded a sum of money, but he would not accept it. He also received a formal apology. He remained in public office for a few more years, but by the time the American Revolution began, he was insane and in the care of his sister, Mercy Otis Warren. His life would be dotted with a few brief periods of lucidity, but he was never the same man again. He did however contribute to the American Revolution in a way that you probably will not expect.

On June 17, 1775, James Otis, then 50-years-old, decided to procure a musket and walk to Breed's Hill. That day, on Breed's Hill, a battle was raging that would become known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. James Otis showed up for the battle, fought in it, and walked home. Obviously, his hopes for the future of the country followed him in his descent into insanity.

Most of the rest of James Otis' life was spent in Andover, Massachusetts. He was there on May 23, 1783 when he was struck by lightning and killed instantly. A brilliant and at times odd life ended there. James was buried at the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts.


James Otis, retrieved 5/22/10,

James Otis, retrieved 5/22/10,