James Otis on the rights of the colonies (1763)


Massachusetts lawyer James Otis, who had been instrumental in defending American citizens charged with breaching the Navigation Acts, wrote The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved in 1763:


“The colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black. No better reasons can be given for enslaving those of any colour than such as Baron Montesquieu has humorously given as the foundation of that cruel slavery exercised over the poor Ethiopians, which threatens one day to reduce both Europe and America to the ignorance and barbarity of the darkest ages. Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool – instead of Christian hair, as ’tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone – help the argument? Can any logical inference in favour of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face?

Nothing better can be said in favour of a trade that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant, from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own.

The colonists, being men, have a right to be considered as equally entitled to all the rights of nature with the Europeans, and they are not to be restrained in the exercise of any of these rights but for the evident good of the whole community. By being or becoming members of society they have not renounced their natural liberty in any greater degree than other good citizens, and if ’tis taken from them without their consent they are so far enslaved.

I also lay it down as one of the first principles from whence I intend to deduce the civil rights of the British colonies, that all of them are subject to and dependent on Great Britain… the colonists, black and white, born here are freeborn British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such is a truth not only manifest from the provincial charters, from the principles of the common law, and acts of Parliament, but from the British constitution, which was re-established at the Revolution [1688] with a professed design to secure the liberties of all the subjects to all generations…

We all think ourselves happy under Great Britain. We love, esteem, and reverence our mother country, and adore our King. And could the choice of independency be offered the colonies or subjection to Great Britain upon any terms above absolute slavery, I am convinced they would accept the latter. The ministry in all future generations may rely on it that British America will never prove undutiful till driven to it as the last fatal resort against ministerial oppression, which will make the wisest mad and the weakest strong…”