(These series of articles will describe the off-season readings and wanderings into early American History.)
As we settle into what most touring companies view as the “off season,” Bow Tie Tours (c) is still busy giving historical walking tours (in this dramatically warm December) and preparing ourselves to provide even better tours next year.
When it comes to history and learning about the founding of the country, the work can never end – there is simply too much to know. Fortunately, we live in an exceptional time where so much can be discovered with minimum effort. Whereas once a scholar had to travel long distances and sit in libraries to research his or her subject (you can check out my book about traveling the country to visit the Presidential Libraries, entitled Chasing History: One Man’s Road Trip Through the Presidential Libraries) now, in many cases, this is no longer necessary. This winter I am studying the early days that led to our revolution, from the Stamp Act on toward July 4th, 1776, and finding almost unlimited information – letters, writings, books – from the comfort of my home study.
The only city that can truly compete with Philadelphia when it comes to the important historical events of that time period is Boston. Wanting to check out how a like-minded tour company in Boston did things, I took a drive to experience their history with Boston By Foot. After chatting with their energetic, humorous, and thoughtful Director, Samantha Nelson, I took a three hour walking tour (in the freeeeeeeeeezing cold) that explored not only the city of Boston, but these early days of our revolution. “Bob” was a tremendous tour guide, knowleadgable and well spoken and, despite his early efforts to lay claim to Benjamin Franklin – I suggested to him that while the accident of birth may have placed Franklin in Boston, his choice and inclinations led him to Philadelphia – he gave the kind of tour that we like to give at Bow Tie Tours; which is to say that he brought history to life, chatting not only about our Benjamin Franklin, but about the Boston heroes of the revolution – John Adams, Sam Adams, and James Otis.
He started with James Otis, a man often overshadowed in our discussions, probably due to his mental breakdown which may or may not have been caused by a beating he received at the hands of Tories. (The attack most probably exacerbated a mental condition that was already there.) According to Bob, Otis was upset that his father had been passed over for the position of Chief Justice. (The position was, instead, given to Thomas Hutchinson, who would play a large, and some would say an infamous, role in upcoming events.) This caused him to switch sides after the Stamp Act was passed. Told to defend the Act by the British, he quit his official position with the British government, walked across the street to the Sons of Liberty, and offered his services, pro bono, on behalf of liberty.
If Otis’s action was caused his belief that he had been insulted by the British, he would not be the first Founder to be pissed off at what he felt to be a personal slight by the British. (See George Washington, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, etc. etc. etc.) His biographer, John Clark Ridpath, doesn’t buy it, though: “It may be that the patriotic trend of the Otis’s was intensified a little by a personal pique in the matter referred to,” he wrote. “But that either father or son was transferred from the king’s party to the people’s party by the failure of Colonel Otis to be appointed Chief Justice is not to be believed.” (Ridpath, John Clark. James Otis: The Pre-revolutionist. (1898, Kindle Edition) 19-20.)
Whatever his motivations may or may not have been, Otis showed himself to be a powerful and thoughtful advocate to the cause of liberty.