Founders and the Constitution

James Otis (1725-1783)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of James Otis. They will learn about the concept of inalienable or natural rights, his opinion on slavery, his contributions to the Revolutionary period, and much more.

Founding Principles

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


One of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle. - James Otis (1774)


He was called the most important American of the 1760s by no less an authority than John Adams. A trained lawyer and master of argument, James Otis was a leader of the Patriot movement in Boston in those years. Initially a prosecutor for the British authorities, Otis changed sides in 1761, when he argued against writs of assistance (broad search warrants that British officials employed to search the homes and businesses of colonists). During the 1760s, Otis led the intellectual attack against British tyranny, composing ringing defenses of liberty that won Americans to the revolutionary cause and helped to inspire the well-known slogan, “No taxation without representation.”

Otis was also one of the first well-known Americans to defend the natural rights of Africans and to condemn slavery. In doing so, he demonstrated his intellectual honesty and consistency, as well as his personal bravery. John Adams and many others were alarmed by his arguments about race, though Adams knew that they could not be refuted.

Already an eccentric, high-strung and unsteady man, Otis suffered brain damage when a British official whom Otis had singled out for criticism in a newspaper essay attacked him in 1769. The assault incapacitated Otis and ended his public career. His contributions to the American resistance movement were largely forgotten, not only by his contemporaries but also by later generations.

Relevant Thematic Essays


In this lesson, students will learn about James Otis. They should first read as homework Handout A—James Otis (1725–1783) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to those in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: James Otis on Natural Rights, in which Otis argues that all people are by nature freeborn. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help students understand the document. Next, students will complete Handout D— Analysis: James Otis and John Locke’s Theory of Natural Rights in which students analyze how Otis was influenced by natural rights theory.

There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask students to write their own “Rights of Students Asserted and Proved” or to examine the ways Otis’s statements foresaw the principle of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Extensions asks students to compare Otis’s essay to Samuel Adams’s The Rights of the Colonists.


Students will:

  • explain the concept of inalienable rights.
  • explain colonists’ objections to writs of assistance.
  • understand James Otis’s opinion of slavery.
  • analyze statements of natural rights.
  • appreciate James Otis’s contributions to the revolutionary period.


Student Handouts

  • Handout A—James Otis (1725–1783)
  • Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
  • Handout C—In His Own Words: James Otis on Natural Rights
  • Handout D—Analysis: James Otis and John Locke’s Theory of Natural Rights

Additional Teacher Resource

  • Answer Key


CCE (9–12): IA1, IA3, IIA1, IIA2, IIIB1
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—James Otis (1725–1783) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of James Otis.

    James Otis was a Patriot leader in Boston. He argued against British use of writs of assistance and wrote essays and pamphlets criticizing British tyranny. He also defended the natural rights of Africans and condemned slavery. His assault by a British customs official ended his public career.

Context 5 min.

Explain to the students that the Founders were strongly influenced by the concept of natural rights. Natural rights theory was central to the United States model of limited government and individual liberty. Otis based many of the arguments in his essay, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764, on natural rights theory. Natural rights theory holds that all humans are born free and independent, and that rights such as life, liberty, and property are inalienable. John Locke, an English philosopher, explored natural rights theory in his work Second Treatise of Civil Government.

In His Own Words 20 min.

  1. Divide students into pairs and brainstorm a list of five rights they believe are “inalienable,” or which can never rightfully be taken away by anyone without due process.
  2. Ask pairs to share their lists of rights, and record answers on the board or overhead.

    Students may cite rights to their own life, the right to express themselves, to control their possessions, to move about or travel freely, to worship freely, to choose and spend time with their friends, or other similar rights.

  3. Ask the class, “Where do these rights come from? Are you born with these rights? Does government give them to you?” Allow large group class discussion. Help students understand the distinction between natural rights (which are not granted by the government) and other political and social rights.
  4. Ask student pairs to explain, in two or three sentences, whether they believe they exchange some of their natural rights for the benefits of living in a society with others. After everyone has explained their response, write an agreed upon summary on the board or overhead.

    Some students may say that living in a society means giving up some individual liberty or property for the common good; others may say that no free society requires individuals to give up their rights.

  5. Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and Handout C—In His Own Words: James Otis on Natural Rights. Have students read Handout C and complete Handout B with their partner.
  6. Distribute Handout D: Analysis—James Otis and John Locke’s Theory of Natural Rights and have students read the excerpts from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government and follow the directions.
  7. When all have finished, ask one pair of students to share their response for the first paragraphs, and write their sentences on the board or overhead. Continue for remaining paragraphs 2–4.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

Ask students if they agree with Otis and Locke that people are born with inalienable rights. Conduct a large group discussion to answer the question: What happens when one person’s rights conflict with someone else’s? Ask students to consider examples such as: bans on public smoking, school dress codes, or speed limits. Do citizens have an inalienable right to smoke? To dress any way they want? To speed? If so, should citizens surrender these rights for the good of society?

Students may say that everyone can exercise their rights only as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights. Society is challenged by balancing everyone’s right to liberty as evidenced by the three examples: Some governments ban public smoking because of the health risk to others; students’ right to express themselves through dress cannot infringe on others’ rights to a good learning environment; people have the right to mobility but not to drive in an unsafe manner.

Follow-Up Homework Options

  1. Have students write a four-paragraph essay entitled The Rights of Students Asserted and Proved. Have them explain and justify their choice of four inalienable rights of students at their school.
  2. Have students examine the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. In another document, Otis states, “A supreme legislative and supreme executive power, must be placed somewhere in every commonwealth: Where there is no other positive provision or compact to the contract, those powers remain in the whole body of the people.” How did this idea foresee the principle articulated in the Tenth Amendment?


Have students write a one-page comparison of Otis’s essay The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764) to Samuel Adams’s The Rights of the Colonists (1772). Essays should answer the questions: Whose argument is more radical? How did Otis’s argument provide a foundation for Adams’s essay? In what ways did Adams retreat from Otis’s arguments?

“The Rights of the Colonists: Samuel Adams.” Constitution Society. <>.
“The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved.” <>.


Galvin, John R. Three Men of Boston. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1976.
Kernstein, Daniel J. “James Otis and Writs of Assistance.” New York Law Journal, 1 Aug. 1984: 2.
Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776. New York: Random House, 1972.
Smith, Maurice Henry. The Writs of Assistance Case. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Waters, John J. Jr. The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

“James Otis, 1725–1783.” <>.
“James Otis. Against the Writs of Assistance.” The Constitution Society. <>.
“James Otis, The Pre-Revolutionist.” World Wide School Library. <>.
“James Otis. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved.” <>.

Selected Works

By James Otis

  • Against the Writs of Assistance (1761)
  • The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764)
  • Considerations on Behalf of the Colonists (1765)

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