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James Otis Describes the Situation in the American Colonies in 1769
Digital History ID 130

Author:   John Easson


In this selection, James Otis (1725-1783), one of the early leaders in the colonists' struggle for independence, informs Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791), an English liberal sympathetic to the colonies' cause, about the situation in America. A year before he wrote this letter, Otis had rejected in outspoken terms the British demand that the Massachusetts assembly withdraw its demand that colonists repudiate the Townshend Acts. "We are asked to rescind?" he asked rhetorically. "Let Great Britain rescind her measures, or the colonies are lost to her forever."

The colonists considered Macaulay, an eminent English historian with many valuable political connections, one of the most important figures in Britain with whom they could present their grievances. Steeped in the seventeenth-century English traditions of revolution, Lady Catharine played a critical role in reviving knowledge of seventeenth-century English radicalism. Many colonists likened their situation to that of seventeenth-century radicals who had sought to protect English liberties against the usurpations of the Stuart kings. Lady Catharine later toured an independent U.S. in 1787.


You have condescended to intimate your pleasure that I should transmit you an account of American affairs. Were I equal to the business it would require an album. At present I can only say No. America is really distressed as you justly perceive. The governors of too many of ye colonies are not only unprincipled, but...rapacious.... The revenue officers in general are to the last degree oppressive. The commerce of the Country is...dying--[a mutual friend] told of captures & prizes taken from truly loyal subjects here inasmuch as the same [practice] as is sent out against traitors, rebels, and others the worst of his enemies. Indeed, all the least endearing appellations are liberally bestowed on the colonists for no apparent fault...[except] petitioning ye King, & living as... peaceably as possible on ye fistful pittance lest them call blasphemy & treason.…

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: James Otis to Catharine Macaulay

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