On the Stamp Act
James Otis

An Oration Delivered Before the Governor and Council In Boston, December 20, 1765.

It is with great grief that I appear before your Excellency (Governor Hutchinson) and Honours (of the City Council) on this occasion. A wicked and unfeeling minister (Earl Grenville) has caused a people, the most loyal and affectionate that ever king was blest with, to groan under the most insupportable oppression.

But I think, Sir, that he now stands upon the brink of inevitable destruction; and trust that soon, very soon, he will feel the full weight of his injured sovereign's righteous indignation. I have no doubt, Sir, but that the loyal and dutiful representations of nine provinces, the cries and supplications of a distressed people, the united voice of all his Majesty's most loyal and affectionate British-American subjects, will obtain all that ample redress which they have a right to expect; and that erelong they will see their cruel and insidious enemies, both at home and abroad, put to shame and confusion.

My brother Adams has entered so largely into the validity of the act, that I shall not enlarge on that head. Indeed, what has been observed is sufficient to convince the most illiterate savage that the Parliament of England had no regard to the very first principles of their own liberties.

Only the preamble of that oppressive act is enough to rouse the blood of every generous Briton.--"We your Majesty's subjects, the commons of Great Britain, etc., do give and grant"--What? Their own property? No! The treasure, the heart's blood of all your Majesty's dutiful and affectionate British-American subjects.

But the time is far spent. I will not tire your patience. It was once a fundamental maxim that every subject had the same right to his life, liberty, property, and the law that the King had to his crown; and 'tis yet, I venture to say, as much as a crown is worth, to deny the subject his law, which is his birthright. 'Tis a first principle "that Majesty should not only shine in arms, but be armed with the laws." The administration of justice is necessary to the very existence of governments. Nothing can warrant the stopping the course of justice but the impossibility of holding courts, by reason of war, invasion, rebellion, or insurrection. This was law at a time when the whole island of Great Britain was divided into an infinite number of petty baronies and principalities; as Germany is, at this day.

Insurrections then, and even invasions, put the whole nation into such confusion that justice could not have her equal course; especially as the kings in ancient times frequently sat as judges. But war has now become so much of a science, and gives so little disturbance to a nation engaged, that no war, foreign or domestic, is a sufficient reason for shutting up the courts. But if it were, we are not in such a state, but far otherwise, the whole people being willing and demanding the full administration of justice. The shutting up of the courts is an abdication, a total dissolution of government. Whoever takes from the king his executive power, takes from the king his kingship. "The laws which forbid a man to pursue his right one way, ought to be understood with this equitable restriction, that one finds judges to whom he may apply."

I can't but observe that cruel and unheard-of neglect of that enemy to his king and country, the author of this Act, that, when all business, the very life and being of a commercial state, was to be carried on by the use of stamps, that wicked and execrable minister never paid the least regard to the miseries of this extensive continent, but suffered the time for the taking place of the Act to elapse months before a single stamp was received. Though this was a high piece of infidelity to the interest of his royal master, yet it makes it evident that it could never be intended, that if stamps were not to be had, it should put a stop to all justice, which is, ipse facto, a dissolution of society.

It is a strange kind of law which we hear advanced nowadays, that because one unpopular Act can't be carried into execution, that therefore there shall be an end of all law. We are not the first people who have risen to prevent the execution of a law; the very people of England themselves rose in opposition to the famous Jew-bill, and got that immediately repealed. And lawyers know that there are limits, beyond which, if parliaments go, their acts bind not.

The king is always presumed to be present in his courts, holding out the law to his subjects; and when he shuts his courts, he unkings himself in the most essential point. Magna Charter and the other statutes are full, "that they will not defer, delay, nor deny any man justice"; "that it shall not be commanded by the Great Seal, or in any other way, to disturb or delay common right." The judges of England are "not to counsel, or assent to anything which may turn to the damage or disherison of the crown." They are sworn not to deny to any man common right, by the king's letters, nor none other man's, nor for none other cause. Is not the dissolution of society a disherison of the crown? The "justices are commanded that they shall do even law and execution of right to all our subjects, rich and poor, without having regard to any person, without letting to do right for any letters or commandment which may come to them, or by any other cause."