James Otis Arguing Against the Writs of Assistance in the Old Towne House

February 24, 1761

By Robert Reid, 1901

Oil on canvas, 118 x 213 in.

Commissioned by the Commonwealth under Acts 1900, ch. 362.
Unveiled January 1, 1902.

In this mural, James Otis confronts Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson and four other judges in the Council Chamber of the Town House on the legality of the Writs of Assistance, warrants that permitted the arbitrary search and seizure of colonial property by agents of the king. According to the eyewitness account of John Adams, "Otis was a flame of fire!... American Independence was then and there born." Indeed, the argument was to lay the basis for Article Fourteen of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution and led ultimately to the adoption of the fourth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

Reid drew inspiration from Adams' animated account of the trial, highlighting the drama with the fiery glow from the hearth just out of view, the captivated crowd in the doorway, the level gaze of the Chief Justice in his immense chair, and above all the defiant posture of the central figure. The frieze-like group stretches before us, drawing us into the scene. Reid's debt to earlier murals, especially those by John Singer Sargent at the Boston Public Library, is clear. Although well known for his impressionistic figural and landscape compositions, as a muralist he completed walls for the World's Columbian Exposition (1893) and the Library of Congress (1896) before receiving the State House commission.

mural of James Otis Arguing Against the Writs of Assistance in the Old Towne House