James Otis and the Americanization of John Locke


Abstract: James Otis has long been seen as one of the most important proponents of the American cause in the early phase of the imperial dispute with Britain in the mid-1760s. While Otis’s use of natural law principles drawn from John Locke is well known, Otis’s sophisticated treatment of Locke’s constitutional principles of ‘subordination’ and ‘delegation’ of powers has received much less attention. This study will argue that Otis’s importance rests in part on the way in which he employed, but also crucially modified, aspects of Locke’s constitutional theory in order to draft this venerable philosophical source into the service of a nascent American account of the British Empire. In the process, Otis not only made Locke a champion of colonial self-government but also drew theoretical materials from Locke that would be the seedbed for the later distinctively American conception of federalism.