The theme of teacher versus student is an old one. In fact, so old that it’s a cliché — a cliché that’s played over again in TV shows and movies.
But here’s a real version of that tired, old theme.
The teacher was Jeremiah Gridley. The student was James Otis. The time and scene were 1760s Boston, Massachusetts.
James Otis was a lawyer in Boston, and one of the first patriots that challenged the British crown for taking advantage of the 13 American colonies. As a young law student, he was trained by Jeremiah Gridley.
Otis argued in court against the Writs of Assistance, which were general search warrants to keep American merchants from smuggling goods from French, Dutch, and Spanish ports in the Caribbean islands.
American merchants, like John Hancock, were constantly smuggling goods from the Caribbean to avoid paying the taxes that the British placed on imports. One of the most popular goods smuggled was molasses, and New England smugglers obtained a cheaper and better quality of it from the French and Dutch so they could distill the best rum in the world at that time.
Customs officials had absolute, arbitrary power in using the writs. In one example, a man who had possession of a writ used it to avenge a judge who convicted him of a crime. By being so arbitrarily enforced, no one was safe, no one had a right to privacy. In fact, it was because of the Writs of Assistance that we have our Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
Otis saw the injustice in this power and argued in court that it was a violation of the rights of Englishmen:
“Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient.’’
John Adams, who later became our second president, and also a Gridley trainee, was in court on the day that Otis gave this speech in defense of liberty, and said that he and many others walked out of the court house “ready to take arms against the writs of assistance.’’
Otis lost this case as he fought against a stacked deck. Who did he lose to? Jeremiah Gridley. Gridley argued in favor of the writs and the British Parliament. According to historians, Otis’s arguments were stronger than Gridley’s but the jury was full of loyalists, so despite how well-prepared he was, Otis didn’t stand a chance of winning.
But even though Gridley defeated his former student in court, he must have been proud to see how well he taught Otis.