My most exciting memory of growing up in Boston during the Great Depression was learning how our independence was born. A pivotal event occurred in 1761 in a Boston courtroom. Lawyer James Otis Jr. spent nearly five hours arguing against extension of the “writs of assistance,” which British officials drew up themselves—like today’s FBI does—so they could burst into unspecified colonists’ businesses and homes in search of smuggled goods and other items.
As I chronicled in my book Living the Bill of Rights, Otis told the magistrates: “The freedom of one’s house is an essential liberty, and any law which violates that privacy is an instrument of slavery and villainy.”
Otis lost the case, but in the courtroom was a lawyer named John Adams (later our second President), who wrote in his notebook that very night: “Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born.”
Otis subsequently proclaimed in a pamphlet that those writs violated the British constitution and Magna Carta. Hence, as I have told American schoolchildren over the years, they inspired the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution. This part of the Bill of Rights guards against unreasonable searches and seizures and decrees that any warrant be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause.
Adams later wrote, “Otis was a flame of fire [that night].” But since 9/11 the Bush- Cheney Administration and Barack Obama’s even more harshly have dimmed that flame.