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The story of Barnstable’s James and Mercy Otis

Mercy Otis Warren, engraving after an oil portrait by John Singelton Copley, 1763.
James Otis Jr., engraving after an oil portrait by Joseph Blackburn, 1755. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Brother & Sister Of Liberty

West Barnstable’s own James and Mercy Otis played integral roles in the founding of America

You’ll find no bronze statues of James Otis, Jr. or Mercy Otis Warren anywhere outside of the old village of Barnstable, Massachusetts. Their names rarely even appear in history textbooks. But if John Adams was right that the real American Revolution took place “in the minds and hearts of the people,” then this son and daughter of colonial Cape Cod were founders of the new nation no less than Washington, Jefferson, Madison, or their friend Mr. Adams.

James Otis Jr. was a firebrand attorney and politician who argued a 1761 case against the use of general search warrants (writs of assistance) by British tax collectors. “American independence was then and there born,” Adams would write of his electrifying speech in court. Otis went on to join Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty in the front lines of the Patriot campaign, protesting the Stamp Act and making “no taxation without representation” a colonial rallying cry.

Younger sister Mercy Otis Warren was a poet, playwright and historian who took up her pen—and the cause of liberty—when an act of violence removed James from the stage of history. Her satiric poems and plays poked merciless fun at the British and stoked Patriot sentiment when the minds and hearts of colonists hung in the balance. Later, in the early days of the republic, her essay against the proposed U.S. Constitution was influential in securing the Bill of Rights.

The Winslow-Warren House at the corner of North and Main Streets in Plymouth (seen here in 1905 and still standing today) was the longtime home of Mercy Otis Warren, her husband James Warren, and their five sons. Chronicle/Alamy stock photo

At the heart of James and Mercy’s efforts were a shared love of learning, a belief in individual rights and free government, and a lifelong devotion to each other. “No man ever loved a sister better,” he once wrote to her. She was the one, Mercy assured him, “who has your welfare more at heart than that of any other person in the world.” 

They were descended on their mother’s side from Mayflower passenger Edward Doty. Their grandfather on the Otis side settled the family estate near Great Marsh in West Barnstable. Together, Mercy and “Jemmy,” as the family called young James, explored the sand dunes and piney knolls surrounding the Otis farmstead. They had separate chores, and Jemmy went for tutoring with their brother Joseph to the book-lined study of a learned uncle, the Reverend Jonathan Russell. For Mercy, like most girls in colonial New England, education was confined to Bible readings with her mother. But Mercy loved books. She longed to walk with Jemmy and Joseph up Hinckley Lane for their morning instruction at the Congregational meetinghouse.  

Mercy got her chance when Joseph begged out of the lessons. Jemmy, recognizing his sister’s hunger for learning, helped persuade their father that she should take Joseph’s place. James “the Colonel” Otis Sr., who regretted his lack of formal education and doted on his eldest daughter, finally agreed. It was an unlikely opportunity for Mercy, and it changed her life. The demanding sessions with Pastor Russell taught her to write, to love history and literature, to feel confident in the world of ideas. Mercy and Jemmy became intellectual companions. He treated her like an equal. They were inseparable.

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