The story of Barnstable’s James and Mercy Otis

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2019 /

Writer: Jeffrey H Hacker

The story of Barnstable’s James and Mercy Otis


Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2019 /

Writer: Jeffrey H Hacker

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.

The original Otis farmstead, covering acres of rolling fields, fruit orchards, and pastureland, was located along King’s Highway, now Route 6A, in Barnstable’s west parish. Photo courtesy of the Barnstable Historical Society

Jemmy went off to Harvard at age 14 (standard at the time), but they studied together on his visits home. He discovered the Enlightenment philosophers—especially John Locke—and discussed their theories with his precocious sister. James’ graduation in July 1743 was, it turned out, one of the most momentous days in Mercy’s own life. She was not yet 15, and the excursion to Cambridge was her first away from home. It was also where her brother introduced her to a Harvard friend named James Warren. They married 11 years later.

James Otis Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer and politician. Mercy got an education in practical politics by listening in on dining room conversations. James’ oration on behalf of Boston merchants in the “Writs of Assistance” case established his reputation and won him a seat alongside his father in the colonial assembly. Together they opposed the British administration and its tightening grip. 

The oldest known rendering of the Otis residence. Courtesy of the Barnstable Historical Society.

The younger Otis published four pamphlets in the early 1760s that argued for the natural rights of colonists. After the Stamp Act of 1765, his letters to the Boston Gazette became increasingly vehement in denouncing crown policies and administration officials. Mercy and James Warren, for their part, hosted clandestine meetings of the Sons of Liberty at their house on the corner of North and Main Streets in Plymouth. Otis favored peaceful political measures in response to the latest abuse—some historians have credited him with conceiving the Stamp Act Congress in New York—but the governor and his allies blamed him for the anti-tax riots that convulsed Boston that summer.

As resistance to the British intensified, the division between Patriots and Loyalists grew deeper. The pressures on Otis mounted; cracks in his composure became apparent to family members and colleagues. He lashed out at opponents on the floor of the legislature and in the pages of the Gazette. He rambled and stuttered, which invited further ridicule.

James Otis Arguing the Writs of Assistance in the Old Towne House, mural by Robert Reid, 1901. Courtesy of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, State House Art Commission.

Otis’ personal crisis came to a head at the Boston Coffee-House on the night of September 5, 1769—250 years ago—when he met a tax official named John Robinson. The two had been exchanging insults in the press for days, and the barbs continued in person. A fight broke out. Swinging his cane wildly, Robinson opened a gash on Otis’ forehead and beat him to submission. 

James Otis Jr. never fired a shot in the revolution he sparked. “Though the wounds did not prove mortal, the consequences were tenfold worse than death,” Mercy would later recount. Declared legally insane in the fall of 1771, Otis spent the war years at the family estate in Barnstable and most of the rest of his life in private homes for the “distracted.” 

Mercy Otis Warren was a 40-year-old mother of five boys at the time of the brawl. Devastated by the tragedy, she picked up Jem’s correspondences, defended his reputation, and calmed his nerves as no one else in the family could. A talented writer with political savvy and a passion for republican ideals, she viewed his survival as a sign of providence. In a role reversal of unheralded import in America’s story, she assumed Jem’s voice—and elevated her own—in the cause of individual freedom and national independence.

Seven-foot bronze statues by Cape Cod sculptor David Lewis memorialize James Otis, Jr. and Mercy Otis Warren outside the Barnstable County Courthouse. Courtesy of the author.

In the years leading up to the Revolution, Warren wrote a series of satiric verse dramas that openly mocked the British and rallied support for American independence. Her first published poem, appearing unsigned on the front page of the Gazette in March 1774, was a thinly veiled celebration of the Boston Tea Party. Her pamphlet after the war, “Observations on the New Constitution” (1788), helped win ratification of the Bill of Rights, though it was not recognized as hers until the 20th century. The first publication to carry Mrs. Warren’s name was a 1790 collection titled “Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous.” And the crowning achievement of her life’s work was the “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution” (three volumes, 1805), which earned her the reputation as America’s first female historian.

John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson each invoked the same superlative in assessing Mercy’s writing: “genius.” Her role as a mother and wife was paramount in her Congregational value system, yet she was the most accomplished and influential American woman of her time. Behind the scenes, without fanfare, she lent valued counsel to leaders of the Revolution and statesmen of the new republic. Her writings helped shape the values and principles of the American experiment as she and Jemmy had understood them from a young age. She made history, and she wrote it, too.

Seven-foot bronze statues by Cape Cod sculptor David Lewis memorialize James Otis, Jr. and Mercy Otis Warren outside the Barnstable County Courthouse. Courtesy of the author.

According to family lore, James predicted to Mercy that he would perish in a flash of lightning. Tragically, his life came to an end on the afternoon of May 23, 1783, when during a storm a bolt of lightning struck the house in Andover where he resided, instantly killing him. Mercy lived another three decades, most of them quietly in Plymouth, with diminishing eyesight. She endured her own share of tragedy over the years, outliving her entire birth family, a husband she adored, and three sons. 

A stone marker and commemorative plaque identify the site of the old Otis estate in what is now the village of West Barnstable. Courtesy of Nancy Viall Shoemaker

Mercy’s passing came on October 19, 1814, the 33rd anniversary of the British surrender at Yorktown. The War of 1812 was at high pitch, and Massachusetts lay under siege once again. The 86-year-old “conscience of the Revolution” remained vigilant and faithful to the end, writing to a friend in one of her last letters: 

I would not have you think me alarmed by womanish fears or the weakness of old age. I am not. I sit very tranquilly in my elbow-chair—patiently awaiting the destination of providence with regard to myself, my family, my friends, and my country.

History all but forgot the brother and sister of liberty for centuries. Twin bronze statues of James Otis Jr. and Mercy Otis Warren were erected outside of the Barnstable County Courthouse on July 4, 1991—proper reminders of their contributions to America’s founding and the relationship that inspired them both.