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The story of Barnstable’s James and Mercy Otis

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.

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