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The story of Barnstable’s James and Mercy Otis

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.  

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