Spotlight on Female Ancestors #3 ~ Mercy Otis ~ Playwright, Author, Political Activist

Mercy Otis my 1st cousin 8 times removed was born on September 14, 1728, in Barnstable, Massachusetts, the third of thirteen children born to the Honorable James Otis Sr (1702-1778) and Mary Allyne (1702-1774). Although Mercy had no formal education, she studied with the Reverend Jonathan Russell while he tutored her brothers Joseph and James in preparation for College. Unlike most girls of the time who were simply literate, Mercy wanted to learn as much as she possibly could. She devoured book after book, learning about history and language. This set her apart from the other girls and most likely paved the way for her to break the traditional gender roles of her time. Her father also had unconventional views of his daughter’s education, as he fully supported her endeavors, which was unheard of for the 18th century. All of the Otis children were “raised in the midst of revolutionary ideals”

Statue of Mercy Otis Warren by David Lewis at the Barnstable County Courthouse

Mercy married General James Warren, a lineal descendant of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren on November 14, 1754. They had 5 sons. She was noted for her active and powerful mind, and took a part in the politics of the day, another unusual role for a woman in those times. During the years before the American Revolution, Mercy published poems and plays that attacked royal authority in Massachusetts and urged colonists to resist British infringements on colonial rights and liberties. Her brother, James Otis Jr, was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, and he coined the phrase “Taxation without Representation is Tyranny.” Both Mercy and her husband ardently supported the American Revolution. Between 1775 and 1778, Mercy wrote several patriotic satirical plays, including “The Sack of Rome” and “The Ladies of Castile”, which stirred patriotism in the colony.

She became a correspondent and advisor to many political leaders, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and especially John Adams, who became her literary mentor in the years leading up to the Revolution. In a letter to James Warren, Adams wrote, “Tell your wife that God Almighty has entrusted her with the Powers for the good of the World, which, in the cause of his Providence, he bestows on few of the human race. That instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them.”

During the debate over the United States Constitution in 1788, she issued a pamphlet, Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions written under the pseudonym “A Columbian Patriot”, that opposed ratification of the document and advocated the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. Observations were long thought to be the work of other writers, most notably Elbridge Gerry. It was not until her descendant, Charles Warren, found a reference to it in a 1787 letter to British historian, Catherine Macaulay, that she was accredited authorship. After the war, she and her husband supported the effort to adopt a Federal Constitution, and she wrote several political speeches for members of the Constitutional Convention. In 1790, she published a collection of poems and plays under her own name, once more a highly unusual occurrence for a woman at the time. In 1805, she published one of the earliest histories of the American Revolution, a three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, the first history of the American Revolution authored by a woman. In an age when women were not expected to have good intellect, especially in matters of history or politics, she was an early leader of women’s rights by her example.

Mercy remained vital even in her final years, continuing to write and correspond with political friends. She died on October 19, 1814, at the age of 86, six years after her husband died in 1808. She is buried beside her husband at Burial Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother, and grandma. I have written two books “Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time” and “Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip”, both available on Amazon. You can also connect with me on Facebook and Twitter @VHughesAuthor.

4 thoughts on “Spotlight on Female Ancestors #3 ~ Mercy Otis ~ Playwright, Author, Political Activist

  1. Fascinating post and how fortunate you are to have such an illustrious collateral relative. I plan to look up her history book. Thanks for posting!

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