Forgotten siblings tied to freedom
Happy 243rd Birthday, America. July 4 reminds me of the good ole days. Firecrackers were apoppin, bottle rockets streaking across the darkened sky, picnic tables crowded with relatives wolfing down Granny’s tater salad and Uncle Clarence’s hot dogs smothered in his homemade barbecue sauce, bands playing Souza marches while parading down small-town main streets, Old Glory proudly displayed everywhere you look, playing dueling sparklers. And, oh yeah, the speeches from bandstands and editorials in the gazettes reminding one and all of the icons responsible for writing and adopting the Declaration of Independence.
While Jefferson, the Adams boys, John Hancock, Ben Franklin and other prominent members of the Second Continental Congress get most of the glory for instigating our insurrection against “Mother England,” we must remember that their efforts were the icing on a cake which took two decades to bake. I’d like to introduce you to a brother and sister who proved to be two of the key ingredients of the aforementioned cake.
James Otis, Jr. was born in West Barnstable, Mass., on Feb. 5, 1725, the second of 13 children sired by Col. James Otis, Sr., a prominent lawyer, militia officer and British hater. After graduating from Harvard in 1743, he went on to become one of Boston’s most prominent lawyers. He gained instant fame in 1761 by brilliantly arguing in the Massachusetts Supreme Court on behalf of a group of merchants against the legality of the infamous “writs of assistance.” Said writs allowed the Brits to enter any home with no notice, no probable cause and no reason given. Otis’ five-hour oration failed to win the case but was said to have galvanized the revolutionary movement. None other than John Adams promoted him as a “major player in the coming Revolution.” He lionized Otis by saying,“I have never known a man whose love of country (and) whose service for 10 years of his life were so important and essential to the cause of this country as those of Mr. Otis from 1760 to 1770.”
In addition to the above, Otis gained immortality with his catchphrase “taxation without representation is tyranny” in reference to one of Britain’s more odious policies. A leader of the Stamp Act Congress, author of several important patriotic pamphlets and friend of Tom Paine, his role as political activist ended prematurely because of a mental illness. Interestingly, he advocated for African-Americans, writing in his Rights of the British Colonies (1764) that ” the colonists are by law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black.”
Because it’s called (his)story, generations have been deprived of learning about Otis’ sister, Mercy, whose contributions to the revolutionary movement were arguably the equal of her brother’s. Encouraged by her father throughout her formative years, she received an “informal” but comprehensive education from her brothers’ tutor, Rev. Jonathan Russell. She matured into a voracious reader and talented writer whose published pamphlets, poems and plays (e.g. The Adulateur) challenged the royal authority and admonished colonists “to resist British infringements on their rights and liberties.” Following the Revolution, she wrote a three-volume history of the conflict, the first authored by a woman. Jefferson was so impressed by her effort that he ordered subscriptions for himself and his cabinet.
In marrying James Warren, she gained not only a lifelong soulmate but an impassioned fellow patriot as well. He enjoyed a distinguished political career, was speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and for a time, paymaster to Washington’s army. Together, they hosted numerous clandestine meetings for ‘the likes of the Sons of Liberty and revolutionary firebrands like Sam Adams. As a team they helped to lay the foundation for the Committees of Correspondence, which were indispensably instrumental in “cementing the union of the colonies.”
Mercy went on to become a correspondent and advisor to such political leaders as John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Jefferson and Washington. John Adams was particularly enamored with her abilities writing-“…God almighty entrusted her with the Powers for the good of the World, which, …he bestows on few in the human race.” Alexander Hamilton also lavished praise on her: “In the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has outstripped the male.” During the final years of her long life (d. 86), she eschewed any political affiliation and involvement. In a letter to her son she said, “The thorns, the thistles, and the briers, in the field of politics seldom permit the soil to produce anything … but ruin to the adventurer” — words which ring true today! In the final analysis, it might be said, in the parlance of the moment, that Mercy Otis Warren shattered the “glass ceiling,” defying in the process the traditional gender roles of her time.
As we celebrate this Fourth, it’s important to remember patriots like James and Mercy Otis Warren who, like so many others at that time, translated their love of freedom and liberty and antipathy toward a repressive government into actions and words which helped ignite the fires of a world-changing revolution. As we blow out the candles on our birthday cake, we should wish that the differences dividing us will be settled and that we unite for the common good. By doing so, we will insure that their legacy will remain untainted.
Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 State University of New York at Fredonia graduate and is a resident of Herkimer.