BOOK REVIEW: Minds and Hearts: The Story of James Otis Jr. and Mercy Otis Warren by Jeffrey Hacker (Amherst, MA: Bright Leaf/University of Massachusetts Press, 2021)
James Otis and his sister Mercy Otis Warren belong on any list of underappreciated founding-era Americans. James was described by none less than John Adams as being “the earliest and principal founder” and Mercy wrote important works in support of the Revolution as well as the first major history of the conflict. But today they are usually relegated to brief mentions, or even footnotes, in the Revolutionary narrative. In his compact, elegantly written dual biography Minds and Hearts: The Story of James Otis Jr. and Mercy Otis Warren, independent scholar Jeffrey Hacker helps to remind us of their foundational role in America’s political and legal history.
It is perhaps easier to understand why James’s memory has faded. In a fit of madness, he destroyed all his private papers, leaving much of what we know about him to the writings of Mercy, Adams, and others, in addition to his handful of public papers. A smattering of books and articles, much of which were written in the nineteenth century, are all that have been written about him. Mercy, whose letters and writings have been made available to scholars, has fared better, the subject of three biographies in the past twenty-five years alone. Hacker suggests that modern scholars may, however, continue to undervalue her because she does not profile as an early feminist, seemingly content with her role as a wife and mother even as she went about her vast output of writing.
James enjoyed a glorious legal and political career. His vigorous condemnation of the British Writs of Assistance in Petition of Lechmere largely rested on the novel theory that Englishmen had natural rights that the government was bound to obey, among them that “A man’s house is his castle,” and could not be entered without cause as the Writs permitted. These were common law principles so deeply embedded that they were “constitutional,” and therefore out of even Parliament’s authority to alter. His passionate arguments were such that a young John Adams who sat in witness would later declare “American independence was then and there born.” Elected to the lower house of the General Assembly, Otis would continue to extol American liberties in speeches and a series of pamphlets (including the notion that there could not be taxation without representation), plotting with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and the other leaders of the Massachusetts political elite.
The younger Mercy played the role of supportive sister while raising her own growing family after marrying James’s Harvard classmate James Warren. As her brother James began to decline physically and mentally, she would emerge from his shadow, authoring poems and plays that contained many of the same principles, helping to provide a broader platform for the average colonist to digest them through the arts and letters. Together, they propagated and disseminated some of the most important American legal and political ideals prior to the Revolution. Mercy’s writings during the Constitution’s ratification period, her authorship of which only became known as the result of her descendent Harvard historian Charles Warren’s work during the 1930s, would also play an important role in the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
Hacker credits Mercy’s desire to be educated alongside James as contributing to their unusually close brother-sister relationship. Puritan society normally separated boys and girls during the long workday by the nature of their chores. While it was normal for both to be educated, boys normally enjoyed a more formal schooling while girls learned at their knees of their mothers or other relatives. Their father’s acquiescence to Mercy’s pleas to be educated next to James (alongside the reluctance of his brother Joseph) led to their spending much more time together than was typical in eighteenth century New England. Because James was to have a Harvard preparatory education so too did Mercy largely receive one (she was not taught the classical languages but read many of the same works in translation). Tapping into recent scholarship on “Republican Motherhood,” the important role women played in passing along Republican ideology to children and neighbors through education and social intercourse, Hacker demonstrates how Mercy acted alongside James, but in conformity with her gender.
Hearts and Minds describes James and Mercy’s childhood, education, families, and careers in a compelling narrative that transports readers to the pastures and salt marshes of Barnstable, the busy streets of Boston and many other locations in vivid, delightful prose. Hacker puts much of colonial New England into his tale, helping us understand their world as a means of better understanding themselves. He is particularly good in describing how the more rational world of the “Old Light” Puritanism of their uncle and tutor shaped them rather than the more emotional, bombastic “New Light” version brought forward by Jonathan Edwards, and the impact of their father’s Whig ideology that celebrated Parliament, tolerance and natural rights and would come to the shape the American founding through the Declaration of Independence and ultimately the Constitution.
In the end, however, James Otis’s star would fade. As less subtle, less moderate voices rose, his more nuanced, rational approach to politics would be surpassed by the sharper writings of Paine and Jefferson, while the actions of Washington, Hamilton, Knox and others would answer loudest of all in shaping American independence. Unlike them, Otis, perhaps influenced by his Old Light puritanism, struggled to reconcile his natural conservatism with the logic of his and Mercy’s beloved John Locke to the emerging political scene in America. His behavior, already erratic and concerning, deteriorated further after being struck during a fight with a British official, and he would slip into dementia and deteriorate until his death from lightning in 1783. Still, his contributions to American constitutionalism from his arguments during the Writs of Assistance Case and early pamphlets live on among the foundations of American constitutionalism, as demonstrated by Yale Law School Professor Akhil Reed Amar in recently published The Words We Live By.
It is at this point that we can fully appreciate the dual nature of this biography. While this genre seems to have become a fad in recent years, it is almost indispensable here for the story of one is not complete without the other. James Otis faded, but only after helping to both fire the Revolution with his rhetoric and supply its intellectual underpinnings with his courtroom arguments and pamphlets. By the time his light diminished, what was needed was a means of more widely disseminating his (and to a large extent Mercy’s, given how closely they had studied and discussed together) ideas into popular understanding, which called for a different medium. This Mercy supplied with a trio of satiric verse dramas from 1772 through 1775. Published by the popular press, her public and private writings achieved an even wider audience for her brother’s ideas, helping keep them alive and spreading them among the broader population.
James Otis and Mercy Otis Wilson are thus studied best together. When done so effectively, as is the case in Minds and Hearts, it becomes apparent how the pair helped give impetus and shape to the Revolution and the young Republic legally and politically. For those who are not versed in their story, Hacker’s newest work serves as an admirable introduction to it and many other details of New England social, political, and religious life in just over two hundred pages.