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Warren, Mercy Otis (1728-1814)

Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814)

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Historian, dramatist

Early Life. Born in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, Mercy Otis was the daughter of James Otis Sr., a merchant and lawyer who became a prominent figure in local politics. Her brother James Otis Jr. achieved even greater renown as a leader of the revolutionary resistance to Britain. James Warren, whom she married in 1754, was also a leader in that struggle. Resisting traditional limits to womens public roles, Warren carried on the family tradition of political activism and eagerly took part in the political controversies of her day. An ardent supporter of the Revolution, like her brother and husband, she used writing as a vehicle to further her political views, seeking to win adherents to the revolutionary cause through her work as a playwright and propagandist.

Dramatic Works. Warren made clear her revolutionary sympathies in her first play, The Adulateur: A Tragedy (1773), which satirized the Tories as corrupt defenders of tyranny in contrast to the revolutionaries, who embodied virtuous patriotism. Warren followed this work with another play in a similar vein, The Group (1775). After the Revolution she continued writing plays, publishing two tragedies, The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castile, in her Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous (1790). Like her previous plays, these two works expressed her contemporary political opinions, in this case her concerns about the role of women in politics. In both plays she placed women at the center of political upheavals. Although she did not advocate formal political rights for women, she did not believe that women should divorce themselves from politics entirely. Through the characters in The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castile, Warren suggested that a healthy republic required politically conscious women who were willing to make sacrifices for the public good.

Historian of the Revolution. The culmination of Warrens literary efforts was her three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805). In this history Warren sought to do more than simply recapitulate the events of the Revolution. Embracing the didactic view of history that prevailed in the eighteenth century, Warren viewed her history as a source of moral examples that would influence the conduct of present and future generations. Concerned about what she saw as the postrevolutionary lapse from revolutionary principles, Warren hoped to provide historical models that would counteract this tendency. She analyzed the Revolution as a conflict between British corruption and American virtue, setting up an implicit contrast between the virtuous self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries and the degeneracy of her postrevolutionary contemporaries. Hoping this contrast would inspire them to imitate and revive the spirit that had effected the Revolution, she declared, It is an unpleasing part of history, when corruption begins to prevail, when degeneracy marks the manners of the people, and weakens the sinews of the state. She added, If this should ever become the deplorable situation of the United States, let some unborn historian, in a far distant day, detail the lapse, and hold up the contrast between a simple, virtuous, and free people, and a degenerate, servile race of beings, corrupted by wealth, effeminated by luxury, impoverished by licentiousness, and become the automatons of intoxicated ambition.

Later Life. The contemporary response to Warrens history was mixed. Her critical portrayal of him inspired John Adams observe to Warren that History is not the Province of Ladies. For the most part, however, Warrens contemporaries neglected her history altogether, and her work received only one lackluster review from the Panoplist. The History was Warrens last major literary production before her death in 1814.

Sources

Lester Cohen, Explaining the Revolution: Ideology and Ethics in Mercy Otis Warrens Historical Theory, William and Mary Quarterly, 37 (April 1980): 200218;

Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, edited by Lester Cohen (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988);

Rosemarie Zagarri, A Womans Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1995).

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Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren

The American writer Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), the first significant woman historian, wrote an eyewitness account of the American Revolution.

Mercy Otis was born at West Barnstable, Mass., on Sept. 14, 1728. She had no formal education, but the tutor of her elder brother, James Otis, permitted her to use his library. She married James Warren of Plymouth in 1754. Her husband became a distinguished political leader and served for a time as paymaster to George Washington's army during the Revolution.

During the Revolutionary period Warren became a poet and pamphleteer. Her particular enemy was Thomas Hutchinson, who had served as chief justice and governor of Massachusetts and had been prominent in the "writs of assistance" controversy. In 1773 she wrote a pamphlet, The Adulateur, and a play, The Defeat, based upon letters that Hutchinson and his lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver, had written to England criticizing the colonists. In 1775 she wrote The Group, a satirical play. The Warrens took a consistently anticonstitution, pro-states'-rights position in the debates over ratification of the Constitution in 1787-1788, and Warren even wrote a tract against the Constitution. Her Poems Dramatic and Miscellaneous was published in 1790.

Warren began writing the History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (3 vols., 1805) during the Revolutionary War, and after the peace treaty was signed she continued to work on it. The first volume covers the period from the Stamp Act to Valley Forge, the second goes to the end of the Revolutionary War, and the third to 1800. She based her history on firsthand sources, which included her own observations, the Benjamin Lincoln papers, and John Adams's correspondence concerning his diplomatic attempts to involve the Dutch in the war.

The history is not parochial, as Warren included British domestic affairs and the war in other theaters as well as in the continental United States. Her Revolutionary nationalism showed in her praise of Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson and in her castigation of Hutchinson. Despite her opposition to the Constitution, she praised Washington. Her treatment of John Adams helped alienate a friendship, and her description of Alexander Hamilton as a "foreign adventurer" won her no support from his friends. Merrill Jensen (1966) characterized Warren's history by saying, "Her view of the revolution is simple and anticipates in every way the views of the 'Whig historians' of the latter part of the nineteenth century." She died in Plymouth on Oct. 19, 1814.

Further Reading

Alice Brown, Mercy Warren (1896), is dated, while Katherine Anthony, First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren (1958), is adulatory. The most complete evaluation of Warren as a historian is in William Raymond Smith, History as Argument: Three Patriot Historians of the American Revolution (1966). Merrill Jensen's "Historians and the Nature of the American Revolution" in Ray Allen Billington, ed., The Reinterpretation of Early American History (1966), places Warren in the larger context of Revolutionary historiography. □

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"Mercy Otis Warren." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Warren, Mercy Otis

Mercy Otis Warren, 1728–1814, American writer, b. Barnstable, Mass.; sister of James Otis and wife of James Warren, who was speaker of the Massachusetts house of representatives. An ardent patriot, she conducted a political salon during the pre-Revolutionary days and wrote two satirical plays, The Adulateur (1773) and The Group (1775), against the Tories. Well acquainted with many leaders of the Revolution, she urged, unsuccessfully, that equal rights for women be included in the U.S. Constitution, and outlined her objections to that document as originally drafted in Observations on the New Constitution … by a Columbian Patriot (1788). Many of her criticisms were met by the Bill of Rights and later amendments. Her history of the American Revolution (3 vol., 1805) is still important for factual information as well as for its sketches of contemporary figures.

See studies by K. S. Anthony (1958, repr. 1972) and J. Fritz (1972).

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"Warren, Mercy Otis." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Warren, Mercy Otis." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/warren-mercy-otis