Warren, Mercy Otis

views updated May 29 2018

Warren, Mercy Otis

Born September 25, 1728 (Barnstable, Massachusetts)
Died October 19, 1814 (Plymouth, Massachusetts)

Historian, poet

Mercy Otis Warren was an American poet and a historian of the nation's early years. She is often referred to as the first lady of the American Revolution (1775–83), because leading political figures from the colonies consulted with her about their plans for independence. She participated in the revolutionary cause through her publications, which promoted democracy (a government ruled through majority decisions made by the people) at a time when most Americans still thought of it as an impossible notion. Warren promoted political and legal rights for women along with American independence. As the colonists' rebellion against British rule increased, Warren became one of the most important women in early American history. Her books provide historians with details and commentary on the founding of the United States from a woman's perspective.

"History . . . the deposite [description] of crimes, and the record of everything disgraceful or honorary to mankind, requires a just knowledge of character, to investigate the sources of action."

The beginning of Mercy

Mercy Otis was born September 25, 1728, in Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. She was the first daughter and the third of thirteen children born to Mary Allyne and Colonel James Otis. Mercy was named for her father's mother. Her ancestors included Puritans (a Protestant group who advocated strict moral conduct and reform of the Church of England) who arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, on the Mayflower in 1620. The passengers on board this ship were among the hearty settlers who began the British colonization of North America. By the eighteenth century, the Otis family was well established in Barnstable.

James Otis was a farmer and militia officer whose income allowed the family to live comfortably. He later studied law and served as a judge in the county court. Mercy was especially close to her eldest brother, James, who was called Jemmy. The Otises ensured that their sons were prepared for college, but the Otis daughters received no formal education; this was the common practice at that time. However, Mercy was a highly intelligent girl, and she wanted to learn. She was allowed to sit in on her brothers' lessons in history and literature, but not their formal study of Latin and Greek. Their uncle, the Reverend Jonathan Russell, tutored the children. Mercy spent a great deal of time browsing through his library.

As the daughter of one of the county's leaders, Mercy frequently overheard political discussions. She found that she enjoyed politics and eagerly joined in the conversations with Jemmy and her father. When Jemmy graduated from Harvard College (now Harvard University) in 1743, Mercy took a rare trip away from Cape Cod to attend the commencement ceremony. She continued to sit in on Jemmy's lessons again when he returned home to prepare for his master of arts degree.

The rock at Plymouth

On November 14, 1754, at the age of twenty-six, Mercy married James Warren. Warren was a farmer, merchant, and, like Jemmy Otis, a Harvard graduate. The couple met through their families, who shared business and legal dealings. Mercy and James had very similar backgrounds and interests, including strong religious and political beliefs. They even shared the same great-great-grandfather, who was a passenger on the Mayflower. Their marriage was one of mutual love and respect and would last more than fifty years.

Mercy moved a few miles north of Barnstable to join James at the Warren family estate in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The main farm, located on the Eel River, was called Clifford Farm. Mercy cared for her ailing father-in-law while James began developing a career in the colonial legislature. In 1757, James inherited his father's estate, which included a house in Plymouth called Winslow House. The home stood at the intersection of North and Main Streets, the thoroughfare between Boston and Cape Cod. That summer, the Warrens moved to Plymouth to prepare for the birth of their first child, James Jr. Four more sons followed: Winslow arrived in 1759, followed by Charles, Henry, and finally George in 1766.

Mercy found herself at the center of a lively family of politicians, who were also Patriots (people who supported American independence): Her husband had been elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1765; her father was working as a justice of the peace; and her brother Jemmy Otis was a leading spokesman for the Whig Party (a British political party that opposed a strong monarchy). As conflicts between the American colonies and the British government increased, the family's political activities drew Mercy closer to public affairs. The Warren home became a common meeting place for leading opponents of British royal policy within Massachusetts. Among them were George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2), John Adams (1735–1826; see entry in volume 1), Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1), and the radical Samuel Adams (1722–1803). When the meetings shifted to Boston, Mercy was able to closely follow the political events through her husband's involvement and through correspondence with her brother.

Revolutionary thoughts

Jemmy Otis, an attorney with many contacts, had resigned his royal appointment in 1760 to become a leading spokesman for independence. He was one of the first colonial leaders to challenge Britain's authority in the colonies. Otis wrote a paper protesting British taxes and defining a concept of government based on the natural rights of the people. On February 24, 1761, he gave a famous speech declaring that taxation without representation by elected legislators was tyranny. However, Otis assured Britain that rebellion would be a last resort because the British American colonists would never desert their mother country unless they were driven to it. In 1769, Otis's fierce temper landed him in a fight that left him permanently injured from a blow to the head. After his injury, Mercy began to play a bigger role in the Revolution. Women had limited opportunities in politics at that time, so she chose a different path: She began to use pen and paper to champion the cause of independence in America.

In October 1772, the Warrens hosted a meeting at their home. Samuel Adams and other revolutionaries attended. They came up with the idea to form "committees of correspondence." These groups were formed in many Massachusetts towns to share opinions about Britain's policies. As the colony's rebellion against British rule grew, Mercy began to write political plays that she intended to have read, but not necessarily performed, to support the Patriot cause. Like the men of her family, Mercy was among those ready to throw out the colonial governor. She believed that America would be better served by a republican government: elected representatives who would govern by the consent of the people for the benefit of the people.

Mercy's first published work appeared in 1772. It was a five-act play titled The Adulateur: A Tragedy As It Is Now Acted in Upper Servia. The satire (a literary work that uses humor to criticize) cast the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson (1711–1780), as the villain "Rapatio." As the ruler of the mythical country of Servia, Rapatio is eager to destroy the colony. On the other side is the patriotic Brutus. He delivers passionate speeches of warning and resistance and is modeled after Mercy's brother, Jemmy. Selections of the play were published in the Massachusetts Spy in two installments between March 26 and April 23. The play was released anonymously (without the author's name) because being a playwright was not considered proper for a woman at the time. The Adulateur was printed as a political pamphlet the following year with additional material added by another author.

Continues writing

Although still busy raising her five young boys, Mercy was now making her own contribution to the revolutionary cause. She had been writing poems and patriotic correspondence since the mid-1700s, but she shared her work only with friends and family. Mercy's views now reached a wide, welcoming audience of both male and female readers. In 1773, her Rapatio character appeared again, this time in a drama called The Defeat. Selections were published anonymously in the Boston Gazette and later in the Massachusetts Spy. In this three-act play, Mercy continued to portray British rulers as villains and used code names for specific political figures. Mercy's mocking attacks on those in power made them seem less powerful and gave the revolutionaries hope that they might triumph in their cause.

The Group was published in 1775, the same year the American Revolution began. In The Group, Mercy continued the attack on Britain but added some new villains because Thomas Hutchinson had been recalled to Europe. She also boldly made the point that women should be legally freed from husbands who suffered no legal consequences under existing law for neglecting and abusing them. The Group was published in pamphlet form later that year in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Mercy continued writing after the onset of the American Revolution. She branched into prose and added her first female characters in her new publications. General James Warren was away at war for long periods of time, and the two corresponded while Mercy remained home with their young family. Mercy and James had developed a close relationship with future president of the United States John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams (1744–1818; see entry in volume 1) over the years. The two women drew support from one another during the war. They were both extremely intelligent people who had much in common, including their large families and political husbands. Mercy was sixteen years older than Abigail, but they were at ease in each other's company.

In May 1777, James Warren was appointed to the new Navy Board for the Eastern Department and was headquartered in Boston. He failed to win election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in May 1778, and Mercy's writings began to move away from attacks on the British. Instead, her work expressed a growing disapproval of the new direction of American politics.

A new nation

As the draft of the constitution for the new country began to take shape, two distinct factions formed. The Federalists, under John Adams, supported the new constitution adopted at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Those who criticized the proposed constitution and threatened to reject it were called Anti-Federalists. The Warrens were among the minority who opposed ratification of the Constitution in its final form. In 1779, James Warren declined selection as a possible member of the Continental Congress, in part because he was concerned about Mercy's health. She experienced severe headaches and was beginning to have problems reading and writing. The Warrens' fortunes continued to decline, and many of their powerful associates began to consider them politically suspect after Shays's Rebellion (see box). James Warren's political career revived in 1787 because his constituents appreciated his sympathy with the cause of the people during Shays's Rebellion. He was reelected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and became Speaker of the House.

In 1788, Mercy wrote and published Observations on the New Constitution, which came out in both Boston and New York. The nineteen-page pamphlet criticized the U.S. Constitution because it originally lacked a bill of rights (a formal statement giving a group of people rights considered essential) and provided no term limits (restrictions on the length of time a person could hold public office) for elected officials or safeguards against a standing (professional) army. (The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution and ratified on December 15, 1791.) Mercy continued to write and was finally able to publish a volume of poetry under her own name for the first time. Titled Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, the book was issued in Boston in 1790. She dedicated this work to George Washington.

The year 1791 was a difficult one for Mercy. One of her sons, Winslow, was killed in action when the Native American forces of Little Turtle (c. 1752–1812; see entry in volume 2) defeated General Arthur St. Clair's army on November 4 in the Northwest Territory, west of the Appalachian Mountains. Although another son, Charles, had preceded him in death, Winslow was the son in whom Mercy had placed her hopes for the future of the Warrens.

Shays's Rebellion

In September 1786, a popular uprising called Shays's Rebellion broke out in Massachusetts; it was a protest against the financial policies of the new state government. Because of the war, Congress was nearly broke, commerce had suffered, and paper money was rare. This resulted in Revolution soldiers returning from the war to find that they had little money and could not afford to pay the high taxes demanded by the government. The government's response to the plight of these debt-ridden former soldiers was indifference in the courts. With the spirit of revolution still fresh in their minds, the people raised a ragged army to protest the court decisions and placed Daniel Shays (c. 1747–1825), a veteran of the Revolution, in command.

Participants in Shays's Rebellion demanded greater circulation of paper money, reduced taxes, and a break on their debts. The rebels' chief target was the courts, which were sending former soldiers to prison for debt. Their small army began to forcibly prevent courts in western Massachusetts counties from holding court sessions. Many of the upper social classes of Boston and eastern Massachusetts became alarmed, and the militia was ordered to put down the open revolt. But the state, like the rebel soldiers, had little cash. It had no way to pay the militia, and they refused to take to the field without guaranteed pay. Boston merchants took up a private collection to cover the expenses of the military campaign, but this caused a negative public response because such an action clearly violated the U.S. Articles of Confederation, the nation's first constitution.

Shays's Rebellion was soon extinguished as the Massachusetts militia arrived at the U.S. arsenal in Springfield before the rebel force and successfully defended it from attack and capture. The rebels dispersed and were chased by the militia before being captured. However, Shays's Rebellion forced the country to go beyond the colonial thinking upon which the national government was built.

History of a revolution

For three decades, Mercy had been recording the events that took place around her as the young nation developed. She was impressed by the historic nature of the times she lived in and preserved her correspondence with the leading figures of the Revolution. She published the letters in 1805 under the title History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. The three-volume set provided an insider's view on the Revolution and the founding of the nation. It was offered for sale, an unusual occurrence for a work written by a woman, especially one of Mercy's social standing. Her daring set an important example for women authors who followed her.

History was received with critical acclaim by many, but it met with distinct disapproval from Mercy's longtime friend, John Adams. Mercy was sharply critical of Adams's character in her published letters. Vehemently disagreeing with his Federalist political position of favoring a strong central government, Mercy charged he was vain, corrupt, and undoing the gains made by the Revolution by leading the nation toward a monarchy. The two exchanged a series of heated letters beginning in the summer of 1807, and their friendship was severely tested until a mutual friend helped them reconcile in 1812. The ten letters from John Adams and six letters from Mercy were later published as Correspondence Relating to Her History in 1876. Although Adams did not care for Mercy's views, her letters to him did reveal a change in her former opinions. Mercy had come to appreciate the U.S. Constitution, which she had opposed in the 1780s. She wrote optimistically of American republicanism and its chances for survival.

By the early 1800s, Mercy's eyes gave her so much trouble that she gave up reading and writing on her own. Her eldest son, James Jr., assisted her in working with manuscripts and correspondence. During her final years, Mercy focused on the social issues of educational reform and equal rights for women. Except for her problems with eyesight, she remained in good health until the end of her life. Her beloved husband, James, died in 1808 after fifty-four years of marriage.

During her eighty-six years, Mercy had never traveled far beyond eastern Massachusetts. Except for a few years in Milton, Massachusetts, she had spent most of her life in historic Plymouth. She died at Winslow House on October 19, 1814, and was buried at Burial Hill in Plymouth. Notice of her death in Boston's newspapers competed with reports on the War of 1812 (1812–15), the latest conflict between America and Britain.

For More Information


Anthony, Katharine. First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958. Reprint, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press.

Fritz, Jean. Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies 1728–1814. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Richards, Jeffrey H. Mercy Otis Warren. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Web Sites

"Mercy Otis Warren." The Massachusetts Historical Society.http://www.masshist.org/bh/mercybio.html (accessed on August 22, 2005).

"Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814)." Sunshine for Women.http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/whm2002/warren.html (accessed on August 22, 2005).

Warren, Mercy Otis

views updated Jun 08 2018

Mercy Otis Warren

Born September 25, 1728
Barnstable, Massachusetts
Died October 13, 1814
Plymouth, Massachusetts

Playwright, historian

Mercy Otis Warren produced both prose and poetry while running a home and parenting five sons. She wrote plays making fun of Americans who stayed loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution (1775–83), as well as patriotic poems and a history of the Revolution. This intelligent woman also exchanged letters and engaged in political discussions with such well-known patriots of her day as Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Abigail Adams (see entries).

Mercy Otis Warren was the daughter of James Otis, a farmer, merchant, and politician, and Mary Allyne Otis, a descendent of the Pilgrims. The Otises, who lived in Barnstable, Massachusetts, had thirteen children in their strict but loving home. Six of them died before reaching adulthood.

Warren's mother helped her servants with milking cows, building fires, cooking meals, making clothes, washing, and producing household items. Because her mother was so often tired, pregnant, or recovering from childbirth, Warren took on many of the family chores at a young age. But her heart was in reading and studying. The Otises stressed the importance of education and received many newspapers. Their home served as a center for patriotic discussions in which their children were welcomed to participate.

Warren was very close to her favorite brother, James Otis, three years her senior. In 1743 he left home to attend what is now Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. James shared with his sister many of the ideas he learned there. With his encouragement, Mercy Warren read books of philosophy, literature, history, and religion.

Marriage and children

James Otis opened a law office in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1748, while also working for his father's import business. He later became one of the leaders of the American revolutionary movement. It is likely that Otis introduced his sister Mercy to his friend, James Warren, the son of a wellknown Plymouth lawyer. In 1754, when Mercy Otis was age twenty-six, she and James Warren began their long and happy marriage. Her husband would become a successful businessman, lawyer, and politician.

In 1757 Warren gave birth to the couple's first son; between 1759 and 1767 four more followed. During the late 1750s and 1760s, most of Warren's time and attention was spent raising her children. Warren believed women needed to be educated in order to help their children become good citizens. Although Warren enjoyed her intellectual pursuits, she believed that a woman should put her domestic and wifely duties ahead of any pastimes. She squeezed her reading and writing into periods throughout the day when she had no immediate chores.

Colonists protest taxes

Like many of the colonists, over time Warren moved from supporting Great Britain to opposing what she believed was the mother country's unfair policies of rule and taxation. Warren's brother James was one of those who led the protests against the Stamp Act of 1765, which he saw as a move by Great Britain to tax the colonists against their will so the British government could raise money to pay off its war debts. The Stamp Act forced the colonists to buy specially stamped paper for legal documents; documents written on any other paper were not considered legal. At that stage, neither of the Warrens was in favor of a violent revolution by Americans.

In time the British government withdrew the Stamp Act because the colonists had reacted against it so strongly. However, the British government was not deterred, and in 1767 Parliament passed the Townshend Acts. With the Townshend Acts in place, England could tax the colonists for imported paper, lead, glass, paint, and tea. Eventually protests by the colonists succeeded in getting all the taxes lifted except the tax on tea, an item that was widely used in America.

The tragic life of James Otis

James Otis, who corresponded frequently with his sister, became physically and emotionally ill in the late 1760s, and by the early 1770s he was no longer able to remain active in Massachusetts politics. British historian Catharine Macauley had written to James Otis in 1768 to support his defense of colonial rights. Warren wrote back, explaining to Macauley that, because of his poor health, James was no longer able to write. A correspondence began between the two women, and Macauley provided Warren with a female role model. Warren soon started writing poems and plays that ridiculed the pro-British men who held public office and she encouraged American patriots to continue their fight for American rights.

The Tea Act inspires a poem

In the early 1770s Great Britain passed the Tea Act, which permitted the British East India Company to sell its tea at a deep discount in America, but it also charged taxes on the tea. Angry at the Tea Act, colonists joined together to protest ships carrying English tea landing on American shores. Patriot leaders feared that Americans might be tempted by the cheap tea and would give up their opposition to British taxation policies that they considered unfair. The fear was unfounded; cut-price tea could not lure Americans away from their quest for independence.

In late 1773 three British ships bearing tea landed in Boston Harbor. A group of American patriots stationed themselves at the dock to prevent the tea from being unloaded. On December 16, members of Samuel Adams's patriotic group the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded the three anchored British ships, and threw about 340 crates of tea into Boston Harbor. In her later writings about the American Revolution, Warren noted that "The American war may be dated from the hostile parade of this day," when the tea was thrown into the harbor.

Future president John Adams wrote to the Warrens and encouraged Mercy to write about the Boston Tea Party. Warren's 1774 poem hailed the promise of her new nation and encouraged American women to refuse to buy any products that were imported, including jewelry, lace, fabrics, ribbons, and especially tea.

Warren home center of patriotic activity

In the early 1770s the Warrens became firm supporters of the American cause. Mercy Warren was a witness to the

protests planned by the patriots against the royal government. According to Warren's diaries, the patriotic organization called the Committee of Correspondence was founded at her house in 1772. This letter-writing network joined towns and villages throughout the colonies in an effort to further the cause of colonial rights.

In 1776, after the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, James Warren was made Second Major General of the Massachusetts militia (an army made up of citizens rather than professional soldiers). In 1777, he became a member of a three-man group that purchased supplies and helped organize the American navy. As a result of his involvement in the war effort, James Warren was forced to neglect family affairs.

Mercy Warren missed her husband terribly when he was gone and she managed the family's business affairs on her own. Fortunately, she received constant moral support from the wives of fellow patriots, including Abigail Adams and Martha Washington. Like many women of her time, Warren traveled about Massachusetts to visit her husband while he served in the military.

Warren's writing career

Shortly after her marriage in 1754, Warren had begun her writing career with poems. In some of them, she complained about the frequent separations that took place when her husband was engaged in the "endless strife" of politics. At the time that Warren wrote, women were generally shut out of politics. They were not allowed to vote and were not welcomed into political discussions. Throughout her lifetime Warren experienced a tension between her desire to write and share her opinions and the need to remain a proper lady.

Warren's male relatives were very supportive of her opinions as an educated woman. Other male patriots encouraged her in her writings because they felt her outstanding ability with words could be used to further the patriotic cause. But that did not mean they necessarily believed in equality for women. Patriots Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Abigail Adams were frequent visitors at the Warren home, and Mercy Warren established a lifelong friendship with Abigail Adams. Both women participated in discussions with the male patriots in which their opinions were both solicited and respected.

Writes patriotic plays

Warren wrote plays to actively promote the revolutionary cause. In them she ridiculed the Loyalists, American colonists who stayed loyal to Great Britain. During the mid- to late-eighteenth century, many Americans thought it was not respectable to attend plays, and even though she authored many plays, Warren never attended a play during her lifetime. It was not until years later that the public presentation of plays became acceptable. Many of the characters in Warren's plays were obviously based on patriots of the period, including her own husband, and they were portrayed as mythical figures of ancient stories.

In Warren's first play, The Adulateur, written in 1773, she warned her fellow citizens that they might soon have to take up arms to defend their liberty. Warren's second play, The Defeat, also written in 1773, poked fun at greedy men who turned against their countrymen for personal gain.

Warren's finest piece of work may have been her play The Group, a comedy written in 1775. The play featured Loyalists who sat around playing cards, drinking, and stating their opinions in ways that made the patriots who read it laugh loudly. The play convinced some of the people of Boston to take part in active resistance against Great Britain.

As for politics, Warren viewed the much-discussed proposed Constitution of the United States to be an evil plot to replace individual rights by the rule of the wealthy, whose concerns were far removed from those of the common people. Some of Warren's poems from 1779 and 1780 reflect her fear that people were no longer being motivated by patriotism but by the desire to accumulate goods.

The Warrens' lives after the revolution

James Warren returned home after the Americans defeated the British in the Revolutionary War (1775–83). He served as Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1787 but was defeated in his bid to become lieutenant (pronounced lew-TEN-uhnt) governor and retired to his home to manage his farm.

In the decade following the American Revolution, Warren faced the mental breakdown of her college-age son and her own health problems, including exhaustion, depression, and bad headaches. She took comfort in the beauty of her family's large, tree-shaded house in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Loss and its aftermath; later writings

Three of Mercy and James Warren's sons died during the couple's lifetime. Woodrow, an adventurer, was killed in an Indian ambush, and Charles and George died of illnesses. The oldest Warren son, James, became a teacher and postmaster and helped his mother complete research for a book she wrote on the history of the American Revolution. Another son, Henry, became a farmer. Warren and her sons remained close as they grew older and wrote frequently when they were apart. Sadly, Mercy Warren's troubled brother James died in 1783 after being struck by lightning.

In 1780 Warren had begun publishing pamphlets, short booklets on political subjects. In her 1788 pamphlet entitled Observations on the New Constitution and on the Federal and State Conventions, she stated her opposition to the new Constitution of the United States because of its lack of a bill of rights.

At that time a public debate was raging over the issue. While some patriots, such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton see entry, were in favor of a strong central government, others like the Warrens wanted a weaker central government. They believed a bill of rights would protect the weaker from the more powerful. In time the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution.

Final plays

In 1790 Warren published all of her poems along with two early plays under her own name. Revolutionary-era patriots had usually published their works without author names or using pen names (made-up names) that protected their identities from revenge by the pro-British. With her name now appearing on her writings for the first time, Warren received public praise for her work from such people as George Washington, the Adamses, and Thomas Jefferson, among others (see entries). John Adams later came to criticize her when their political ideas differed (see box).

Also, in 1790 Warren wrote The Ladies of Castile, which contained a pro-revolutionary message. The play focused on the uprising of a group of people in Spain, and in it Warren featured women characters for the first time.

Warren's historical play, The Sack of Rome appeared the next year. It portrayed the invasion of the city of Rome by a destructive enemy tribe in ancient times. The play contained vigorous language and violent action. By then, Massachusetts society had begun to attend plays. Warren hoped to see her plays performed on stage, but they never were.

Writes history of the revolution

Warren's three-volume work, The History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, written over many years, was published in installments (one chapter at a time) in 1805. The book covered American history from the Stamp Act of 1765 to the end of the eighteenth century. It provided an eyewitness account of the political, military, and economic events that took place both in America and abroad.

Warren's History described British policies and American responses to them; the process that led Americans to seek independence from Great Britain; the difficult progress of the war and the victory of the Continental (American) army at Yorktown, Pennsylvania; the process of the writing of major American documents, including the U.S. Constitution; and offered a look at the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams. A major purpose of the book was to remind new generations of the importance of liberty and the type of government in which the supreme power rests with all the people entitled to vote.

Warren's manuscript may have sat on the shelf unread were it not for the efforts of a Protestant minister who arranged to have it published in 1805. By that time Warren was nearly blind, and her son James had to help her edit the book.

Most of the factual information in her history was correct, and she even used footnotes, a rarity at that time. However, the work caused a serious rift in her friendship with former President John Adams, who felt it treated him unfairly (see box).

Warren's final years

Warren's son Henry had married in 1781, and she enjoyed the years of the early 1800s being a grandmother to his eight children. As time passed, she grieved the loss of many friends and her husband James, who died in 1808, after fifty-four years of marriage.

Mercy Otis Warren fell ill and died on October 13, 1814, at age eighty-six. She was a woman who had learned to live within the established roles granted to women of the eighteenth century, yet she indirectly challenged them through her writings. She had found a way to combine her writing talent and political beliefs to become the first female historian of America.

For More Information

Anthony, Katharine. First Lady of the Revolution. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.

Brown, Alice. Mercy Warren. New York: Scribners, 1896, reprint, Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Co., 1968.

Fritz, Jean. Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies 1728–1814. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Laska, Vera O. Remember the Ladies: Outstanding Women of the American Revolution: A Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission Publication. Boston: Thomas Todd Publishers, 1976.

Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Meyer, Edith Patterson. Petticoat Patriots of the American Revolution. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1976.

Warren, Mercy Owen. History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. 3 vols. Indianapolis. Reprinted by Liberty Fund, Inc., 1989.

Withey, Lynne. Dearest Friend: A Life of Abigail Adams. New York: The Free Press, 1981.

Zagarri, Rosemarie, Alan M. Kraut, and Jon L. Wakelyn, eds. A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1995.

John Adams Attacks Mercy Otis Warren's History

Many historians believe that Mercy Otis Warren's description of John Adams in her History was fair and perceptive, but her old friend was unhappy with the portrayal. Beginning in July 1807, he sent Warren a series of letters in which he called the work fiction and insulted her family. His letters became angrier and crueler.

Warren wrote several letters in response, expressing her shock, hurt, and anger at his opinions. She reminded him that the book described him as being an upstanding citizen and complimented his genius and integrity. But she had challenged some of his political opinions. She observed that he had "pride of talents and much ambition" and that in his later years he may have "forgotten the principles of the American Revolution" and "discovered a partiality in favor of" governments ruled by royalty.

Adams's attacks grew more intense with each letter. At one point Warren replied: "Though I am fatigued [tired out] with your repetition of abuse, I am not intimidated," and she continued to defend herself. Unfortunately, Adams saw Warren's criticisms as a personal betrayal because he had encouraged her to write such a history. Many of the friends they shared believed that Warren had written as objectively as possible and that Adams's complaints lacked merit. In time Adams's anger cooled down somewhat, but their relationship never returned to its former closeness.

Warren, Mercy Otis

views updated May 21 2018

WARREN, Mercy Otis

Born 25 September 1728, Barnstable, Massachusetts; died 19 October 1814, Plymouth, Massachusetts

Wrote under: A Columbian Patriot

Daughter of James and Mary Allyne Otis; married James Warren, 1754; children: five sons

Mercy Otis Warren was the third of 13 children. Her father, a staunch Whig, was a district judge whose life revolved around politics. Although women were customarily denied formal education, her father permitted Warren, his eldest daughter, to be tutored with her brothers by their paternal uncle, Rev. Jonathan Russell. Russell encouraged her to take lessons in all fields except Greek and Latin, so her elder brother James, an exceptionally brilliant young man, instructed her in these languages. Theirs was an unusually close relationship. He introduced her to Locke's Essay on Government, which became the foundation of the political theory they shared. Her writing shows the influence of Raleigh, Pope, Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare, and Molière, but she learned the art of writing from her study of her uncle's sermons.

Warren's husband, like her brother James, was a Harvard graduate. In this cultured and politically astute man she found a husband she loved and respected who returned her feelings, and they enjoyed a long and happy life together. She bore five sons to him between 1757 and 1766, all of whom survived to adulthood. Warren took much pride in his wife's intelligence and literary talents. He not only brought stimulating guests like John and Samuel Adams regularly into their home but he himself gave her companionship and stability.

During the early years of marriage, Warren served her literary apprenticeship, writing verse on every subject considered proper for poetry. She also wrote many letters. Perhaps her favorite correspondent was Abigail Adams, but she exchanged letters with many distinguished people on both sides of the Atlantic.

During the 1770s, Warren became active in politics, along with her husband, father, and brother. "Be it known unto Britain even American daughters are politicians and patriots," she wrote. She began writing political satires in the form of plays; none had much plot nor women characters. They were not stage-worthy pieces, but they were not intended to be. They accomplished their task, firing their readers' imaginations and urging them to turn the depicted events into reality and punish the easily recognized villains.

The Adulateur (1772), published anonymously in two installments in the Massachusetts Spy, presents "Rapatio, the Bashaw [ruler] of Servia whose principal mission in life is to crush the ardent love of liberty in Servia's freeborn sons," who clearly is the colony's Governor Thomas Hutchinson. The classical names of her characters do not obscure their identities: for example, Brutus is James Otis, Jr., champion of the patriots. The "play" was so well received that the names Warren had given the characters were widely and gleefully used in the community.

Her second play, The Defeat (1773), published by the Boston Gazette, continued Rapatio (Hutchinson) as arch villain. It pictures Rapatio planning to charge the improvements he has made on his house to the public taxes. Together with his self-incriminating letters then being circulated among the patriots, it brought about Hutchinson's disgrace and recall.

The Group (1775), the most popular of Warren's political satires, appeared in pamphlet form only two weeks before the clash of "Minutemen" and British soldiers at Lexington. John Adams himself arranged its printing and, years later, personally verified Warren was its author. Almost pure propaganda, the play has only villains, the Tory leaders who are the group of the play's title. Chief is Brigadier Hate-All, really the American-born Tory Timothy Ruggles, a longtime enemy of the Otis family. Other characters include Hum Humbug, Esq.; Crusty Crowbar, Esq.; Dupe; and Scrblerius Fribble.

After the collapse of the Confederation, Warren wrote Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal Conventions (1788), under the pen name "A Columbian Patriot," opposing the Constitution as it was originally proposed. She was an anti-Federalist who believed, as she said, in "a union of the states on the free principles of the late Confederation." The pen name caused some confusion, and the author's identity was in dispute until 1930.

Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous (1790) was dedicated to George Washington. The major works of the volume, "The Sack of Rome" and "The Ladies of Castille," had been published previously. Though much praised by her political friends, critics pointed out her poems have faulty versification, too much alliteration, and bad rhyme.

History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, Interspersed with Biographical and Moral Observations (1805) was published in three volumes nearly 17 years after Warren finished it. By this time, other histories of the Revolution had appeared. Hers, however, is the only contemporary history told from a Republican point of view. Much of its value lies in the fact that more than 10 percent of the work is devoted to character analyses of the people she knew. John Adams broke off their long friendship over her analysis of him, but a number of years later a mutual friend brought them together again. Her history did not enjoy the success she had expected or it deserved; yet it has endured, and her reputation survives principally upon its merits.

Warren was given a chance—rare for a woman—to use her talents, and she made the most of them. Although she was much respected in her own time, her reputation has dimmed some-what—perhaps because so much of her writing was published in pamphlets and newspapers, so much of it was topical, and perhaps because so much of it reflects the classical pretensions of the time. Her history of the Revolution, however, is viewed by modern scholars as having enduring value as a strikingly realistic record of the struggle for independence.


Anthony, K., First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren (1958). Brink, J. R., ed., Female Scholars: A Tradition of Learned Women Before 1800 (1980). Brown, A., Mercy Warren (1896). Fritz, J., Cast for a Revolution: Some Friends and Enemies 1728-1814 (1972). Schlueter, J., ed., Modern American Drama: The Female Canon (1990). Smith, W., History as Argument: Three Patriot Historians of the American Revolution (1966).

Reference works:

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

New England Magazine (April 1903). PMHS (March 1931). WMQ (July 1953).


Warren, Mercy Otis

views updated May 29 2018


(b. September 5, 1728; d. October 19, 1814) Dramatist, Historian, and Poet.

Mercy Otis Warren was the first American woman to publish poems, plays, and nonfiction about politics and war, subjects that had traditionally been considered the exclusive province of men. During the crisis leading up to the American Revolution, her satirical pieces attacked the tyrannical injustice of British government in the colonies. After the war, her scathing critique of the proposed U.S. Constitution and a three-volume history of the Revolution secured her reputation as an astute political commentator. Yet throughout her career, questions about the appropriateness of a woman writing about quintessentially masculine affairs continued to haunt her.

Born in Barnstable, Massachusetts, to a politically active family, Warren received a more sophisticated education than most girls of her day. Tutored along with her brother, James Otis, she not only learned to read and write, but became familiar with the great works of history, literature, and philosophy. James went off to Harvard and then began a career as a lawyer and politician, while she continued to educate herself and started to write poetry, mostly on nonpolitical matters. In 1754 she married James Warren, a wealthy trader and farmer from a nearby town. Over the next twelve years, she gave birth to five sons. During this same period, Mercy's husband, brother, and father all assumed leadership roles in the resistance against Great Britain. By the early 1770s, John Adams, a family friend who knew of Mercy's talent for writing verse, encouraged her to use her pen in support of the patriot cause. She did so with great success.

Warren's earliest political writings assailed royal officials in Massachusetts for their attempts to deprive colonists of their freedom. In 1772 Warren published a political satire, a play called The Adulateur, followed in 1773 by another play, The Defeat and in 1775 by The Group. In each piece she attacked the corruption and cowardice of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and his cronies for currying favor with the Crown at the colonists' expense. At the same time, she published poems in Boston newspapers that urged Americans to assert their virtue, resist British taxes, and boycott British tea and other goods. Especially after the closing of the Boston Port in 1774, she warned that stronger measures might be necessary. Reprinted in newspapers in New York and Philadelphia, her works helped prepare Americans to take up arms against British tyranny.

Warren published these works anonymously. Like male political satirists at the time, she sought to elude harsh British libel laws as well as avoid personal retribution from those she had attacked. She may also have feared that people would not take a woman's ideas seriously. Yet a close-knit circle of Massachusetts patriots did know that a woman had authored the works. Although they supported Warren's endeavors, they did so only because she was useful to their cause. They did not believe that women in general should express their political views publicly, much less be able to vote or hold public office. Warren was the exception, not the rule.

During the War for Independence, Warren began to compose another kind of work, a History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Drawing on public papers, private correspondence, and her own knowledge, she published the monumental, three-volume work in 1805—this time under her own name. She was well aware that she was making herself vulnerable by writing about traditionally male subjects. Although she noted that she shied away from recounting "the blood-stained field and … the story of slaughtered armies," she believed that women had as much at stake in the country's history and future as did men. "Every domestic enjoyment," she said, "depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty" (Warren, p. xlii).

Unlike her Revolutionary era propaganda, however, the History attracted more criticism than praise. Over time, Warren had grown disaffected with the course of American society. She had publicly opposed the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in a tract signed "A Columbian Patriot." Her History lamented America's path after the Revolution: the decline in public virtue, the growing distance between people and their government, and the increasing concentration of power in an aristocratic elite. The presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, she believed, betrayed the Revolutionary cause and put America on a path toward self-destruction. Thus, despite its detailed accounting and factual accuracy, her work did not find a large or receptive audience at the time. In fact, John Adams, stunned by her negative portrayal of him, dismissed the project, saying, "History is not the Province of the Ladies" (Zagarri, p. 159). Only in retrospect does the work's grandeur—and the full scope of Warren's achievements—appear in plain view.


Anthony, Katharine S. First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Franklin, Benjamin, V., ed. The Plays and Poems of Mercy Otis Warren. Delmar, NY: Scholars' Facsimilies and Reprints, 1980.

Richards, Jeffrey H. Mercy Otis Warren. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Warren, Mercy Otis. History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution [1805], 2 vols., edited by Lester Cohen. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1988.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1995.

Rosemarie Zagarri

See also:Drinker, Elizabeth; Madison, Dolley; Memory and Early Histories of the Revolution; Republican Womanhood. Sampson, Deborah.

Warren, Mercy Otis (1728-1814)

views updated May 14 2018

Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814)


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.


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).

Mercy Otis Warren

views updated May 23 2018

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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