Warren, Mercy Otis (1728–1814)
Warren, Mercy Otis (1728–1814)
Articulate and eloquent poet, playwright, political thinker, and traditional Puritan homemaker who demonstrated convincingly that gender was no barrier to intellectual equality. Born Mercy Otis on September 25, 1728, in Barnstable, Massachusetts; died on October 19, 1814, at home in Plymouth, Massachusetts; daughter of Mary Allyne Otis (1702–1767) and Colonel James Otis, Sr. (1702–1778); educated with her older brothers by a private tutor; married James Warren, Sr. (1726–1808), on November 14, 1754; children: James, Jr. (October 18, 1757–1821); Winslow (March 24, 1760–1791); Charles (April 14, 1762–1785); Henry (March 21, 1764–1828); George (September 20, 1766–1800).
Attended brother James, Jr.'s graduation from Harvard (1743); married and took up residence in her husband's family home on the Eel River near Plymouth (November 14, 1754); purchased the Winslow House in Plymouth (1757); published The Adulateur, a Tragedy (1772); published The Defeat, a Play (1773); purchased the Thomas Hutchinson country estate in Milton (1781); son Charles died (1785); sold Milton estate and returned to Plymouth town home and farm (1788); published Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal Conventions (1788); published Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous (1790); son Winslow killed fighting Indians (1791); son George died (1800); published History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, interspersed with Biographical and Moral Observations (1805); corresponded with John Adams regarding her unfavorable depiction of Adams in her History (1807).
Mercy Otis Warren combined the role of traditional wife and mother with that of the foremost female intellectual of her day to become an effective speaker for American independence and the principles of liberty, equality, and democracy. With a caustic pen and a ready wit, this Plymouth housewife demonstrated a talent, a vitality, and a determination which commanded attention in the male-dominated society of the American revolutionary era and early national period.
As the third child (oldest daughter) of the thirteen born to Mary Allyne Otis and Colonel James Otis, Sr., Mercy's ancestral roots went deep into the inhospitable soil of colonial Massachusetts. She was born into and grew up in a Puritan family of enviable influence and prominence. From her mother, Mercy inherited a respectability which came naturally from being descended from one of the signers of the famous Mayflower Compact. As the signer and a founder of the Plymouth colony, her great-grandfather Edward Dotey was a progenitor of a family which practiced assiduously the Puritan values of learning, hard work, public service, and steady habits.
It was from her father, however, that Mercy inherited what would constitute near-aristocratic status in 18th-century New England. The Otises were part of the Great Puritan Migration of the 1630s, arriving in 1631 and settling in Hingham. They soon acquired substantial landholdings and a reputation for integrity and public service. In 1683, Warren's grandfather Otis moved south to the Cape Cod village of Barnstable where he soon became prominent as a merchant and politician. As a farmer, merchant, lawyer, judge, militia officer, and local politician, Warren's father was able to give to his growing progeny a competence and a respectability which provided her with opportunities denied most girls in Puritan New England. Although not formally schooled, Colonel Otis saw to it that his sons (and interestingly also his oldest daughter Mercy) were provided with the best education then available.
Like most Puritan children, Warren learned to read at an early age. It was likely that it was her mother who taught the eager Mercy to read, so she would be appropriately prepared to assume the role of housewife and mother. The education of most girls stopped at this point, but Mercy was allowed, even encouraged by her father, to continue. In the company of her two older brothers, James and Joseph, Warren came under the educational influence of her uncle Russell. As a Yale-trained cleric, the Reverend Jonathan Russell was well schooled in literature, history, theology, and the classics. For several years, Warren was exposed to a rigorous program of reading and disputation. She found that she could keep up with her precocious brothers, both of whom were being prepared to enter Harvard College. She read primarily Greek and Roman literature in translation, history, and literature. Her writings as an adult reflected especially this early and substantial acquaintance with history and the classics. She especially loved to read history. Purportedly Walter Raleigh's History of the World was her favorite, and it was probably at this early age that she conceived of the idea of writing history. Unlike most girls of the age, Warren also learned not only the basics but also the intricacies of composition. In fact, she practiced her writing constantly and soon became highly skilled in presenting complex concepts and ideas. At first, her writing was somewhat stilted and convoluted, but with diligence she soon acquired the ease of written expression which characterized her adult works.
It was during the time of her tutelage with Uncle Russell that Mercy became particularly close to her brother Jemmy (James Otis, Jr.), who became her dearest friend and intellectual companion. With the help and encouragement of her mercurial brother, Warren came to the realization that she was the intellectual equal of men. Although her opportunities for education and a career outside of the home were greatly restricted, she participated vicariously in the political and literary world of 18th-century Massachusetts first through her brother Jemmy and later through her husband James Warren and her friend John Adams. What she learned was that gender was no barrier to intellectual equality.
Jemmy's graduation from Harvard in 1743 provided the first opportunity for the 14-year-old Mercy to see the world outside Barnstable. The Harvard commencement was one of the highlights of the year, and the entire Otis clan traveled to Cambridge for the graduation and accompanying festivities. It is likely that at this time, the young, impressionable Mercy first met her brother's college-mate James Warren. Two years behind Mercy's brother at the college, James came from a prominent Plymouth family. This early acquaintance would, after a number of years, develop into a romance which led to marriage in November 1754.
As James Warren's wife, Mercy joined a family equally as prominent as her own. The Warrens, like the Otises, were descended from the first Pilgrim settlers and had, by the mid-18th century, achieved the status as one of the first families of Plymouth. In the hierarchical and patriarchal society of colonial Massachusetts, Mercy Otis Warren, both before and after marriage, lived a life of relative ease, comfort, and affluence. Throughout her life, there were always servants to do most of the menial jobs, allowing her time—denied most—to read, reflect, and write. However, in the male-dominated world of Puritan Massachusetts, Warren readily accepted the traditional view of a secondary role for women. As she wrote in a poem in 1779:
Critics may censure, but if candour frowns
I'll quit the pen, and keep within the bounds
The narrow bounds, prescribed to female life
The gentle mistress, and the prudent wife.
As a young wife, Warren would be a homemaker first and then a writer and political thinker. She would always be "the gentle mistress, and the prudent wife."
With her marriage, Mercy moved into the Warren family home and into the highest political and social circles of Plymouth. With the death of James' father in 1757, her husband inherited the Eel River farm ("Clifford"). Also in 1757, the young bridegroom purchased a Plymouth town house. Except for a brief hiatus in the 1780s, Mercy and James would spend their lives in the Plymouth town house and nearby farm.
At regular intervals between 1757 and 1766, Warren gave birth to five boys. Providentially all of her sons grew to maturity, though three of them predeceased her. James, Jr. was born in 1757, followed by Winslow in 1759, Charles in 1762, Henry in 1764, and George in 1766. Although she loved all of her sons and was in fact a caring and compassionate mother to all, Winslow seems to have been a favorite. Her letters to her second son revealed an especially strong mother-son bond. Ironically, it was Winslow who gave his mother the greatest grief. Although intelligent and personable, Winslow possessed an unpuritan fondness for the hedonist life. He refused to attend Harvard and instead jumped from one career to another with no success. In his early 30s, he did obtain a commission in the U.S. Army and soon afterwards was killed in General Arthur St. Clair's infamous defeat at the hands of Indians in 1791. Of the other sons, the oldest James, Jr., although he outlived his mother, sustained a wound which made necessary having one of his legs amputated while serving in the navy during the Revolutionary War; the third son Charles contracted tuberculosis and died in 1785 at the age of 23; and the youngest George contracted an unknown but fatal disease and died in 1800 at the age of 34. Only the fourth son Henry was to marry and give Mercy the grandchildren she so dearly loved.
Critics may censure, but if candour frowns, I'll quit the pen, and keep within the bounds, The narrow bounds, prescribed to female life, The gentle mistress, and the prudent wife.
—Mercy Otis Warren, On Primitive Simplicity
The 1760s and 1770s were exciting times for the Warrens. Raising five boys was a fulltime job for the mother. Partly because her husband was frequently away serving on various revolutionary committees or in the legislature, Mercy assumed, somewhat begrudgingly, the arduous and time-consuming task of managing the Plymouth town house and Eel River farm. In addition, it was Mercy who supervised the early education of all of the five sons. As a result of her diligence and persistence, all of her boys learned their three "Rs" and more at an early age. It was during these busy years that Warren began to write seriously. The extant poems from this period show a writer who is slowly but surely learning her craft. In addition to poetry, Warren also wrote numerous letters in which she honed her writing skills while commenting intelligently on the complex social and political issues of the day.
During the 1760s, Mercy became involved, at first vicariously but later more directly, in the anti-English furor which eventually led to American independence. Although both the Otises and the Warrens had long been active politically, it was for Mercy her brother Jemmy's involvement in the Writs of Assistance controversy that constituted her inauguration into the morass of Massachusetts politics. James Otis, Jr.'s famous speech before the Superior Court of Massachusetts in which he challenged the validity of the writs was, according to the always biased sister, "the foundation of a revolution." John Adams later claimed: "Then and there the child Independence was born." Because of his brilliant defense of colonial rights, Jemmy quickly became, along with Samuel Adams, John Hancock, John Adams, and James Warren, a leader of the country or opposition party. The court or English party was headed by Thomas Hutchinson and the Oliver family. Because of numerous prior political snubs and deliberate slights, some dating back to the 1740s, and because the Hutchinson-Oliver clan was the chief defender and indeed the major benefactor of English policies, the Otis-Warren family became the implacable foe of Thomas Hutchinson and his political cronies.
Much of the planning and discussions of the country party leaders took place in the Warren house. Thus it was that Mercy met and got to know well many of the prominent radical leaders. She in fact became involved in the discussions and planning which led eventually to "the shot heard around the world" at Lexington and Concord. Warren shared the radical political views of her mercurial brother Jemmy and her more staid husband James. Particularly after Jemmy's increasingly frequent bouts with insanity rendered him unable to continue as an opposition leader, Mercy became the family's voice of opposition. She took pen in hand to oppose Britain's continuing attacks on American liberty.
Warren's first published play was an attack on the Hutchinson-Oliver family. The Adulateur, a Tragedy appeared in two installments in the Massachusetts Spy in the spring of 1772. The play, probably written to be read and not performed on stage, was an ill-disguised satire on the current political situation in Massachusetts. The targets of the cleverly written spoof were Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver. The heroes were, not surprisingly, James Otis, Jr., James Warren, and John Adams. Although the play was published anonymously, it was soon widely known that James Warren's Plymouth housewife was the author of this widely distributed propaganda tract. In The Adulateur, Mercy warned of all the evil intentions of the Hutchinson-Oliver clan. The governor and his "fawning courtiers" would, she wrote, stop at nothing to subvert the people's liberties.
Warren followed her first published success with the anonymous publication of The Defeat,a Play in the summer of 1773. Although not as well crafted as her first endeavor, this play continued the attack on the now-discredited governor and his fawning minions. By 1775, Mercy Otis Warren had become the leading "penwoman" of the entire revolutionary movement.
During the period of the American War for Independence, Warren met, and corresponded, with many of the radical leaders. It was at this time that she met John Adams and his wife Abigail. Mercy became Abigail Adams ' female mentor. Although she was 16 years younger and less formally educated than the Plymouth housewife, Abigail's letters to Mercy showed a sophistication and intellectual maturity which delighted the house-bound Mrs. Warren. Also of great interest was Mercy's long-time correspondence with English historian Catharine Macaulay . As the author of the celebrated History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line, Macaulay became the female intellectual role model for Mercy. It was Catharine Macaulay indirectly (by example) and John Adams directly (by constant badgering) who encouraged Mercy to undertake the writing of the history of the American Revolution. During the conflict, Warren started collecting manuscripts, letters, and pamphlets in preparation for the publication of what would become her magnum opus.
With the advent of peace in 1783, the 55-year-old Warren continued her interest in writing and politics. For most of the 1780s, James and Mercy lived in Milton having purchased, in 1781, the elegant Thomas Hutchinson mansion. Hutchinson of course was living in brooding exile in England. The irony of James Warren purchasing Hutchinson's mansion was not lost on Mercy. Although much closer to Boston, "Tremont" (as the Warrens called their new acquisition) proved to be too expensive to maintain. After seven years of financial struggle, the Warrens sold their "dream house" and returned to live more simply and thriftily in their Plymouth townhouse and nearby Eel River farm.
During the 1780s, Mercy viewed with increased alarm the growing nationalistic movement which would eventually lead to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. In fact, when the proposed constitution was first made public in the fall of 1787, Warren quickly became one of its most severe and articulate critics. Like most antifederalists, Mercy felt that the Constitution of 1787 represented a betrayal of the American Revolution. Specifically, she objected to the national government being given the power to tax, the power to regulate trade and commerce, and the
power to enforce its acts. Both Warren and her husband rushed to publish anti-federalist tracts. Posing as "A Republican Federalist," James issued a series of seven tracts in which he claimed the proposed constitution was illegitimate because the founding fathers had exceeded their instructions in drafting an entirely new organic law.
Warren's opposition appeared as Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal Conventions. In this widely distributed tract, Mercy reiterated several of the standard anti-federalist arguments such as the lack of a bill of rights, the possibility of a standing army during peacetime, and the enhancement of national power at the expense of the states. She then went on to claim that the new constitution was a "many-headed monster; of such motley mixture, that its enemies cannot trace a feature of Democratick or Republican extract." With the 1788 publication of this strident attack on the proposed constitution, both Warren and her husband completed the political estrangement, started earlier over Shay's Rebellion, with most of their conservative Plymouth neighbors and with most of the federalist-leaning political leaders in Massachusetts. James essentially retired from active politics and public service after several electoral defeats, while Mercy finished writing her majestic history of the American Revolution.
In 1790, Warren published Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous. In this, her first booklength publication, she included numerous poems, several political tracts written during the Revolution, and two of her more recently written plays. Unlike her earlier dramas, women played leading roles in The Ladies of Castile (written in 1784) and The Sack of Rome (1785). This volume reflected Warren's growing maturity as a writer and her emergence as a leading advocate of women's rights. By making the lead characters women, Warren seemed to be saying that women are indeed the equal of men if given equal opportunities for education and public service. Her first book brought the public acclaim which had eluded her earlier for her anonymously written plays and political tracts. She was now recognized as the leading female playwright and political commentator and perhaps more important as the foremost female intellectual and literary figure of her day and age.
At the urging of her husband and John Adams, Warren finally submitted for publication her long-awaited history of the Revolution. The History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, interspersed with Biographical and Moral Observations was a tour de force consisting of 1,298 pages (31 chapters) in three volumes. Published in 1805, it was the antifederalist, Jeffersonian answer to John Marshall's ponderous, federalist-oriented five volumes on the Life of George Washington. Of particular merit are Warren's biographical sketches of the leading figures, both male and female, of the revolutionary era. From personal acquaintance and diligent research, Warren produced a historical tome which still commands attention. Significantly, her magnum opus was the first major published historical work written by an American woman. Thus Mercy Otis Warren was the first published woman historian in the United States; a fact for which she was proud and well aware. The History has become her most enduring published legacy.
The History also became the cause of an unseemly political estrangement with her longtime friend and political mentor John Adams. In a series of ten caustically written letters, the former president attacked Warren's scholarship and her audacity in even undertaking a historical project of such magnitude and scope. What the overly sensitive Adams wrote was "History is not the Province of the Ladies." What he meant was Mercy had unjustly, in his view, criticized him for his alleged "monarchical" leanings, his political conservatism, and his "Pride of talent and much ambition." Her attempts to answer Adams rationally and logically only spurred him on to renewed vindictiveness. The alienation caused by this one-sided missive verbal assault was never fully healed. Although the Warren-Adams correspondence was resumed after some four years, it never reached the cordiality and intimacy of former times.
The few years left to James and Mercy together were lived in virtual political isolation. Warren was largely consoled, however, by the frequent visits of her nine grandchildren (all belonging to son Henry and his wife Polly Winslow Warren ) and by the return home of her oldest son James. After the publication of The History, Warren wrote but little. Instead, she assumed the role of matriarch of the Warren family.
In November 1808, Mercy lost "the first friend of her heart." In 54 years of marriage, James had always been her confidant, compassionate husband, political compatriot, and gentle literary critic. As she wrote to her oldest son, "Your father is the philosopher and the Christian:—he is the best husband, the best father—the best friend." In 1772, she had written to her then husband of 18 years: "All my Earthly Happiness depend[s] on the continuance of [your] Life." With the death of her 82-year-old husband, the 80-year-old Mercy knew her years were numbered.
Warren had never enjoyed robust health. Frequently she was bedridden for weeks on end with a variety of physical illnesses or periods of severe depression. As early as 1775, her eyes began to give her trouble, forcing her to refrain from reading and writing for long periods. Her final illness came suddenly. Early in the morning of October 19, 1814, Warren died of now unknown causes at the age of 86.
Mercy Otis Warren's enduring legacy is that she overcame the rigid social and political strictures of her day to become the first published woman historian and a respected political thinker and writer. She was able to combine the traditional role of wife and mother with that of a published writer of great merit, influence, and ability. Her life and manifold accomplishments are proof that a woman, although living under a handicap in the patriarchal society in which she was born, could achieve literary and intellectual gender equality.
Anthony, Katharine. First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1958.
Brown, Alice. Mercy Warren. NY: Scribner, 1896.
Smith, William Raymond. History as Argument: Three Patriot Historians of the American Revolution. The Hague: Mouton, 1966.
Zagarri, Rosemarie. A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. Wheeling, IL: Harland Davidson, 1995.
Hoffman, Ronald, and Peter J. Albert, eds. Women in the Age of the American Revolution. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1989.
Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. NY: W.W. Norton, 1980.
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1980.
Waters, John J., Jr. The Otis Family in Provincial and Revolutionary Massachusetts. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
Mercy Warren Letter Book and Mercy Warren Papers, The Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
Joseph C. Morton , Professor of History, Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago, Illinois