Mercy Otis Warren

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Mercy Otis Warren
Mercy Otis Warren.jpg
Mercy Otis Warren, circa 1763, oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley
Born Mercy Otis
September 14 [old style], 1728
Barnstable, Massachusetts Bay, British America
Died October 19, 1814(1814-10-19) (aged 86)
Massachusetts, U.S.
Resting place Burial Hill, Plymouth, U.S.
41°57′22″N 70°39′58″W / 41.956°N 70.666°W / 41.956; -70.666
Pen name A Columbian Patriot
Occupation Writer and poet
Language English
Nationality American
Notable works History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution
Spouse James Warren (m. 1754)
Bronze sculpture of Mercy Otis Warren stands in front of the Barnstable County Courthouse

Mercy Otis Warren (September 14, [September 25, New Style][1] 1728 – October 19, 1814) was a political writer and propagandist of the American Revolution. In the eighteenth century, topics such as politics and war were thought to be the province of men. Few men and fewer women had the education or training to write about these subjects. Warren was an exception. During the years before the American Revolution, Warren published poems and plays that attacked royal authority in Massachusetts and urged colonists to resist British infringements on colonial rights and liberties.

During the debate over the United States Constitution in 1788, she issued a pamphlet, Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions written under the pseudonym "A Columbian Patriot," that opposed ratification of the document and advocated the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. Observations was long thought to be the work of other writers, most notably Elbridge Gerry. It was not until her descendant, Charles Warren, found a reference to it in a 1787 letter to British historian, Catharine Macaulay, that Warren was accredited authorship.[2] In 1790, she published a collection of poems and plays under her own name, a highly unusual occurrence for a woman at the time. In 1805, she published one of the earliest histories of the American Revolution, a three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, the first history of the American Revolution authored by a woman.

Early life[edit]

Mercy Otis Warren was born on September 14, 1728 (old style), the third of thirteen children and first daughter of Colonel James Otis (1702–1778) and Mary Allyne Otis (1702–1774). The family lived in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. Mary Allyne was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Edward Doty. James Otis, Sr., was a farmer, and attorney, who served as a judge for the Barnstable County Court of Common Pleas. He won election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1745.[3] He was an outspoken opponent and leader against British rule and against the appointed colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson. The Otis children were "raised in the midst of revolutionary ideals". Although Mercy had no formal education, she studied with the Reverend Jonathan Russell while he tutored her brothers Joseph and James in preparation for College. James Otis attended Harvard College and became a noted patriot and lawyer. What little of his correspondence with Mercy survives suggests that James encouraged Mercy's academic and literary efforts, treating her as an intellectual equal and confidante.[4]

She married James Warren on November 14, 1754. After settling in Plymouth, James inherited his father's position as sheriff. His previous occupations included farming and merchanting.[5] Throughout their lives, they wrote letters of respect and admiration to each other. These exchanges of adoration showed both a mutual respect and an enduring bond between the two. James would write from Boston, “I have read one Excellent Sermon this day & heard two others. What next can I do better than write to a Saint,” and Mercy would then respond, “Your spirit I admire- were a few thousands on the Continent of a similar disposition we might defy the power of Britain".[6] They had five sons, James (1757–1821), Winslow (1759–1791), Charles (1762–1784), Henry (1764–1828), and George (1766–1800).[7]

Her husband James had a distinguished political career. In 1765 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He became speaker of the House and President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He also served as paymaster to George Washington's army for a time during the American Revolutionary War. Mercy Warren actively participated in the political life of her husband. The Warrens became increasingly involved in the conflict between the American colonies and the British Government. Their Plymouth home was often a meeting place for local politics and revolutionaries including the Sons of Liberty. Warren became increasingly drawn to political activism and she hosted protest meetings in her home. With the assistance of her friend Samuel Adams, these meetings laid the foundation for the Committees of Correspondence. Warren wrote "no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies". Like Mercy's father and brothers, the first patriots disliked the colonial governor. Mercy accordingly became a strong political voice with views on liberty, republican government and independence for the American colonies. She wrote: "Every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty." Mercy's husband James encouraged her to write, fondly referring to her as the "scribbler"[8] and she became his chief correspondent and sounding board.[9]

Revolutionary writings and politics[edit]

Warren formed a strong circle of friends with whom she regularly corresponded, including Abigail Adams, John Adams, Martha Washington and Hannah Winthrop, wife to John Winthrop. In a letter to Catharine Macaulay she wrote: "America stands armed with resolution and virtue; but she still recoils at the idea of drawing the sword against the nation from whom she derived her origin. Yet Britain, like an unnatural parent, is ready to plunge her dagger into the bosom of her affectionate offspring."[10] Through their correspondence they increased the awareness of women's issues, were supportive, and influenced the course of events to further America's cause.[9]

She became a correspondent and adviser to many political leaders, including Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and especially John Adams, who became her literary mentor in the years leading to the Revolution. In a letter to James Warren, Adams wrote, "Tell your wife that God Almighty has entrusted her with the Powers for the good of the World, which, in the cause of his Providence, he bestows on few of the human race. That instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them."[11]

Since Warren knew most of the leaders of the Revolution personally, she was continually at or near the center of events from 1765 to 1789. All of Mercy Otis Warren’s work was published anonymously until 1790 when she published Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, the first work bearing her name. The book contains eighteen political poems and two plays. The two dramas, The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castille, deal with liberty, social and moral values that were necessary to the success of the new republic.[9] She wrote several plays, including the satiric The Adulateur (1772).

Directed against Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, The Adulateur foretold the War of Revolution. It was published as a part of a longer play by an unknown author without Warren's consent in 1773. One of the main characters in Warren's part of the play is Rapatio, who represented Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts at the time. Because Warren was a Whig and Hutchinson was a Tory, Warren disagreed with Hutchinson's views. Therefore, Rapatio is the antagonist in The Adulateur. The protagonist is Brutus, a character that Warren created to represent her brother, James Otis. In the play, the characters that are Whigs are brave, independent people. The characters that are Tories are selfish and rude. Needless to say, the play includes a happy ending for the Whigs. After the play was published, Hutchinson actually become known as Rapatio to citizens of Massachusetts who identified with the Whigs. Because her first play was so successful and she thoroughly enjoyed writing about politics, Mercy Otis Warren did not stop there.[12]

In 1773, she wrote The Defeat, also featuring the character based on Hutchinson. Hutchinson had no idea the accuracy of her plot nor completely comprehended the impact she made on his political fate. Warren’s assistance in the movement to remove Governor Hutchinson from his position through The Defeat was one of her greatest accomplishments, and she allowed the piece a rare happy ending.[13] Mercy began to doubt as she wrote the third installment in her trilogy, feeling the power of her satire compromised her divine purpose to be a “member of the gentler sex,” but found encouragement from Abigail Adams, who told her, “God Almighty has entrusted [you] with Powers for the good of the World".[14] With this affirmation, Warren then provided her sharpest political commentary yet: In 1775 Warren published The Group, a satire conjecturing what would happen if the British king abrogated the Massachusetts charter of rights. The anonymously published The Blockheads (1776) and The Motley Assembly (1779) are also attributed to her. In 1788 she published Observations on the New Constitution, whose ratification she opposed as an Anti-Federalist.

Mercy Otis Warren is regarded as being among the most influential writers of the Revolutionary war. Her work earned the congratulations of numerous prominent men of the age, including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, who remarked, “In the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has outstripped the Male”.[15]

Post-Revolutionary writings[edit]

History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805)

In 1790 she published Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, the first work bearing her name. The book contains eighteen political poems and two plays. The two plays are called, The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castille, deal with liberty, social and moral values that were necessary to the success of the new republic.[9]

In 1805, she completed her literary career with a three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. President Thomas Jefferson ordered subscriptions for himself and his cabinet and noted his "anticipation of her truthful account of the last thirty years that will furnish a more instructive lesson to mankind than any equal period known in history."[16] The book's sharp comments on John Adams led to a heated correspondence and a breach in their friendship, which lasted until 1812.

Death and legacy[edit]

Mercy Otis Warren died on October 19, 1814, at the age of 86, several years after her husband died in 1808.[4] She is buried at Burial Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts. The SS Mercy Warren, a World War II Liberty ship launched in 1943, was named in her honor. In 2002, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. She is remembered on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.[17] Her great-great grandson, Charles Warren, became a distinguished lawyer and historian.

Warren proved her ability to resonate to her colonial audience, men and women alike, despite the limited opportunity for women in her time. Furthermore, she proved courageous in being willing to put forth work calling out the authoritative power while raising a family, yet she was humble and practical in how she presented the commentary through quieter presentations. Her success was never above her personal dignity. She never took any political affiliation post-Revolution or a career having anything to do with politics. She said to her son, “The thorns, the thistles, and the briers, in the field of politics seldom permit the soil to produce anything… but ruin to the adventurer,” yet the public would not let her retire from commentating on the political conflicts of her later days.[18] She concentrated her writing on strict political matters wrote many more short dramas, poems, and essays throughout wartime and post-Revolution with a commentating and critical voice.


  1. ^ Mercy Otis Warren. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ Whipp, Koren (2014). "Mercy Otis Warren". Project Continua
  3. ^ "Mass. Foundation for the Humanities". Mercy Otis Warren. Retrieved February 9, 2008. 
  4. ^ a b Richards, Jeffrey H. (1995). Mercy Otis Warren. New York: Twayne Publishers. p. 3. ISBN 0-8057-4003-1. 
  5. ^ Richards, Jeffrey H. (1995). Mercy Otis Warren. New York: Twayne Publishers. p. 4. 
  6. ^ Brown, Alice (1896). Mercy Warren. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 93, 96. 
  7. ^ "Massachusetts Historical Society". Mercy Otis Warren Papers. Retrieved February 18, 2008. 
  8. ^ "American History for 21st Century Citizens: A Southern California Consortium". Biography (Virtual Re-enactments; Mercy Otis Warren). Archived from the original on September 24, 2008. Retrieved February 10, 2008. 
  9. ^ a b c d "Mercy Otis Warren, conscience of the American Revolution.". Introduction to the work of Mercy Otis Warren. Retrieved February 18, 2008. 
  10. ^ "The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth F. Ellet". Mercy Warren. Retrieved February 3, 2008. 
  11. ^ "Heath Anthology of American Literature". Mercy Otis Warren. Retrieved February 12, 2008. 
  12. ^ Blundell, John (2013). Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History (2nd Edition). New York, NY, USA: Algora Publishing. pp. 17–18. 
  13. ^ Anthony, Katharine (1958). First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Doubleay & Company. pp. 86–87. 
  14. ^ Anthony, Katharine (1958). First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Garden City: Doubleday & Company. p. 95. 
  15. ^ Zagarri, Rosemarie (2014). A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (Second ed.). Somerset, NJ: Wiley. p. 142. 
  16. ^ "American Treasures of the Library of congress". Historian of the American Revolution. Retrieved March 10, 2008. 
  17. ^ "Downtown". Boston Women's Heritage Trail. 
  18. ^ Zagarri, Rosemarie (2014). A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (Second ed.). Somerset, NJ: Wiley. p. 137. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Blundell, John. Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made a Difference in American History (2nd Edition). New York, NY, USA: Algora Publishing, 2013. ProQuest ebrary. Web.
  • Cohen, Lester H. "Mercy Otis Warren: the Politics of Language and the Aesthetics of Self." American Quarterly 1983 35(5): 481–98. ISSN 0003-0678 Fulltext in Jstor
  • Davies, Kate. Catharine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren: The Revolutionary Atlantic and the Politics of Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Davies, Kate, "Revolutionary Correspondence: Reading Catharine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren," Women's Writing: the Elizabethan to Victorian Period. 2006 13:1, 73–97.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. The Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams. Norton, 1993. ISBN 0-393-31133-3
  • Franklin, Benjamin V. and Warren, Mercy Otis. The Plays and Poems of Mercy Otis Warren. Delmar, New York: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1980. Print.
  • Friedman, Lawrence J. and Shaffer, Arthur H. "Mercy Otis Warren and the Politics of Historical Nationalism." New England Quarterly 1975 48(2): 194–215. in JSTOR
  • Gelles, Edith B. "Bonds of Friendship: the Correspondence of Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren" Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 1996 108: 35–71. ISSN 0076-4981
  • Lane, Larry M. and Lane, Judith J. "The Columbian Patriot: Mercy Otis Warren and the Constitution." Women & Politics 1990 10(2): 17–32. ISSN 0195-7732
  • Oreovicz, Cheryl Z. "Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814)" Legacy 1996 13(1): 54–64. ISSN 0748-4321 Fulltext online at Swetswise
  • Richards, Jeffrey H. Mercy Otis Warren. (Twayne's United States Authors Series, no. 618.) Twayne, 1995. 195 pp.; reviewed in William and Mary Quarterly 199666 54(3): 659–61. Fulltext of review in Jstor
  • Stuart, Rubin, Nancy. The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation. Beacon Press, 2008.
  • Warren, Mercy Otis. The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations. Ed. and Ann. by Lester H. Cohen (2 vols.) Liberty Classics, 1988 (modern reprint of orig. 1804 edition).
  • Wood, Gordon S. "The Authorship of the Letters from the Federal Farmer" (in Notes and Documents). William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Ser., Vol. 31, No. 2. (Apr., 1974), pp. 299–308.
  • Zagarri, Rosemarie. A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. Harlan Davidson, 1995.

External links[edit]