Born on September 25, 1728 in Barnstable, Mass. – on Cape Cod, she was an American writer and playwright, patriot and activist known as the Conscience of the American Revolution. Her proximity to political leaders and events of her day, gives particular value to her writing on the American Revolutionary period. With a life that spanned three wars and the deaths of three sons and a husband, Warren remained undeterred in her pursuit of the intellectual life and the establishment of land of liberty protected from tyrants. When the colonies experienced increasing tyranny from English rule, Mercy Otis Warren became perhaps the most important of Revolutionary War women.
Mercy Otis was born on September 25, 1728 in Barnstable, Massachusetts – on Cape Cod. Naturally political, she involved herself from girlhood in the conversations of the men in her family. Her father encouraged her to excel, which in colonial America meant she was tutored with her Harvard-bound brother James. But for Mercy a college education was impossible.
The younger sister of James Otis, Boston’s leading advocate for colonists’ rights in the 1760s, Mercy was a bookish girl in a time when many girls never obtained basic literacy. Her father, James Sr., encouraged her curiosity. She demanded to join in when her brothers read aloud and took the place of her second-oldest brother during lessons with their uncle, a local minister. While James was a student at Harvard, he’d come home and tell her about his studies, especially the political theories of John Locke. She read voraciously: Shakespeare and Milton, Greek and Roman literature, Moliere’s plays in translation, Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. At age 14, she met her future husband, James Warren, at her brother’s Harvard graduation. They married in 1754 at ages 26 and 28, respectively. While raising five children, she began writing private poems about family and nature.
Her husband, James Warren, was a farmer and politically-active merchant from Plymouth, Massachusetts, a college friend of her brother. Her literary inclinations were fostered by both these two men, and she began early to write poems and essays. Mercy moved a few miles north to Plymouth when they married, and never ventured beyond eastern Massachusetts, but the life of her mind was so rich that she was respected by the most cosmopolitan and politically important men of her era. Her husband, James Warren, apparently understood the “inner” Mercy from the start for he filled their Plymouth home with books and encouraged her to read and write, especially the latter. During the tense pre-Revolutionary years, in between birthing and raising five sons, Mercy began by writing poetry.
As a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and its speaker, a member and president of the Provincial Congress, and paymaster-general, James Warren took a leading part in the events of the American revolutionary period, and his wife followed its progress with keen interest. Mercy became a counselor and advisor to him and his friends, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Mercy, a highly intelligent woman, was dedicated to the American cause, yet her gender kept her from getting involved in politics. Instead she made her statements in her writing.
In the 1760s, the Warrens’ Plymouth home became a meeting-place for like-minded patriots. Her husband joined her brother in the Massachusetts legislature—together, they opposed colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson. But James Otis’ career was cut short in 1769, when a British customs officer bashed his head with a cane in a bar brawl and the trauma pushed him into mental illness. Mercy later called him, “the first champion of American freedom.” Later, she would watch her sons and husband suffer career setbacks in part because of their uncompromising stands on the issues during and after the war.
After Otis went mad, his sister began answering his correspondence, including letters from radical British historian Catharine Macaulay. Encouraged by her husband, who praised her “genius” and “brilliant and busy imagination,” Warren also began writing satirical plays that attacked Hutchinson, her brother’s nemesis. Her first play, The Adulateur, published in Boston’s Massachusetts Spy newspaper in March and April 1772, portrayed a thinly disguised Hutchinson as Rapatio, the dictatorial leader of the mythical kingdom of Servia. Warren pitted Brutus, a hero based on her brother, against Rapatio. “The man who boasts his freedom,/Feels solid joy,” Brutus declared, “tho’ poor and low his state.” Three years before the Revolution, Warren’s play warned that a day might come when “murders, blood and carnage/Shall crimson all these streets.”
The Adulateur caught on with Boston’s patriots, who began to substitute its characters’ names for actual political figures in their correspondence. Then, in 1773, Boston newspapers published private letters of Hutchinson’s that confirmed patriots’ worst suspicions about him. (In one, Hutchinson called for “an abridgement of English liberties in colonial administration.”) Warren responded with The Defeat, a sequel to The Adulateur, which cast Rapatio as the “dangerous foe/Of Liberty of truth, and of mankind.” Rapatio appeared again in her second play, The Defeat (1773). She published her third, The Group in 1775, just as the rebellion began to be violent. All were thinly disguised attacks on specific public officials, and urged the taking of risks to achieve American independence.
Leading patriots knew Warren was the play’s anonymous author. After the Boston Tea Party, John Adams asked her to write a mythical poem about it, as “a frolic among the sea-nymphs and goddesses.” Warren obliged, quickly writing “The Squabble of the Sea-Nymphs,” in which two of Neptune’s wives debate the quality of several teas, until intruders poured “delicious teas” into the water, thus “bid[ding] defiance to the servile train,/The pimps and sycophants of George’s reign.” In early 1775, as Bostonians chafed at Britain’s Intolerable Acts, Warren published poems that encouraged women to boycott British goods. Another play that mocked loyalists, The Group, was published two weeks before the battles of Lexington and Concord. She also published Massachusetts Song of Liberty, and it soon became the most popular song of the colonies.
When the colonies increasingly rebelled against English rule, Mercy Otis Warren became perhaps the most important of Revolutionary War women. Like the men of her family, she was among those ready to throw out the colonial governor.
An important experience in her life was meeting John Adams. In 1772 he, James Warren, and Samuel Adams gathered at the Warren home in Plymouth to discuss the formation of the committees of correspondence, radical Whig organizations created to guard against intrusions of Tory policy into the lives of citizens. From 1772 until her death, Mercy Warren maintained a correspondence with John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams.
John Adams and some of the other leaders of the American Revolution knew Mercy Otis Warren’s secret. At a time when few women could, Warren contributed her own voice to the cause for freedom. Her piercing satires of British authorities, published in Boston newspapers had prepared colonists for the final break with the mother country. Adams called her the “most accomplished woman in America” – though he, too, would later feel the sting of her pen. At a time when even most Americans still thought of democracy as an impossible notion, Mercy Otis Warren understood that the natural rights philosophy inherent in the Declaration of Independence would inevitably mean democracy and equality.
As she witnessed the outbreak of violence in 1775 in Massachusetts and the subsequent hardships the British occupation caused its residents, Mercy’s womanly side grew increasingly protective. By then, Mercy had already begun to speak out in a series of popular, widely published anti-British and anti-Tory propaganda plays. To protect her both from British persecution and colonial mockery as a woman writer, her identity was kept secret.
During the war, Warren worked as her husband’s personal secretary and managed their Plymouth farm while he was away governing as president of the Massachusetts provincial congress. She kept up a frequent correspondence with John Adams, a protégé of her brother’s, and his wife, Abigail. In November 1775, as the British held Boston under siege, James Warren wrote to Adams, a friend and delegate to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, urging him to give up on trying to reconcile with George III. “Your Congress can be no longer in any doubts, and hesitancy,” he wrote in his lawyerly style, “about taking capital and effectual strokes.”
Mercy insisted on adding a paragraph of her own. “You should no longer piddle at the threshold,” she dictated. “It is time to leap into the theatre to unlock the bars, and open every gate that impedes the rise and growth of the American republic.”
As Americans debated the proposed new Constitution in 1787, Warren and her husband became Anti-Federalists. As part of the older generation of revolutionaries that had emerged from provincial governments, they were more loyal to their state than the federal government. Both Mercy and James penned arguments against the Constitution – published anonymously, much like the Federalist Papers. Her essay, published in 1788 under the pseudonym “A Columbian Patriot,” warned that the Constitution would lead to “an aristocratic tyranny” and an “uncontrolled despotism.” The Constitution, she warned, lacked a bill of rights – no guarantees of a free press, freedom of conscience, or trial by jury. Warren complained that the Constitution didn’t protect citizens from arbitrary warrants giving officials power to “enter our houses, search, insult, and seize at pleasure.” Her sweeping, florid essay proved more popular than her husband’s narrow, precise legal argument. It contributed to the pressure that led Congress to pass the Bill of Rights just eighteen months later, in 1789.
The Revolution had hardly begun when Mercy Warren began recording its history. During the next 30 years, through family tragedies, she used her connections to gather original material and publish one of the most interesting early histories of the Revolution, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. The three volumes were finally published in 1805, when she was seventy-seven years old. Her work not only provided an insider’s view of the Revolution, but also set an important precedent for women authors. Until that time, the few women writers who existed in America didn’t intend for their work to be published, but wrote primarily for themselves, family, and friends.
By the late 1780s, Mercy’s messages in print became a reality for, by then, the young republic was mired in an economic depression. Nor did the first draft of the U.S. Constitution in late 1787 relieve Mercy’s anxieties. She published anonymously an influential essay in May 1788 entitled Observations on the New Constitution, arguing for the necessity of a list of rights to protect the ordinary man.
Mercy Warren thus became the first to publish books that marked her as a professional writer of nonfiction who – despite her upper class status – offered her work for sale. Warren shed her anonymity in 1790, publishing her book Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous under her own name. It collected two decades of her work, including Revolutionary-era satires and two new plays with prominent female characters. Adams and George Washington sent congratulations; Alexander Hamilton proclaimed her a “genius” of “dramatic composition.” But the compilation was just a prelude to her masterwork.
She was bitterly resentful in her old age because of the restrictions imposed upon women, and focused particularly on educational reform. She chafed at the memory of doing needlework while her brothers were taught Latin and Greek, and she argued that such artificial limits on achievement harmed both men and women.
Though it may have appeared that few understood Mercy’s message at the time, the first serious educational institution for women, Emma Willard‘s Troy Female Seminary, appeared less than a decade after her death. Warren’s thoughts on the subject may have had more influence than she realized.
(Right) At the Barnstable County Courthouse, a statue of Mercy Otis Warren stands with one arm raised holding up the Bill of Rights to which she was an unsung contributor. The statue is a powerful reminder of a Founding Mother’s warning about the human tendency to abuse power, but also the potential we have as individuals to make our voices heard.
Mercy Otis Warren died October 19, 1814, in Plymouth.