Mercy Otis Warren was a mother, not a soldier. But the pen she wielded in support of liberty was more powerful than many a sword.
The people of the United States are bound together in sacred compact and a union of interests which ought never to be separated. But the confederation is recent, and their experience immatured; they are, however, generally sensible … [understanding that history demonstrates that] deception as well as violence have operated to the subversion of the freedom of the people.
— Mercy Otis Warren
Some seven months after the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” was fired on Lexington Green, James Warren sat responding to a letter from John Adams on the subject of the rebellion of the colonies against the king. Warren’s wife was anxious that her assessment on the historic matter be communicated to the famous patriot. Obligingly, Mr. Warren included the following contribution from his wife in his letter to Adams:
She [Mrs. Warren] sits at the table with me, will have a paragraph of her own; says you [Congress] “should no longer piddle at the threshold. 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, and then let the giddy potentate send forth his puerile proclamations to France, to Spain and all the commercial world who may be united in building up an Empire which he can’t prevent.
This is Mercy Otis Warren. Historian Lester Cohen calls her “the most formidable female of the 18th Century.” She was a pious and patriotic woman who would not be kept quiet on matters that would impact her family (and this war certainly would), and she was a historian who appreciated the historical value of a record of the players, principles, and progress of the American War for Independence.
Faith and Fortune
Mercy was born on September 14, 1728 to a prosperous and pious family. In 1630, four generations before her birth, James Otis arrived in America and set out immediately to establish a reputation as a hard-working man with a rock-ribbed devotion to his faith. These traits were passed down to his descendants, and the Otis family achieved wealth and prominence in Massachusetts. Mercy was steeped in this tradition and hewed rigidly to it.
As a child (the third of four and the first daughter), Mercy was taught that her duty was to her family. She would, her mother taught her, one day be a mother herself and it was her duty as a Christian woman to raise up a generation of children who would worship God and obey His commandments. Mercy learned these lessons, and the unwavering commitment to her family became the rock upon which she would build her long life.
Being a daughter, it was not necessary for Mercy to receive the formal education by tutors that her brothers were given. As sons, these young men would need to develop a fluency in the affairs of history — Rome and Greece — as well as a familiarity with mathematics, science, and logic that were the raw materials with which successful men from notable families would build their riches and their reputations.
This article appears in the June 19, 2017, issue of The New American. To download the issue and continue reading this story, or to subscribe, click here.
Image: Bronze statue of Mercy Otis Warren in front of Barnstable County Courthouse, by Kenenth C. Zirkel - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32733257
Mercy, a quick study when it came to the domestic arts that she would need to employ day in and day out as a mother, begged her father to let her listen in on the lectures delivered to her brothers. Her father, cognizant of his daughter’s remarkable intellect, permitted Mercy to audit her siblings’ schoolwork, and soon she was a scholar in her own right, endowed with an extraordinary and unusual knowledge of history and science. It was her impressive, albeit informal, education that would serve her well when she was prompted later in life to take up her pen in defense of virtue, reason, and liberty.
All that was sometime in the future, though, and thereupon Mercy was obliged marry and begin inculcating the next generation of Otises with the timeless tenets of Christianity and commitment to industriousness that were her family’s legacy.
When she was 26 years old, Mercy married James Warren, himself the scion of an influential Massachusetts family whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. Their letters to each other conveyed their mutual love and admiration, and they raised a family of five sons. As with the Otises, the Warrens rapidly rose to the highest band of Massachusetts’s social spectrum and amassed a fortune that would be handed down from father to son, with an unspoken understanding that each generation was to increase the size of the estate it inherited.
In 1772, James Warren helped organize the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, and in that same year Mercy began publishing plays that would propel her to prominence as an author and an ardent supporter of the patriot cause — the cause of liberty.
Some of Mercy Otis Warren’s most passionate words were written in letters to her intimate friends, many of whom were leading lights of the patriot movement; Sam Adams, John Adams, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson were all correspondents of Mercy’s and her dear friends.
One principal player in the drama of American independence was more than a friend to Mercy. James Otis, Mercy’s father, was arguably the most famous lawyer in Massachusetts in the decade prior to the Battle of Lexington. He gained renown as the man who would defend American liberty against the tyranny of the Writs of Assistance.
Writs of Assistance were orders permitting British government agents and soldiers stationed in Boston (and throughout Massachusetts) to enter and search private buildings without a warrant, an act of despotism that had been illegal since the time of the Magna Carta, signed some 500 years earlier.
One of James Otis’ legal arguments against the use of the warrants was believed to be the first time the phrase “No taxation without representation” was used in the American colonies. This was the type of family the Otises were: bright, brash, and bound to the cause of individual liberty.
Mercy was no exception, and she would soon prove to be an able and ardent author in her own right.
Warren’s first target was the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s determination to carry out the orders of the king and Parliament was unacceptable to Warren and the rest of the residents of Boston who would not tolerate having England violate the liberty they had enjoyed since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Citizens did not stand by while Hutchinson oversaw the wholesale denial of basic rights, and Mercy Otis Warren would lay his betrayal bare in the lines of her play The Adulateur.
Written in 1772, The Adulateur portrayed a thinly veiled prediction of the coming clash between the British Empire and the American colonists they were oppressing. The play pitted the people of an imaginary country against a “disagreeable and imperious official named Rapatio,” whom audiences easily identified as Hutchinson.
“With the publication of The Adulateur, Mercy made her debut as the patriots’ secret pen, whose barbed lampoons provoked laughter and longing for liberation from British rule,” wrote Nancy Rubin Stuart in her biography of Warren, The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation, published in 2008.
One need only read the first scene of Act I of the play to appreciate the theme of the theatrical piece she penned.
In Act I, Scene 1, the character Cassius (whose name was no doubt chosen purposefully to put audiences in the mind of the men who killed Julius Caesar) declares:
Oh! Brutus, our noble ancestors,
Who lived for freedom, and for freedom died:
Who scorned to roll in affluence, if that state
Was sickened over with the dread name of slaves:
Who in this desert stocked with beasts and men,
Whose untamed souls breathed naught but slaughter —
Grasped at freedom, and they nobly won it;
Then smiled and died contented. Should these heroes
Start from their tombs and view their dear possessions,
The price of so much labor, cost and blood,
Gods! What a pang it would cost them; yes, they’d weep,
Nor weep in vain. That good old spirit,
Which warmed them once, would rouse to noble actions
E’re they would cringe they’d bathe their swords in blood;
In heaps they’d fall, and on the pile of freedom,
Expire like heroes or they’d save their country.
Popularity and the applause of adoring fans, however, was not what motivated Mercy. No, she was a woman for whom writing was not a means of attracting attention to herself, but of starting brushfires of liberty that would drive the despots and their soldiers from her native soil.
As Patrick Henry was in Virginia warning his colleagues at the Second Virginia Convention that “the war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” Mercy Otis Warren was describing the imminent hostilities in a way that was feminine and fearless, stoic and strident.
“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,” she wrote in 1775.
Mercy’s reluctance to run the British through with the sword should not be interpreted as hesitation, fear, or fecklessness. She knew that once the bullets began flying, her own family could be required to shed their blood in the struggle to restore self-government to America.
Two major motifs in Mercy’s plays were battle and the role of women. In her next play, The Ladies of Castile, Mercy used the story of the 16th-century Spanish Emperor Charles V as an analogy of the monarchical tyranny of her own time.
In Act II, Scene 1 of the play, Donna Maria, the wife of a general in the imperial Spanish army, proudly proclaims the role of women in protecting the people from the ravages of tyrannical rule:
Though weak compassion sinks the female mind,
And our frail sex dissolve in pity’s tears;
Yet justice’ sword can never be resheath’d,
’Till Charles is taught to know we will be free;
And learns the duty that a monarch owes,
To heaven — the people — and the rights of man.
Let him restore the liberties of Spain —
Dismiss the robbers that arrest his ear —
Those pension’d plunderers that rudely seize
What nature gave, and what our fathers won.
Note how here, too, Mercy invokes images of swords, blood, and the loss of the legacy of liberty as means of marshaling mothers to the ranks of those who must train their children to throw off the chains of slavery being forged by the forces of an out-of-control monarch, bent on destroying the peace and prosperity handed down to them by their virtuous and pious forefathers.
In 1783, the Treaty of Paris ended the hostilities between the United States and Great Britain. The United States would now go forward as a union of 13 republics, republics that would require some sort of constitution sufficient to cement the confederacy that held them together during the War for Independence.
As is remembered by most students of American history, the first attempt to create a constitution for the former colonies was the Articles of Confederation. The Articles established a “firm league of friendship” among the several sovereign states. In time, the bonds created by this agreement began to break down under the strain of maintaining financial stability and military strength.
While the Articles could have been amended to answer the exigencies of the union, influential men pushed for a new constitution that would feature a more dynamic and powerful central authority. A convention to that end occurred in Philadelphia in 1787, and the resulting charter was sent to the states for their consideration.
Mercy Otis Warren was opposed to the proposed Constitution. She found in the articles of that agreement a general government that would consume the liberties of the people, liberties that were only recently reclaimed from Great Britain at great cost.
Although not unaware of the weaknesses of the Articles, Mercy worried that the Constitution that came out of the convention in Philadelphia went too far away from state sovereignty and toward consolidated government. “Our situation is truly delicate and critical,” she wrote to a friend in September 1787. “On the one hand, we stand in need of a strong federal government, founded on principles that will support the prosperity and union of the Colonies,” she continued. “On the other, we have struggled for liberty and made costly sacrifices at her shrine and there are still many among us who revere her name too much to relinquish, beyond a certain medium, the rights of man for the dignity of government.”
As the ratification process progressed, Warren found herself philosophically aligned with those opposed to acceptance of the Constitution written in Philadelphia, the “Anti-Federalists.”
In February 1788, using the pen name “A Columbian Patriot,” Warren set out the views of the “old patriots” in an essay aimed at exposing the extreme threat to state sovereignty and individual liberty that she saw lurking within the vagaries of the Constitution. This booklet, called “Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions,” featured a full-throated defense of local government, state supremacy, and the rights of all men to consent to the government purporting to rule over them.
True to form, Mercy wove the familiar threads of swords, blood, family, and sacrifice into her tapestry illustrating the threats to the spirit of republicanism that would be released upon Americans if the proposed Constitution were approved by the states:
On these shores freedom has planted her standard, dipped in the purple tide that flowed from the veins of her martyred heroes; and here every uncorrupted American yet hopes to see it supported by the vigour, the justice, the wisdom and unanimity of the people, in spite of the deep-laid plots, the secret intrigues, or the bold effrontery of those interested and avaricious adventurers for place, who intoxicated with the ideas of distinction and preferment have prostrated every worthy principle beneath the shrine of ambition. Yet these are the men who tell us republicanism is dwindled into theory — that we are incapable of enjoying our liberties — and that we must have a master. — Let us retrospect the days of our adversity, and recollect who were then our friends; do we find them among the sticklers for aristocratick [sic] authority? No, they were generally the same men who now wish to save us from the distractions of anarchy on the one hand, and the jaws of tyranny on the other; where then were the class who now come forth importunately urging that our political salvation depends on the adoption of a system at which freedom spurns? — Were not some of them hidden in the corners of obscurity, and others wrapping themselves in the bosom of our enemies for safety? Some of them were in the arms of infancy; and others speculating for fortune, by sporting with public money; while a few, a very few of them were magnanimously defending their country, and raising a character, which I pray heaven may never be sullied by aiding measures derogatory to their former exertions.
Then, turning to the tales of ancient history she’d learned by listening to the lessons given to her older brothers back in the days of her youth, Mercy used the personalities and events of antiquity as a means of making her readers aware of what could await them should they find themselves governed by the system established in the Constitution of 1787. “Self defense is a primary law of nature, which no subsequent law of society can abolish; this primeval principle, the immediate gift of the Creator, obliges every one to remonstrate against the strides of ambition, and a wanton lust of domination, and to resist the first approaches of tyranny, which at this day threaten to sweep away the rights for which the brave Sons of America have fought with an heroism scarcely paralleled even in ancient republicks [sic],” she explained, comparing her contemporaries favorably to the heroes of Rome and Greece.
After enumerating 19 aspects of the proposed Constitution that would “undermine the barriers of freedom,” Warren rehearsed the recent history of America and how accession to a new central authority possessed of immense political power would obliterate all the hard-won obstacles to autocracy built by the heroes of the revolution. She writes:
America has, in many instances, resembled the conduct of a restless, vigorous, luxurious youth, premature emancipated from the authority of a parent, but without the experience necessary to direct him to act with dignity or discretion. Thus we have seen her break the shackles of foreign dominion, and all the blessings of peace restored on the more honourable terms: She acquired the liberty of framing her own laws, choosing her own magistrates, and adopting manners and modes of government the most favourable to the freedom and happiness of society. But how little have we availed ourselves of these superior advantages: The glorious fabric of liberty successfully reared with so much labor and assiduity totters to the foundation, and may be blown away as the bubble of fancy by the rude breath of military combinations, and politicians of yesterday.
Of course, despite the passion poured out of her pen, Mercy Otis Warren found herself on the losing side of the ratification debate. All was not lost, though, as her call for a “bill of rights to guard against the dangerous encroachments of power” contributed to the convincing of James Madison to push for the same as a representative at the First Congress convened under the Constitution.
Finally, Mercy Otis Warren’s friendship with John Adams would be frayed when her old pen pal was elected to succeed George Washington as president of the United States. After Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law and after Adams left the White House, Warren sent him a very frank review of why he was not reelected to a second term:
On your return from Europe it was generally thought that you looked coldly on your republican friends and their families, and that you united yourself with the party in Congress who were favorers of Monarchy; — that the old tories denominating themselves federalists gathered round you, — and did not your Administration while in the Presidential Chair evince, that you had no aversion to the usages of Monarchic Governments? — Sedition, Stamp, and Alien Laws — a standing Army, House and Land Taxes, and loans of money at an enormous interest, were alarming symptoms in the American Republic — removal from the Chair by the free suffrages of a majority of the people of the United States, sufficiently evinces that I was not mistaken when I asserted that a “large portion” of the inhabitants of America from New Hampshire to Georgia, viewed your political opinions in the same point of light in which I have exhibited them, and considered their liberties in imminent danger without an immediate change of the Chief Magistrate.
Fiercely loyal to principles of virtue, vigilance, and the cause of American liberty to the end of her life, Mercy Otis Warren took up her pen and in 1805 published the first major survey of the critical events of the years 1765 to 1789. The work, her last, entitled History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, was as popular as any of the other pieces in her impressive oeuvre — President Thomas Jefferson reportedly ordered a copy of the book for himself and one for each of the members of his Cabinet — and would be a fitting coda to her lifelong commitment to family, faith, and freedom.
Image: Bronze statue of Mercy Otis Warren in front of Barnstable County Courthouse, by Kenenth C. Zirkel - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32733257