Students of history will no doubt have John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin at the top of their mind when recalling the great leaders of early America and the story of American independence. The thoughtful and considered utility of the words contained within the Declaration of Independence and Constitution cannot be understated. The discourse, debate, word-smithing, and final product have been the subject of much study and discussion amongst historians and academics throughout time. But for those who seek a better understanding of the supporting actors and cast that assisted these great men in arriving at their conclusions and the cohesiveness of their message, we must dig a little deeper. Mercy Otis Warren may be one of the more overlooked influencers of her time. In an era when women were not generally considered to be sources of inspiration to great men and their efforts, Warren contributed not only to considered and educated thought, but also laid the foundation for future discussions on women’s rights. At the time, she was often considered a thorn in the leaders’ sides, particularly by John Adams. He would express such to his good friend, James Warren, Mercy’s husband and a leader in his own right.
Mercy Otis Warren would come to be known as the “Conscience of the American Revolution.” Her thoughts and writings were of caution and rebuke to the dangers this young republic might encounter should its leaders pursue independence. Her works as a historian were beautifully and elegantly written, striking the tone of the poetry she was equally known for. Yet within her writings were unmistakable cautions and warnings, and sometimes rebuke of the narrow-mindedness and dangers inherent in the aspiration of man. Her observations were astute, and her musings on the character and nature of key figures of the time are well documented and have been referenced in the historiography of the period by the likes of David McCullough, Benson Bobrick, Gordon S. Wood, and others.
So, who was Mercy Otis Warren? She was born on September 14, 1728 to Col. James Otis and Mary Allyne, a descendent of Edward Doty, a passenger on the Mayflower. She was the fifth of thirteen children. Her influences began early. Her father was a leader in the movement against British rule. Although she had no formal education, not unusual for girls during that time, she was greatly influenced by her brothers and was able to partake in their education by proxy and through the assistance of the Rev. Jonathan Russell, who provided both books and instruction. Her brother James Otis played a key role in her learning and thoughts as well. In 1754 Mercy Otis married James Warren, her second cousin and descendent of another Mayflower passenger, Richard Warren.
It was her husband’s prominent role in the patriotic cause that inspired Mercy to write. James Warren did not play prominently in the war itself, although he and Mercy’s brother James Otis both fought at Bunker Hill. James Warren would become president of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and later Speaker of the House, and President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He recognized her gifts and encouraged her. When she could not speak her opinions, she committed them to pen and paper. Because of her skill and determination, she befriended and influenced such patriots as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Patrick Henry. And despite the fact that she often irritated John Adams she was close with him and his wife Abigail. Adams once quipped in a letter to James Warren to inform his wife that “God Almighty has entrusted her with the Powers for the good of the World, which . . . he bestows on few of the human race. That instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them.”
Still, Mercy’s persistent edge and resolution confounded the likes of Adams and others. She was impatient for the change she wanted to see in the world and expressed such to her husband regularly, causing him to lament to his friend Adams, the “People can’t account for the hesitancy they observe.” Mercy would lecture Adams on the ideal republican government and her vision of the future of the colonies and the union of the same. Barely controlling his anger, not with Mercy but with the situation and the lack of recognition of progress being made, on April 16, 1776, he appealed to Warren, “Have you seen the privateering resolves? Are not those independence enough for my beloved constituents? Have you seen the resolves opening our ports to all nations? Is this independence enough? What more would you have?” Adams was concerned about the consequences of independence and appealed to Mercy Warren, “Patience! Patience! Patience!”
Still, Mercy and her husband held their own reservations about the dangers of a new republic. In fact, the Warrens were among those who adamantly opposed the Constitution. They feared what the document might cause, specifically ambition, speculation, and vice. The cause of independence itself was fraught with problems and Mercy wrote to the Adams cautioning against the “Avidity for pleasure.” James Warren complained to those who would listen and in writing that principals had given way to love of money and that “Patriotism is ridiculed. Integrity and ability are of little consequence.” John Adams recognized the merit in Warren’s concerns and understood the moral shift that was occurring.
David Hume, the noted Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, wrote extensively on human nature. Hume considered himself a moralist and believed that all knowledge of anything must be acquired through experience. This is relevant to Mercy’s own thought processes. She struggled with the conflict between moral capacity and free will. This was Hume’s own conflict, the question of liberty and necessity. Mercy Otis Warren wrote that “Ambition and avarice are the leading springs which generally actuate the restless mind. From these primary sources of corruption have arisen all the rapine and confusion, the depredation and ruin, that have spread distress over the face of the earth from the days of Nimrod to Cesar, and from Cesar to an arbitrary prince of the house of Brunswick.”
“It was necessary,” she wrote, “to guard at every point, against the intrigues of artful or ambitious men.” She believed such men were engaged in a game of deception designed to hide their true motives. Her judgment of the nature and character of men is such that many historians have cited her observations in their biographical accounts. She wrote that Gen. George Washington was “the most amiable and accomplished gentlemen both in person, mind, and manners that I ever met.” Although Gen. Arthur Lee was learned and capable as a military officer, she considered him to be unwise and of disagreeable character, “plain in his person even to ugliness,” and morose, testy, cynical, and rude. She demonstrated more generosity in her description of Martha Washington, her friend, as “affable, candid, and gentle,” ideally suited to provide General Washington a softening of his private life with her ability to “smooth the rugged cares of War.”
James Otis and Samuel Adams were known for their boisterous rants and reviling of the British, but it was Mercy’s biting wit and gift for satire that often caught the attention of both sides. Robert Harvey described her, along with others including her husband, as the principal radical leaders in Boston. Radical may not be an inappropriate word. Consider that in the opening pages of her monumental work on the history of the American Revolution she wrote that the “indulgence of turbulent passions have depopulated cities, laid waste the finest territories, and turned the beauty and harmony of the lower creation into an Aceldama.”
Mercy understood the nature of the human character and despite her cynical descriptor of history as the depository of crimes and a record of everything disgraceful and honorary to mankind, she deferred to the judgment of character as necessary to the complete understanding of history and as a precursor to the judgment of it. Yet her prose is not without intensity and strength. In 1774 she described the American condition as standing with armed resolution and virtue, “but still she recoils at the idea of drawing the sword against the nation from whence she derived her origin.” This was not a comment on the restraint of the nation but rather a condemnation of it. She described Britain, as an” unnatural parent, ready to plunge her dagger into the bosom of her affectionate offspring.” Later, she hinted that “the sword was half drawn from the scabbard. Since then, it has been unsheathed . . . Almost every tongue is calling on the justice of heaven to punish the disturbers of the peace, liberty, and happiness of their country.” Yet she fretted about her words. Abigail Adams encouraged her by reminding her that “satire in the hands of some is a very dangerous weapon; yet when it is so happily blended with benevolence, and is awakened by the love of virtue and abhorrence of vice when truth is unavoidably preserved, and ridiculous and vicious actions are alone subject, it is so far from blamable that it is certainly meritorious.”
In her prose, she wrote that “the study of the human character opens at once a beautiful and a deformed picture of the soul. We there find a noble principle implanted in the nature of man, that pants for distinction. This principle operates in every bosom, and when kept under the control of reason, and the influence of humanity, it produces the most benevolent effects.” While patriot leaders like Adams, Jefferson, and Washington focused on the business of diplomacy and war, Mercy’s gift to historians was focusing on the observation of man, the nature of man, and the counsel to those who benefited from her wisdom. She was apt to keep these gentlemen focused on the seed of their origin which was to escape that which suffered them impositions, restrictions, and penalties, and leave England and later Leyden, not for wealth or fame, but for the quiet enjoyment of religion and liberty. No doubt, she and her husband were rooted in the interests of their ancestors Richard Warren and Edward Doty who had arrived on the shore of Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower. In this respect she provided both anchor and rudder to the ship of liberty.
Mercy Otis Warren died on October 19, 1814 at the age of eighty-six. She is buried at Old Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, beside her husband, James Warren who preceded her in death in 1808. Her legacy is well earned and her contributions are best held within the pages of her best work on the history of the American Revolution. Her skill lied in her ability to combine the harshness of her ideas with the beauty of her words and the conceptual and contextual manner in which she presented them. Not to be overlooked is the benevolence and love in which she presented her rebuke. It is no doubt easier to reflect on her passion and intensity when one does not need to be the subject of it. Still, for the historian and academic alike, an understanding of the American Revolution would be incomplete without an understanding of her role. Her demands on those who led this new republic were without the restraint of both expectation and process. She along with her husband reflected the true nature and character of the republic in which they served and her service was with purpose and result. “Her powerful intellect and the sheer force of it provided an ascendancy over the strongest and she supplied political parties with their arguments.” But perhaps she might also be known as the first of her sex in America to open the world of politics and history to those who read of such matters.
Ivy Schweitzer, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth edition (Independende, KY: Centage, 2011).
Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (Boston: E. Larkin, 1805), 1:1. Aceldama, the fourteenth century Greek term meaning Field of Blood, was potter’s field purchased with the money given to Judas for betraying Jesus Christ. Matthew 27:7-8; Acts 1:19.