Mercy Otis Warren: Revolutionary Propagandist


October 24, 2023
by Jonathan House Also by this Author


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On March 26, 1772, The Massachusetts Spy ran an unusual item on page 3 of that day’s newspaper: an advertisement for a dramatic performance of The Adulateur at the Grand Parade in Upper Servia. Filling nearly half the page, the notice contained a list of dramatis personae and a couple of scenes from the play. In the opening soliloquy, Rapatio, the bashaw of Servia, exults in the success of his schemes “To quench the gen’rous flame, the ardent / love / Of liberty in Servia’s freeborn sons.” Then, in reference to the play’s title, the villainous leader says he must seek out the “adulating tongues” of his inner circle to relieve the pangs of his “phantom conscience.”[1] Patriot readers of The Spy quickly recognized the item as a mock advertisement for a fictional dramatic performance, with the character Rapatio (the rapacious one) representing the hated Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson. The Adulateur was the first of a series of dramatic sketches by Mercy Otis Warren, a member of a prominent Patriot family, and their novel approach to satire electrified the emerging revolutionary movement.

Before taking up arms, the American Patriots launched a war of words against Britain, delivering rousing speeches in local legislatures and impassioned arguments in the pages of newspapers and pamphlets. At a time when women were largely excluded from the public sphere, publishing anonymous pieces in the newspapers offered Warren a way to contribute to the cause, while also establishing her as America’s first female playwright.[2] Her writing reflected a worldview shaped by radical political and social ideas that first appeared during the English Civil Wars and Commonwealth of the mid-1600s, contributed to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and forcefully reemerged in the works of opposition political thinkers of the early 1700s known as the commonwealthmen. Writers such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon saw the gains of the Glorious Revolution, which set new limits on the monarchy and enshrined parliament as England’s ruling power, as insufficient to protect personal freedoms. Their warnings of corruption and creeping authoritarianism were hugely influential in the colonies.[3]

Mercy Otis was born in 1728 in Barnstable, a Massachusetts town on Cape Cod, to James Otis and his wife Mary, the descendent of a Mayflower passenger. A successful farmer and lawyer, Otis entered politics and won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Unusually for the time, he allowed his daughter to attend tutoring sessions with her brothers, who were preparing to attend Harvard College. She studied history and literature spanning from ancient Greece and Rome to the eighteenth century. In 1754, Mercy married James Warren, a friend of her brother James, and had five sons in quick succession. Early in her marriage, Mercy focused on running the household, first at her husband’s family’s farm and then at a house they bought in Plymouth, and caring for her children. In her spare time, she wrote poetry.[4] A 1763 portrait by John Singleton Copley showed her as a young woman with a pale forehead, dark eyes, and hair pulled tight under a bonnet.[5]

During those years, Warren’s family started to clash with British officials. In 1757, James Otis, Sr., thought he would win a vote in the House of Representatives for a place on the Governor’s Council, the legislature’s upper chamber. When he unexpectedly lost, he blamed Hutchinson, then the lieutenant governor, for influencing members to vote against him. A few years later, Hutchinson edged Otis out for the position of Massachusetts Superior Court chief justice. The Otises viewed these developments not only as personal setbacks but also as a worrisome sign of consolidation of power. In addition to his positions as chief justice and lieutenant governor, Hutchinson was a probate court judge and member of the Governor’s Council. Moreover, he was related by marriage to the powerful Oliver family, whose members held several other key government posts.[6]

In 1761, James Otis, Jr., who had become a successful Boston lawyer, argued the landmark writs of assistance case. The writs gave customs inspectors broad powers to search any property at any time for smuggled goods, prompting a legal challenge from a group of Boston merchants. Arguing on behalf of the merchants in court, Otis called the writs the “worst instrument of arbitrary power . . . ever found in an English law-book,” and rejected the authority of parliament to impose such legislation on the colonies.[7] He lost the case but capitalized on the excitement generated by his courtroom performance to win a seat in the House of Representatives. Then, when the British parliament suddenly and unexpectedly started levying taxes on the colonies, Otis penned some of the most influential critiques of the new measures. In his 1764 pamphlet Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, Otis formulated the first arguments against taxation without representation.[8]

James Warren, who had inherited his father’s position as high sheriff of Plymouth, joined the protest against Britain’s new taxes and won election to the House of Representatives. The Warrens’ home on North Street in the heart of Plymouth, strategically located on the road between Boston and the communities of Cape Cod, became a meeting place for prominent Patriots such as Samuel and John Adams.[9] In 1769, against escalating tensions with the mother country, tragedy struck and the family lost its leading spokesman. Otis encountered a customs official with whom he had been trading public insults, fought with him, and suffered a severe blow to the head. Already prone to manic behavior before the incident, Otis became increasingly mentally unstable and was forced to abandon his work for the Patriot cause.[10] His sister would pick up his mantle a few years later.

The March 26, 1772 Massachusetts Spy featuring the Adulateur. (Library of Congress)

Mercy Otis Warren wrote The Adulateur in 1772 partly in response to the case of Ebenezer Richardson, a customs informer who had fired birdshot into a Patriot mob that was attacking him, killing a young boy. At Richardson’s trial, Superior Court Chief Justice Peter Oliver—whose brother Andrew was married to Hutchison’s sister-in-law—argued the mob’s actions were to blame for the incident and advised Richardson’s acquittal. Yet the jury, under pressure from a raucous public in the courtroom, found him guilty of murder, punishable by death. The court responded by applying for and obtaining a royal pardon for Richardson, a brazen act of corruption in the Patriots’ eyes. The March 26, 1772, edition of The Spy led with a long piece of political commentary by an author writing under the pseudonym of “The CENTINEL,” warning the citizens of Massachusetts to be “watchful” of “tyranny” and then commenting on the Richardson case: “When the execution of a man legally convicted is suspended twenty-two months, and the murderer is then discharged in an unusual manner, society ought to be alarmed.”[11]

The dramatis personae included in the purported advertisement for The Adulateur quickly established a link to the characters in the real-life drama playing out in Massachusetts. Warren chose names that also evoked the plight of once-free societies struggling against oppression in other places and times, a common theme in eighteenth century political writing that would have resonated with her readers. In addition to Rapatio, bashaw of Servia, the dramatis personae listed Limpet, married to the sister of Rapatio; Lord Chief Justice Hazlerod, brother to Limpet; Ebenezer, a friend to the government; Cassius, a virtuous senator; waiters, pimps, and parasites. Servia (Serbia) was then occupied by the Ottoman Turks, and a bashaw (pasha) was a high-ranking Turkish official.[12] Cassius was the leader of the plot to kill Roman dictator Julius Caesar. In the closing soliloquy of the March 26 sketch, Cassius appeals for divine assistance in the fight against Rapatio and his associates: “If ye powers divine / Ye mark the movements of this nether world / And bring them to account, crush / crush these vipers.”[13]

On April 23, 1772, The Spy published another extract from The Adulateur, this one more directly focused on the Ebenezer Richardson affair. The first scene opens with Ebenezer languishing in a jail cell, lamenting his fate, when in sweeps Hazlerod. The chief justice says, “What loss to grief? Dejected? Can it be? / Can the verdict of some half-formed peasants, / Unmeaning dull machines, thus damp your courage?” He pledges Ebenezer, “Shall one day leave this dreary tenement, / Again with pleasing scenes of blood and carnage / To glut our vengeance.” The scene then changes, and Cassius enters. He says, “Oh! My poor country! When I see thee / wounded, / Bleeding to death, it pains me to my soul.” Then he rallies and says, “When / will it be, / When high-foul’d honour beats within our / bosoms, / And calls to action; when thy sons, like / heroes, / Shall dare assert thy rights.”[14]

Though Warren chose a dramatic format for her satires, she had almost certainly never seen a play at the time she was writing them. Colonial society considered theatrical productions immoral and prohibited them in most places. Nonetheless, educated people read plays and were fond of using stage metaphors in speaking and writing. For Warren, this format allowed her to put emotionally charged speeches in the mouths of characters clearly delineated as heroes and villains. Other articles in the newspaper provided real-world context. It was effective propaganda that made “Rapatio” a household name in revolutionary Massachusetts and spawned numerous imitators.[15] In early 1773, an anonymous author took the excerpts from The Adulateur published by Warren and expanded them into a full-length play in pamphlet format. Warren would later refer to it as a “plagiary.”[16]

In addition to writing for public consumption, Warren penned hundreds of letters to a wide network of family and friends, including prominent Patriots such as John and Abigail Adams. Her correspondence employed similar literary flourishes to her newspaper pieces and explored many of the same themes. In a February 1773 letter to her friend Hannah Winthrop, Warren began with a discussion of her motivations for writing poetry but soon pivoted to the political situation in Massachusetts. “The reflections of your compassionate heart on the impending ruin which threatens the whole are spirited and just, every uncorrupt mind must spurn the rod of oppression held over this once happy people,” Warren wrote. She then lashed out at Jonathan Sewall, a prominent Loyalist propagandist writing under the pseudonym Philalethes (“lover of truth,” in Greek). “It is my opinion that [Philalethes’s] prostituted pen can give little consolation to the cankered bosom of the betrayer of his country,” Warren wrote to Winthrop.[17]

Loyalist defenses of British policies prompted redoubled Patriot criticism, further inflaming the war of words in colonial Massachusetts. In early 1773, the two sides focused on a controversy over paying British officials’ salaries. Patriots had been upset to learn a couple of years earlier that the British crown would be taking over the payment of the governor’s salary from the local assembly, depriving it of a check on his power. They were further enraged in late 1772 when the crown also took over the payment of superior court justices’ salaries, undermining what they had hitherto viewed as an independent judiciary. Their outrage prompted speeches in defense of the measure by Hutchinson and dueling newspaper essays for and against it by militia general William Brattle (a former Patriot who had suddenly switched allegiances) and by John Adams in late 1772 and early 1773. Drawing on this context, Warren published extracts from a new play called The Defeat in the Boston Gazette on May 24, 1773.

In an opening scene crafted to conjure an image of Hutchinson drafting his recent speeches, Rapatio declares, “I’ve travers’d o’er the records of the land, / Ransack’d the musty volumes of the dead, / Research’d the deeds of former infamy, / And trac’d each monument of early days, / Nor unexplored have left one useful line.” The next scene opens with a character named Proteus, the shape-shifting god of Greek mythology, and described as Rapatio’s “general”—a reference to Brattle. Proteus offers a full-throated defense of the hated Rapatio: “Did mortal e’er behold such worth abus’d? / Rapatio sure is virtue’s first born son, / (Tho’ I his slave at humble distance kept) / No sordid views contaminate his soul, / No rank ambition sucks within his breast.”[18]

The controversy over the judges’ salaries was closely followed by another triggered by the discovery of letters written by Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver in the late 1760s to officials in London in which they urged a strong response to the unrest created by the Stamp Act. They said that customs officers needed protection, troops might be needed to maintain order, and constitutional changes might be advisable. One statement by Hutchinson was particularly inflammatory: “There must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties.” Benjamin Franklin, serving as the American postmaster and agent for Massachusetts in London, obtained the letters and sent them to Patriot leaders back in Boston in 1773, causing a scandal. Sewall, using the Philalethes pseudonym, wrote a couple of essays in Hutchinson’s defense, arguing that the Patriots were deliberately misconstruing the meaning of these comments.

The episode prompted Warren to write another sketch, published as a second extract from The Defeat  in the Boston Gazette  on July 19, 1773. It consisted of a long exchange between Rapatio and Limpit, the character from The Adulateur  representing Oliver. In an apparent reference to the discovery of the Hutchinson letters, Rapatio says: “Hah—Betray’d—Dear Limpit can it be? / Originals! / The Hand! The Signature.” He worries his evil plans have been exposed. “Is the Game up? Can I deceive no more?” To defend themselves, Limpit suggests they call on “Some wretched Scribler” someone capable of “Confounding all Things with the Sceptics Art.” Then, invoking Sewall with the same language Warren used in the earlier letter to Winthrop, Limpit says, “And what so fit for such a base Design, / As Philalethes prostituted Pen.”[19]

The revolutionary struggle reached a key milestone later that year. To undercut the smuggling that allowed the colonies to skirt a tax on tea, and to help the ailing East India Company, parliament in late 1773 reduced the taxes on tea it shipped to the colonies. Angered by what they saw as a devious ploy to get the colonies to pay the tea tax, the Patriots organized a campaign to prevent half a dozen East India Company ships sailing to Massachusetts and other colonies from unloading their cargo. On December 5, Abigail Adams wrote to commiserate with Warren, suggesting that the recent developments were likely particularly distressing for her friend who had “so thoroughly looked thro the Deeds of Men, and Develloped the Dark designs of a Rapatio Soul.” She added, “The Tea that bainfull weed is arrived. Great and I hope effectual opposition has been made to the landing of it.”[20]

A few days later, a group of Patriots dressed as Indians forced their way onto the East India Company ships docked in the Boston harbor and threw 342 chests of tea overboard. The enormity of the act thrilled the Patriots. “The Spirit of Liberty is very high in the Country and universal,” John Adams wrote in a December 22 letter to James Warren. He asked that Mercy Warren write a poem about the Boston Tea Party. “I wish to See a late glorious Event, celebrated, by a certain poetical Pen, which has no equal that I know of in this Country,” Adams wrote.[21] Mercy Warren was happy to oblige with a long poem about a fight over tea involving Indians and Greek mythological figures that came to be known as “The Squabble of the Sea-Nymphs” and filled the entire first page of the Boston Gazette on March 21. The second stanza read: “The Hero’s of the Tuskarora Tribe, / Who scorn alike, A Fetter, or a Bribe: / In order rang’d, and waiting Freedom’s Nod, / To make an off’ring to the wat’ry God.”[22]

In addition to galvanizing the revolutionary movement, the Boston Tea Party also stiffened Britain’s resolve to stamp it out. A few months after receiving news of the shocking event, parliament passed the so-called Coercive Acts, which closed the port of Boston, stripped the House of Representatives of the ability to appoint the members of the Governor’s Council, transferred the trials of British officials and soldiers to Britain, and enabled the quartering of troops among the local population. The crown appointed Gen. Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, to do double duty as Massachusetts governor, replacing Hutchinson. War was starting to appear inevitable.

“I tremble for the event of the present commotions;—there must be a noble struggle to recover the expiring liberties of our injured country; we must re-purchase them at the expence of blood, or tamely acquiesce, and embrace the hand that holds out the chain to us and our children,” Warren wrote in a letter to Winthrop in the spring of 1774.[23] Later that year, Warren wrote Catharine Macaulay, a radical English historian who supported the American Patriots, to warn her that war would result if the House of Commons (Parliament) did not change course: “If the Majority of the Commons still continue the Dupes of Venality and Corruption, they will soon see the Genius which once Animated their Hambdens, Haringtons, & Pyms, has taken up her Residence on these Distant shores.”[24] The references are to John Hampden, James Harrington, and John Pym, republican theorists and political figures who played important roles in the English civil wars of the mid-1600s.

In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia with representatives from all thirteen colonies to coordinate a response to the latest British actions. Around the same time, towns and counties throughout Massachusetts held conventions to discuss the same issue. One of these, Suffolk County, outlined a nineteen-point resistance strategy and sent it to the delegates in Philadelphia, who approved the so-called Suffolk Resolves in their first official act. The eighth point focused on the issue of appointments to the Governor’s Council, which would now be made by the governor himself. It declared that those who accepted these appointments would be “obstinate and incorrigible Enemies to this Colony.”[25] Under the threat of violence from Patriot mobs, only a handful of the new governor’s proposed appointees did so. Those who lived outside Boston relocated to the city where the British army could protect them. Warren took aim at the new council in The Group.

Printed on page 2 of the Boston Gazette on January 23, 1775, The Groupinterrupted an essay by “Novanglus” (John Adams) refuting the arguments of a pro-British writer calling himself “Massachusettensis.” Mirroring the new appointments to the council, The Group has just a handful of characters from previous plays: Hazlerod (Peter Oliver), Meagre (Foster Hutchinson), and Dupe (Thomas Flucker). These old characters and a series of new ones discuss their mercenary motivations. In one exchange, Hum Humbug tells Beau Trumps he “wonder’d much to see thy patriot name / Among the list of rebels to the state.” Beau Trumps—who represented Daniel Leonard, an old friend of John Adams newly turned Loyalist and unbeknownst to Adams and Warren was the author of the Massachusettenis essays—replied that the Patriot cause was “a poor unprofitable path / Nought to be gain’d, save solid peace of mind. / No pensions, place or title there I found.”[26]

In new scenes added for a pamphlet version of The Group  published a couple of months later, the Loyalist characters plumb new depths of depravity. Simple Sapling says he would be happy to host British troops in his home and suggests his wife would be willing to tend to their every need. “Silvia’s good natur’d, and no doubt will yield, / And take the brawny vet’rans to her board, / When she’s assur’d ‘twill help her husband’s fame,” Sapling says.[27] The play ends with a description of the actors leaving the stage and the curtain rising to reveal “a Lady nearly connected with one of the principal actors in the / Group, reclined in an adjoining sleeve, who in mournful accents / accosts them.” The lady in this striking image delivers some of the first lines given to a woman in an American play:[28] “What painful scenes are hov’ring o’er the morn / When spring again invigorates the lawn! / Instead of the gay landscape’s beautious dies, / Must the stain’d field salute our weeping eyes . . . Till British troops shall to Columbia yield, / And freedom’s sons are masters of the field”[29]

The publication of The Group likely marked the end of Warren’s work as a revolutionary propagandist. With the shots fired at Lexington and Concord a few months later on April 19, 1775, the armed phase of the conflict began. Though a handful of other satirical plays appeared in Boston in the following years that some scholars have attributed to Warren—one of these, The Blockheads, has characters with names taken from previous Warren works—others argue they were more likely the work of one or more Warren imitators. The author left no manuscript evidence of these plays, which have abundant stylistic differences to her known works.[30] Warren went on to write a series of historical dramas such as The Ladies of Castile and then returned to the political fray with a 1788 pamphlet arguing against the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.[31] Like other anti-federalists, Warren believed the new charter proposed a system of government as oppressive as the one the country had just thrown off. In 1805, Warren published the first volume of her three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. Though praised by then-President Thomas Jefferson, the work failed to attract much public interest and incited a barrage of criticism from John Adams (who felt it undervalued his achievements), to which Warren responded spiritedly.[32] By then, her eyesight failing, Warren confined herself to writing poetry and letters to friends and enjoying the company of a reduced family circle. Three of her sons had died, but her son Henry had settled nearby to start a family of his own, and James had come to live with his elderly parents at their Plymouth home. Warren’s husband died in 1808, and she followed him in 1814, at the age of eighty-six.


[1]Mercy Otis Warren, extract from The Adulateur published inThe Massachusetts Spy, March 26, 1772, Massachusetts_Spy_published_as_The_Massachusetts_Spy___March_26_1772__1_of_1___1_.pdf, 3.

[2]Jeffrey Richards, Mercy Otis Warren (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995), 84.

[3]Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (London: Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017), 35; Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom (USA: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975), 369.

[4]Rosemarie Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 44.

[5]John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Mrs. James Warren,

[6]Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 32.

[7]James Otis, Collected Political Writings of James Otis (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2015), 13.

[8]Ibid., 148.

[9]Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 43

[10]J.L. Bell, “What Was James Otis’s Problem,”

[11]The Massachusetts Spy, March 26, 1772,

[12]Richards, Mercy Otis Warren, 165.

[13]Mercy Otis Warren, extract from The Adulateur published inThe Massachusetts Spy, March 26, 1772, Massachusetts_Spy_published_as_The_Massachusetts_Spy___March_26_1772__1_of_1___1_.pdf

[14]The Massachusetts Spy, April 23, 1772,

[15]Sandra J. Sarkela, “Freedom’s Call: The Persuasive Power of Mercy Otis Warren’s Dramatic Sketches, 1772-1775,” Early American Literature, Vol. 44, No. 3 (2009): 544; Richards, Mercy Otis Warren, 85.

[16]Mercy Otis Warren, 1728-1814, Plays and poetry: manuscript, Houghton Library, Harvard University, 7,

[17]Mercy Otis Warren, “Letter from Mercy Otis Warren to Hannah Winthrop,” Correspondence of Mercy Otis Warren and Hannah Winthrop, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society,

[18]Mercy Otis Warren, excerpt from The Defeatpublished in The Boston Gazette, May 24, 1773, Boston_Gazette_published_as_THE_Boston-Gazette_AND_COUNTRY_JOURNAL.___May_24_1773__1_of_1_.pdf, 2.


[20]Abigail Adams, “Letter from Abigail Adams to Mercy Warren,” Warren-Adams Letters, Vol. 1, 1743-1777(Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1917), 18.

[21]John Adams, “Letter to James Warren,” Papers of John Adams, Volume 2(Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977).

[22]Mercy Otis Warren, “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs,” Boston Gazette, March 21, 1774, Boston_Gazette_published_as_THE_Boston-Gazette_AND_COUNTRY_JOURNAL.___March_21_1774__1_of_1_.pdf, 1.

[23]Mercy Otis Warren, “Letter to Hannah Fayerwether Toman Wintrhop,” Mercy Otis Warren Selected Letters, eds. Jeffrey H. Richards and Sharon M. Harris (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 27.

[24]Mercy Otis Warren, “Letter to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay,” ibid., 37.

[25]Delegates from the towns and districts of the county of Suffolk,“Suffolk Resolves,” The Massachusetts Gazette, September 15, 1774,

[26]Mercy Otis Warren, The Group, published in The Boston Gazette, January 23, 1775, Boston_Gazette_published_as_THE_Boston-Gazette_AND_COUNTRY_JOURNAL.___January_23_1775__1_of_1_.pdf.

[27]Mercy Otis Warren, 1728-1814, Plays and poetry: manuscript, 34,

[28]Sarkela, “Freedom’s Call,” 561.

[29]Mercy Otis Warren, 1728-1814, Plays and poetry: manuscript, 41,

[30]Richards, Mercy Otis Warren, 103.

[31]Mercy Otis Warren, “Observations on the New Constitution,” 1788, National Constitution Center, / the-constitution/historic-document-library/detail/mercy-otis-warren-observations-on-the-new-constitution-1788.

[32]Letters between John Adams and Mercy Otis Warren, July-Aug. 1807, about her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 5th ser., vol. 4 (Boston: printed for the Socity, 1878), 341.

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