Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren
Mercy Otis Warren, circa 1763, oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley

Mercy Otis Warren (September 24,[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 women had the education or training to write about these subjects. Warren was the 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 U.S. Constitution in 1788, she issued a pamphlet, written under the pseudonym, "A Columbian Patriot," that opposed ratification of the document and advocated the inclusion of a Bill of Rights. 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 war for independence, a three- volume "History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution". This was also the first history of the Revolution authored by a woman. Although an exceptional woman herself, Warren was not a feminist in the modern sense. She believed in women's intellectual equality with men, but did not promote the cause of women's political rights.


Early Life

Mercy Otis was the 3rd child of 13 children and first daughter born to Colonel James Otis (1702–1778) and Mary Allyne Otis (1702–1774) in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. Mary Allyne was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Edward Doty. James Otis, Sr., was a farmer, merchant, and attorney, who served as a judge for the Barnstable County Court of Common Pleas and later won election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1745.[2] 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 in preparation for Harvard College. One of her brothers was the noted patriot and lawyer James Otis, who is credited with the quote "taxation without representation is tyranny", the principal slogan of the American Revolution.


In 1754, Mercy Otis married James Warren, a prosperous merchant, farmer and son of the sheriff of Plymouth County, Plymouth, Massachusetts. He was a Harvard graduate and colleague of her brother.[3] He was a descendant of the Mayflower passenger Richard Warren. After settling in Plymouth, James inherited his father's position as sheriff and Mercy bore him five sons, James (1757–1821), Winslow (1759–1791), Charles (1762–1784), Henry (1764–1828), and George (1766–1800).[4]

Her husband James had a very distinguished political career. In 1765 he was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, eventually 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 home became a focal point of local politics where they hosted protest and strategy meetings for the Sons of Liberty, among whom was their friend, John Adams. Like Mercy's father and brothers, the first patriots disliked the colonial governor. Mercy accordingly became a strong political voice with views on liberty, democracy and independence for the American colonies. She wrote, "every domestic enjoyment depends on the impaired possession of civil and religious liberty." Mercy's husband James encouraged her to write, fondly referring to her as the "scribbler"[5] and she became his chief correspondent and sounding board.[6]

Revolutionary writings and politics

Warren formed a strong circle of friends with whom she regularly corresponded, including Abigail Adams, Martha Washington and Hannah Winthrop. In a letter to Catherine 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 whence she derived her origin. Yet Britain, like an unnatural parent, is ready to plunge her dagger into the bosom of her affectionate offspring." [7] Through their correspondence they increased the awareness of women's issues, were supportive, and influenced the course of events to further America's cause.[6]

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."[8]

Prior to the American Revolution, in 1772, during a political meeting at the Warren's home, they formed the Committees of Correspondence along with Samuel Adams. Warren wrote "no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies". 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. She combined her vantage point with a talent for writing to become both a poet and a historian of the Revolutionary era. All Mercy Otis Warren’s work was published anonymously until 1790.[6] She wrote several plays, including the satiric The Adulateur (1772). Directed against Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, the play foretold the War of Revolution.

In 1773, she wrote The Defeat, also featuring the character based on Hutchinson, and 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 among the most influential writers of the Revolutionary war.

Post-Revolutionary writings

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 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.[6]

In 1805, she had 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". [9] The book's sharp comments on John Adams led to a heated correspondence and a breach in their friendship that lasted until 1812.

Death and legacy

Mercy Otis Warren died in October, 1814, at the age of 86. She is buried at Old 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.


  1. ^ "Introduction to the work of Mercy Otis Warren 1728 - 1814". Retrieved July 7, 2011. 
  2. ^ com/moment.cfm?mid=328 "Mass. Foundation for the Humanities". Mercy Otis Warren. http://www.massmoments.' com/moment.cfm?mid=328. Retrieved February 9, 2008. 
  3. ^ "Encyclopedia of World Biography on Mercy Otis Warren". Mercy Otis Warren Biography. Retrieved February 10, 2008. 
  4. ^ "Massachusetts Historical Society". Mercy Otis Warren Papers. Retrieved February 18, 2008. 
  5. ^ "American History for 21st Century Citizens: A Southern California Consortium". Biography (Virtual Re-enactments; Mercy Otis Warren ). Retrieved February 10, 2008. [dead link]
  6. ^ a b c d "Mercy Otis Warren, conscience of the American Revolution.". Introduction to the work of Mercy Otis Warren. Retrieved February 18, 2008. 
  7. ^ "The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth F. Ellet". Mercy Warren. Retrieved February 3, 2008. 
  8. ^ "Heath Anthology of American Literature". Mercy Otis Warren. Retrieved February 12, 2008. 
  9. ^ "American Treasures of the Library of congress". Historian of the American Revolution. Retrieved March 5, 2008. 

Further reading

  • Cohen, Lester H. "Mercy Otis Warren: the Politics of Language and the Aesthetics of Self." American Quarterly 1983 35(5): 481–498. 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
  • Friedman, Lawrence J. and Shaffer, Arthur H. "Mercy Otis Warren and the Politics of Historical Nationalism." New England Quarterly 1975 48(2): 194–215. ISSN 0028-4866 Fulltext online at 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): 659–661. 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

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  • Mercy Otis Warren — par John Singleton Copley. Mercy Otis Warren (14 septembre 1728 – 19 octobre 1814) est une historienne et auteur américaine. Elle est connue comme la « conscience de la Révolution américaine », certains historiens la …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Warren, Mercy Otis — orig. Mercy Otis born Sept. 25, 1728, Barnstable, Mass. died Oct. 19, 1814, Plymouth, Mass., U.S. U.S. poet, dramatist, and historian. The sister of James Otis, she received no formal education but nevertheless became a woman of letters and a… …   Universalium

  • Warren, Mercy Otis — orig. Mercy Otis (25 sep. 1728, Barnstable, Mass.–19 oct. 1814, Plymouth, Mass., EE.UU.). Poeta, dramaturga e historiadora estadounidense. Hermana de James Otis, no recibió educación formal y sin embargo fue una mujer letrada, amiga y… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Otis family — Otis Ethnicity English Current region New England United States West Coast Information Earlier spellings Otis, Oates, Otties, Oattis Place of origin …   Wikipedia

  • Otis (surname) — Otis is a surname of early medieval English origin,[citation needed] Amos Otis, a professional baseball player Bill Otis, professional baseball player Elisha Otis, inventor of a safety device for hoisting machinery, who went on to invent the… …   Wikipedia

  • Warren — Warren, Informe Warren, John Collins Warren, Robert Penn ► C. del NE de E.U.A., estado de Michigan, suburbio de Detroit; 144 864 h. * * * (as used in expressions) Beatty, (Henry) Warren Henry Warren Beaty William Warren Bradley David Warren… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Warren — /wawr euhn, wor /, n. 1. Earl, 1891 1974, U.S. lawyer and political leader: Chief Justice of the U.S. 1953 69. 2. Joseph, 1741 75, American physician, statesman, and patriot. 3. Mercy Otis, 1728 1814, U.S. historian and poet (sister of James… …   Universalium

  • Otis — /oh tis/, n. 1. Elisha Graves, 1811 61, U.S. inventor. 2. Harrison Gray, 1837 1917, U.S. army officer and newspaper publisher. 3. James, 1725 83, American lawyer and public official who is supposed to have first used the phrase Taxation without… …   Universalium

  • warren — /wawr euhn, wor /, n. 1. a place where rabbits breed or abound. 2. a building or area containing many tenants in limited or crowded quarters. [1350 1400; ME warenne < AF; OF g(u)arenne < Gmc *warinne game park, equiv. to *war (base of *warjan to… …   Universalium

  • mercy — /merr see/, n., pl. mercies for 4, 5. 1. compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence: Have mercy on the poor sinner. 2. the disposition to be… …   Universalium

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