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Mercy Otis Warren

from Doris Weatherford, American Women's History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues, and Events [New York: Prentise Hall, 1994] pp. 364-365

Warren, Mercy Otis (1728-1814) Born on Cape Cod, Mercy Otis moved a few miles north to Plymouth when she married; she never saw anything 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.

      Though her brothers attended Harvard, she (like most girls in her era) got only the education that she picked up for herself. Naturally political, she involved herself from girlhood in the conversations of her father and her older brother James, a well-connected lawyer. That she waited to wed until age twenty-six showed something of her independent nature, but she married James Warren in 1754. While he developed a career in the colonial legislature, she went on to bear five sons.

      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. In 1772 -- four years before the Declaration of independence -- she anonymously published The Adulateur, a satire that cast the governor as "Rapatio," a villain intent on raping the colony. Rapatio appeared again in her second play, The Defeat (1773), and she published her third, The Group (a title she used two centuries before Mary McCarthy), in 1775, just as the rebellion began to be violent. All were thinly disguised attacks on specific public officials, for she unhesitatingly urged the taking of risks to achieve American independence.

      Much later, at the time of the French Revolution, Warren wrote tellingly that revolutions are "permitted by providence, to remind mankind of their natural equality." More than most of the men of her era, she saw the American Revolution as having significance beyond its apparent economic and political warfare; instead, she foresaw a deep and permanent shift of Western ideology. At a time when even most Americans still thought of democracy as an impossible notion tainted by ignorant rabble, Mercy Otis Warren understood that the natural rights philosophy inherent in the Declaration of Independence would inevitably mean democracy and egalitarianism. Indeed, so thorough a radical was Warren that she joined the minority who opposed ratification of the Constitution in the late 1780s.

      The Revolution was scarcely begun before Warren began recording the history of it. During the next three decades, she worked steadily on the three volumes that were finally published -- when Warren was seventy-seven-- as History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805). 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 who existed in American did not set out to consciously publish, but instead wrote primarily for themselves (as in the case of Anne Bradstreet and Phyllis Wheatley). 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.

      Bitterly resentful; in her old age of the restrictions imposed upon women, Warren 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 and were a violation of the natural rights philosophy espoused in the Revolution. Though it may have appeared that few understood her 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 knew.

      Mercy Otis Warren had a clear, analytical mind that brought logic even to her poetry. Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous (1790), a collection published when she was sixty-two, was the first of her works that bore her name ("Mrs. M. Warren"), but she kept other poetry so personal that it was not published until almost two centuries after her death. Hundreds of Warren's letters to contemporaries (including Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Abigail Adams and her husband John -- with whom Warren quarreled as John Adams grew increasingly conservative) also have been published. They provide historians with interesting details and insightful commentary on the founding of the nation by one whose gender excluded her from the direct participation that she doubtless would have preferred.

For More Information

      Barnstable County

      Mercy Otis Warren's Gendered Melodrama of Revolution by Nina Baym


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last updated February 2002