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Introduction to the work of Mercy Otis Warren 1728 - 1814

by King Dykeman, dykeman@FAIR1.FAIRFIELD.EDU, Philosophy Department, Fairfield University

King Dykeman  contacted me on September 25, 2002:

"I just found your review of M[ercy] O[tis] W[arren]'s History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution - haven't even finished reading it. And am presently including the review on the web page for my course in Modern philosophy.  In my immediate enthusiasm I just want to check to be sure someone has referred you to the wild and wonderful piece anonymously published by M[ercy] O[tis] W[arren] entitled Observations on the New Constitution By a Columbian Patriot, Boston 1788.  This anti-federalist paper was long attributed to Elbridge Gerry, but was written in deep cover by M[ercy] O[tis] W[arren].  I prepared an introduction to the piece for my former wife's book American Women Philosophers 1650-1930 [edited by Therese Boos Dykeman, now out of print].  It contains the Observations; by now there are a number of places you can find Observations - but as of now no place on the Internet.  Just wanted to send off this quick note -- hopefully I will get back with some other comments on M[ercy] O[tis] W[arren]. I am so happy to find your work on a CD.  Being able to discover the arguments she attributes to the "some" who attacked the constitution before it's ratification in her History. Through the use of the 'find' operation on a computer has been such a joy.  It is great to find another enthusiast."

King sent me xeroxes of Mercy's Observations which I posted at, a Mercy Warren chronology, this general introduction about her which he first delivered at a conference at the University of California at Santa Cruz and an introduction to Observations which he wrote for American Women Philosophers

Comments welcome.

Mercy Otis Warren


The following words are not the words of one of our founding fathers, but rather those of one of our founding mothers.

If peace and unanimity are cherished, and the equalization of liberty, and the equity and energy of law, maintained by harmony and justice, the present representative government may stand for ages a luminous monument of republican wisdom, virtue and integrity. The principles of the revolution ought ever to be the pole-star of the statesmen, respected by the rising generation; ~nd the advantages bestowed by Providence should never be lost, by negligence, indiscretion, or guilt. The people may again be reminded that the elective franchise is in their own hands; that it ought not to be abused either for personal gratifications, or the indulgence of partisan acrimony. This advantage should be improved, not only for the benefit of existing society, but with an eye to that fidelity which is due posterity. History 696. 1
This quotation taken from HISTORY OF THE RISE, PROGRESS AND TERMINATION OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION Interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations, published in 1805, typifies the thinking of its author, Mercy Otis Warren. Mercy Otis Warren, playwright, poet, historian and one of the greatest enlightenment thinkers in America is barely known in American history. Nevertheless, throughout that same history she has been cited often for the greatness of her mind by those who have read her--from her contemporaries to ours.

In 1776 John Adams wrote of her “of all the Genius’s which have yet arisen in America, there has been none superior.”2 In 1801, Thomas Jefferson commented “I have long possessed evidence of her high station in the ranks of genius.” In 1848, Elizabeth Ellet considered Mercy Otis Warren “the most remarkable woman who lived in the days of the American Revolution... Seldom has one woman, in any age, acquired such ascendancy over the strongest by the mere force of a powerful intellect.” In 1881, Ednah Dow Cheney called Mercy Otis Warren the “most gifted” of American women. In 1896, in the first book-length study of Mercy Otis Warren, Alice Brown concludes “You begin by admiring her intellectual gifts and her force of character; finally it is her gentleness by which you are chiefly impressed.” Anne R. Marble, in 1901, proclaimed “Mistress Mercy Warren” the “real daughter of the American Revolution;” telling how Mercy Otis Warren wrote speeches for some of the members of the Massachusetts Assembly until one member, having stumbled so often over her vocabulary and her classical allusions, confessed to the congress the source of his wisdom and eloquence. In 1902, John Fiske saw her as “one of the brightest and most highly cultivated in her time.”3 By the 1950’s scholars were characterizing Mercy Otis Warren’s writings “as the best expression of this doctrine (anti-federalism),” and maintaining that her “fame rests more upon her powerful intellect and political influence than on (her) other talents and virtues.”

Not until the 1980’s did such judgments finally begin to bring about the reappearance of some of her work. First, a facsimile edition of her plays and poetry were introduced with the citation of Mercy Otis Warren as “one of the most significant American women of her time (Poems vii).” Then in 1981 her “private poems” were published in The New England Quarterly with the observation that these personal poems “give us an insight into her innermost feelings about life, family, her epoch and her God (“Private Poems” 201).” Then, in 1988, her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations was edited for the first time and republished with the claim that Mercy Otis Warren “was the most formidable female intellectual in 18th century America” (History xvi). 5

Although those who have come to know her work, testifer to the greatness of her intellect; still, no one has suggested that this woman thinker might also be a great political philosopher. Notwithstanding, her contemporaries, v.g. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, through their non-philosophic writings, even sometimes in virtue of their letters to her, are denominated political philosophers. This anthology will show through both her life and her work that Mercy Otis Warren is an American political philosopher.

Mercy Otis was born on a large farm in Barnstable, Massachusetts on September 24, 1728. She was the first daughter and third child in a family of thirteen children. The Otises were a well established Massachusetts family. John Otis I had emigrated to Bear Cove in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, the same year the poet and moral philosopher, Anne Bradstreet, arrived in Salem. By the generation of John Otis III, Mercy’s father, the family had acquired both wealth and position. John Otis III had tripled his father’s assets, become the judge of the Probate Court, was captain of the local militia, and Barnstable’s representative to the Massachusetts General Assembly. Mercy’s older brother James Otis was prepared for Harvard College by the Reverend Jonathan Russell, his uncle. Like Anne Bradstreet, Mercy thereby had the advantage of sharing a brother’s tutor who seems to have just as enthusiastically entered into her intellectual training as he did her brother’s. Again like Anne, Mercy read as widely as possible developing a special regard for Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. Jonathan Russell loaned her his copy of this book “and encouraged her in the study of history in general, for which she had a passion. (Brown 23)” Elizabeth Wade White, in describing the effect of this book on Anne Bradstreet characterizes it as:

That majestic philosophical study of the ancient kingdoms of men that was written while Sir Walter was a prisoner in the Tower of London, and published in 1614. The somber magnificence of style, the vast narratives of dynastic triumph and decay, and most of all the ever-present recognition of God’s will and authority in the cycles of history, made this monumental work, which was generally admired of particular interest and importance to the Puritan. (61-62.)
As the Iliad and the Odyssey were to the educated of fifth century Athens, this was many young American’s encyclopedic book.

Her brother James went to Harvard College in 1739, where he was a fellow student of James Warren. The Warrens were also a very prominent New England family. Richard Warren had arrived on the Mayflower and was a prosperous pilgrim. By the third generation of Americans, James’s father conducted a very successfiñ coastal and overseas trade business. Like Mercy’s father, he exercisçd civic responsibilities: High Sheriff of Plymouth County, Captain in the local militia, and Plymouth’s representative to the Massachusetts General Assembly.

After completing his baccalaureate at Harvard James Otis returned to Barnstable where he began his studies for the M.A. degree. Mercy worked with him, probably doing her first reading of John Locke and David Hume at this time. James finished his Harvard M.A. degree in 1754 and after his sister’s marriage, moved to Boston.

Mercy Otis married James Warren in November 1754 when she was 26 years old. They settled on the Warren family estate at Eel River and shortly, upon the prosperous development of James's commercial enterprises, bought a place of their own, the Windsor Mansion in Plymouth. Within a few years James had become the Sheriff of Plymouth county, a justice of peace, and a leading officer in the militia. Their lives, like the lives of their parents, brothers, sisters, and their friends, the John Adamses, the John Winthrops and others, began as provincial citizens of the Massachusetts’s colony -- conventional, responsible, and well to do. Positions of governmental, economic and social consequence followed Mercy and James Warren. But the special talent of Mercy and the special circumstances of the Revolution made a conventional life preposterous.

Hosting meetings of American patriots in her home, sharing enthusiasm for liberty and eventually independence, the sister of James Otis who had famously proclaimed “taxation without representation is tyranny,” the spouse of a leading, if reluctant military and political leader, and herself the originator of the idea of Committees of Correspondence among the thirteen colonies, 6 Mercy Otis Warren became a more and more important voice on the behalf of America. In a culture where there were no women publicly involved in the formation of the new politics, ninny men who were, grew in their knowledge and respect for the thought of Mercy Otis Warren. Her correspondence with Abigail Adams is an example of how she raised the consciousness of women’s issues with her friends and how she attempted to influence the institutions of a newly forming republic.

All Mercy Otis Warren’s pre-1790 work appeared anonymously. On March 26, 1772 in Isaiah Thomas’ Massachusetts Spy there appeared a synopsis and speeches from a play set in Upper Servia (Boston), mocking the conflict between a repressive government, lead by British appointed Massachusetts -- governor, Rapatio (Thomas Hutchinson), against a group of patriots under Brutus (James Otis). In the April 23, 1772 issue more of the same play was presented. In 1773 these satirical excerpts were published as an anonymously written political drama in the pamphlet The Adulateur. On May 24 and July 19, 1773 excerpts from a second Warren play appeared in the Boston Gazette. In this play, entitled “The Defeat,” the action continues. The evil Tory governor is still controlling Upper Servia, and still the people are subject to “That Bane of Freedom, and the Badge of Slavery, / That Nurse of Vice, of Rapine and Distress,! A Standing Anny/” (Act III, Sc. 2); but by the end of the play the governor, “his abettors and creatures are totally defeated” (May 24, Boston Gazette.). Again the patriots are virtuous and good, the British and the colonial government are farcically dishonest and evil. The patriots win against the Tories, but do not gain their real goal: independence for America.

John Adams thought this work so effective that he wrote to James Warren, that he hoped the Boston Tea Party would be “celebrated by a certain poetical pen which has no equal I know of in this country.” The Boston Tea Party was so celebrated, but anonymously in a poem in a newspaper, not in the form of drama as political encouragement. Eventually “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs” became Mercy Otis Warren’s most famous poem, when it was published as her work in 1790. In introducing the poem, Mercy makes it clear that “the author’s own opinion of the equity or policy is not to be measured in this political sally that was written at the request of a friend” (Poems 202).

Mercy continued the political war of words by satirizing the councilors appointed by the British parliament after the removal of Governor Hutchinson. This time she presented not the contrast of the worthy patriots against the government and the Tories, but merely an expose of the ridiculous fashion of the discontent among the Tories and the British troops leading to their colossal ineffectiveness in Boston. Scenes from this play first appeared in the Boston Gazette on January 23, 1775 and in the Massachusetts Spy on January 26, 1775. Unlike The Defeat of which no part was ever published and no manuscript yet found, this play, The Group, was published that same year in Boston, in Philadelphia, and in New York as a part of the new political paniphleteering in America. There begins with The Group a series of women characters who are outspoken, some of whom are trapped by abusive husbands, and some who even begin to recognize their oppression. At the end of this play a Tory women makes a final speech that leaves “Freedom” weeping on the stage (Act IV, sc. 3).

Late in 1775 General John Burgoyne of the British Forces wrote the play The Blockade of Boston, satirizing the patriots of America for the entertainment of his officers and the loyalists living in Boston. This play has been lost, but Mercy Otis Warren’s response is not. The Blockheads or the Affrightened Officers published in 1776 humorously portrays the British problems in Boston to be socially and politically unresolvable. Again the role of the women in the play magnifies the futility of seeking wealth, power and position by siding with the British. The drama itself ends with a monologue by a woman who has retreated with her family to Halifax, Nova Scotia, under the command of the British General William Howe. This woman typifies Tory values; she has sought through British allegiance to raise herself and her daughter socially and economically, but now she is living in a barn in the brutal wilderness of Canada, eating bait fish and weeping over her betrayal of New England. Her message concludes: “one tear my injur’d country weep for me, /And for that tear, may you ever be free (Epilogue).”

The last wartime Boston play written and published by Mercy Otis Warren was The Motley Assembly. It appeared as a pamphlet in 1779, treating the problems of a Boston freed from British domination but peopled with those who still held allegiance to Troy values, who are hoping for the defeat of the American states and the return of a social elite with British sensitivities. Once again women incriminate themselves against a ruder American democratic society, desiring a return to a society envisioned as cultured, mannered and elegant but satirized as a phony and plutocratic way of life. Two veterans of the American Revolution end the play prophesying a society that will bring an expiration and thorough reformation of Tory values. Even though this pamphlet is published with four references to its author as a man -- friends, colleagues and many of the political leaders of America were aware of who this political and social pundit was.

These early dramas are all unfinished. It is most probable that Warren merely sketched out the plots, wrote scenes to meet the exigencies of rapidly developing political circumstances, and then set them before the public in periodicals and pamphlets. Rapid political and military changes in the independence movement necessitated new messages in new dramas with never the time nor the necessity to return to the completion of the original efforts.

General James Warren had been the paymaster general and a chief commissary officer for the supply and logistical support of the Revolutionary Army in Massachusetts. He and his wife, Mercy Otis Warren, saw some of their fellow citizens use wartime positions to increase personal fortunes. As post revolutionary society emerged, the new fame often brought with it the power to effect commercial rewards, which in turn brought greater desire for political control.

In the Warren letters from the 1770’s James’s even more than Mercys, one finds a note of exasperation, of impatience with those people who were not pulling their weight, who hoped to profit in honor, position, or wealth from the wartime exigencies (Weales 889).
These conclusions brought the Warrens’s an increased sensitivity to the possibility of the corruption of national government offices for the purpose of increasing personal fame and wealth. On the other hand so many farmers were ever more suffering a decline in their standard of living. The desperate acts of the indebted farmers, most of whom suffered because they were veterans of the Revolutionary war, came to fruition as Shays rebellion. This armed insurrection moved against the courts which were sentencing debtors to prison. General Warren sympathized with their plight and was even suspected by some of complicity with the uprising.

Once again James and Mercy Otis Warren, now in their sixties, came back to the active political life. General Warren was elected to the Legislature on a post Shays wave of radicalism. He became Speaker of the Massachusetts House for the next two years, the period corresponding with the ratification of the Constitution. Mercy became the chief correspondent and theorist behind her husband, behind Elbridge Gerry, the only Massachusetts delegate to refuse to sign the Constitution as it came out of the convention, and the leader behind the rest of that small number of Massachusetts anti-federalist republicans. This time both husband and wife went to press, he as “Helvidius Priscus’ in a senes of newspaper articles, she as the anonymous pamphleteer, “a Columbian Patriot” This time her work was not contemporarily known as hers even by their fiends and past political allies. The first edition of her Observations On The New Constitution was distributed by Elbridge Gerry and, in spite of a number of denials, accredited to him. There were only a few copies published in Boston in 1788, but, later in 1788, Greenleaf printed 1,630 copies for the Federal Committee of New York to distribute to their local county committees in preparation for the New York debate on the adoption of the constitution.

Through her and her husband’s criticism of growing public corruption, of a constitution that they, at that time, thought would lend itself to oligarchy, and through a widening knowledge of this criticism following from the voluminous correspondence of Mercy, the Warrens placed themselves outside the emerging federalist consensus. Even John Adams, who had been a long time friend, found their views increasingly repugnant. Their constant dread about the demise of republican principles after the revolutionary war, their fear of the “federal city,” caused them to appear politically untrustworthy and even led General James Warren, in 1790, when he had been elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in the Hancock administration, to decline the post. From this point on the Warrens sank deeper and deeper into obscurity. More and more the politically active shunned or even impugned the reservations of the Warrens.

Mercy Otis Warren had concluded her Observations in 1788 by entreating that if America did accept this dangerous federalization, then the active political types should “strive to support the peace and the unanimity of his country though every other blessing should expire;” and that “the sublimer characters, the philosophic lovers of freedom who have wept over her exit, (should) retire to the calm shades of contemplation (19).” This, in a large way, is what Poems: Dramatic and Miscellaneous is; her retirement from the active political life and the beginning of her contribution through calm contemplation and indirect influence on the life of this republican democracy. The book, published in 1790, is the first published work bearing her name. It contained eighteen miscellaneous poems and two plays. Most of the poems had appeared anonymously in newspapers during the 70’s and the 80’s, and nine have political content. The dramas, The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castile, appeared for their first and only publication to this day. They, unlike the five wartime plays, are completed and polished works set outside her contemporary country. Each speaks directly to the problem of liberty and especially to the social and moral values that a new republic must protect if it is to survive. These themes dominate all Mercy Otis Warren’s post revolutionary writings.

Mercy Otis Warren’s prodigious correspondence continued, and with these last two plays, the poems, and the coming three volume history of the American Revolution, she retired into an even more indirect “behind the scenes” influence on public opinion and the formation of public policy. However, even after the Wanens’ isolation by John Adams and the Federalist party, Mercy worked on Adams’ behalf guiding her fellow anti-federalist Elbridge Gerry in avoiding a war with France in 1797. Jefferson took her public silence during the Adams administration as “a proof that she did not go with the current (Anthony 203).” In fact, she, her husband and her sons suffered great disfavor among their Massachusetts fellow citizens because of their dedication to the republicanism of Jefferson.

In 1805, her three volume History of the Rise Progress and Termination of the American Revolution interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations was published. [It] was the culmination of her literary career. Through it she satisfied a powerful urge to fuse her personal and public convictions. It served as a means to unite her ethical, political and philosophical concerns; it joined her personal religiosity with her ideological commitments; and it provided a vehicle for a female intellectual to be useful in a republican culture. (History, xvi).

In 1807, when John Adams read Mercy Otis Warren’s analysis of his character in her History; he was hurt and angry. From July to August, there were ten letters from Adams and six replies from Mercy, all bitter. Not until November, 1811, through the good work of Elbridge Gerry, was the correspondence between these two old fiends begun again on a friendly basis. Adams was 76 and she was 83. Once again they joined influences among their Massachusetts constituencies in support of the extremely unpopular War of 1812.

On the last day of her life, October 19, 1814, Plymouth was a War of 1812 garrison town, and she wrote “we are hourly expecting the depredation of the British,” still alert to that sense of vigilance on the behalf of freedom that rose from her energy and amor patriae.


1 All citations to works of Mercy Otis Warren will be by page number to: Lester Cohen’s edition of History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, cited Histor) Benjamin Franklin V’s edition The Plays and Poems of Mercy Otis Warren, cited Poems; and the Quadrangle Press edition of Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions, cited Observations. [return to text]

2 John Adams was denounced as “a better orator than critic” by a nineteenth century author who reprinted a few passages from Warren’s “The Sack of Rome” while claiming that they “have little dramatic or poetic merit”(22). With his premise that “the qualities of genius” in women are merely “the similtude of that which in men is the characteristic...of the highest grade of mental inspiration”(7), the author finds her ideas of political partisanship to be “even in a woman...delightful”(23). (Rufus Wilmot Griswold. The Female Poets of America~ Philadelphia: (Dary and Hart, 1849.) [returun to text]

3 In the same year, a librarian at Providenc
e, Rhode Island, writes that Mercy Otis Warren’s histoty is “of interest only to the special student, as one of the earliest connected narratives of the struggle” (William Eaton Foster, “Mercy Otis Warren,” 148 in J.N. Lamed. The Literature of American History: A Bibliographical Guide. Boston: Houghton, Muffin, 1902). [return to text]

4 Sources for quoted citations in the order of their appearances: Adams: Alice Brown p. 163; Jefferson: Katharine Anthony, p.198; Elizabeth Ellet, p.46 ; Edna Dow Cheney, p.71; Alice Brown, p.26; Anne Marble, p.163 & 175; John Fiske, p.68. Maud Macdonald Hutchenson, p.401; Katharine Anthony, p.15. [return to text]

5 In 1991 optimistic attention to Mercy Otis Warren’s work even to her furniture continues:

Fran Mascolo in “Floor Bid Takes Chair for $130 Grand,” Boston Sunday Herald (31 March 1991:56) explains that a table sold for a particularly high price because it was once owned by Mercy Otis Warren, and that a letter and autograph of hers sold for $1,000 over its estimated $200 value.

Susan Chira in “The New Heroes of American History,” International Herald Tribune (11 July 1991:18) comments on how Sacramento, California’s school children are learning that Mercy Otis Warren wrote political pamphlets during the American Revolution and the positive effect such knowledge is having.

Ellen K. Coughlin in The Chronicle of Higher Education (4 September 1991:A9) reviews Nina Baym’s article on Warren in the summer issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly which suggests that Warren seeks to “enlarge the traditional understanding of women’s ‘separate sphere.’” [return to text]

6 Contemporary scholarship credits the origination of the committees of correspondence usually to Samuel Adams or to Thomas Jefferson, but rarely to Mercy Otis Warren who proposed the idea in her own home in 1772. See, for example, Adrienne Koch, p. 6. [return to text] privacy statement