<head> <meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=windows-1252"> <title>Introduction to Mercy Otis Warren's Observations on the New Constitution</title>
When the Warrens studied the newly proposed federal constitution in 1788 they saw no relief for those who had indebted themselves as a result of this war and too many opportunities for the developing oligarchy in America. If governmental institutions were created that could control commerce in accordance with what those institutions themselves took to be the needs of the federal system -- those who created and controlled such institutions would be making all others potential economic slaves to such a ‘federal city. It was not that the convention was conspiratorial, but that “power without limitation or amenability may endanger the brightest virtue.” Therefore, any articles of union must assure the people, and their separate states, of a frequent and constant return to their constituency, an assured rotation of the officers of a federal government, severe limits on the powers of any continental bureaucracy, a particular bill of rights and protection against “the insolence of any petty revenue officer to enter our houses, search, insult and seize at pleasure.” The natural propensity of any “overbearing insolence of office” had to be checked in the constitution lest we replace the monarchical tyranny of a foreign ruler with an “aristocratic tyranny: of our own making.”
For this reason Mercy Otis Warren, again in anonymity, argues that Massachusetts should have rejected the presently proposed federal constitution. Instead, the people should ask that another constitution be written, one that provides rectificatory justice in the form of an equitable allowance, first, for all those who have incurred personal debt and loss on behalf of direct support of the War for Independence, and secondly, for the several states which publicly incurred war debt. This along with the inclusion of a bill of rights would create an instrument, an attitude and a motive for the freed people of the Confederated States to bind themselves “by the most indissoluble union, but without renouncing their separate sovereinty and independence and becoming tributaries to a consolidated fabric of aristocratic tyranny."
According to Mercy Otis Warren the simple principles from which the social, political and moral community arise are powerfully evident in the history of the world and in our personal experience. The character of humanity is distinguished by the natural principles of self-defense and the love of distinction. When institutions, family, church, and government support, inculcate, and channel distinction toward equality and benevolence then a society flourishes. When institutions are regulated by the one or the few, rather than equally by all the citizens, human nature is such that the distinction, the power and the wealth accrue to the one and the few. Freedom is the instrument of society that allows each citizen the responsibility to gain sufficient wealth and to exert a shared power in the political community. When this fails to happen, as history so abundantly shows “from the days of Nimrod to Caesar, and from Caesar to an arbitrary prince of the house of Brunswick” (History 3) in 18th century Britain, the arbitrary use of distinction, power and wealth ultimately leads to democratic revolution. However, history also shows that oftentimes the patriots of the new freedom become caught up in “an alteration of manners, the blending of characters and new trains of ideas” which in turn create “the rage of accumulation and the taste for expensive pleasures ... Thus the hurry of spirits, that ever attends the eager pursuit of fortune and a passion for splendid enjoyments leads to the forgetflulness” of the very virtues that gain and maintain freedom (History 4). Then, once again there grows up the horrible accretion of personal power, distinction and the oppression of the many who provide the fodder for such accumulation.
To prevent this from happening to the new union of American states, Mercy argues for a constitution that requires safeguards against the use of the federal system for commercial advantage. Many of her criticisms were answered by the Bill of Rights, by subsequent amendments, and by the spirit and traditions formed through the beginnings of U.S. history. However, a number of her odious projections still plague us: the accumulation of wealth through long service in the Congress, a federal court system with practically dictatorial jurisdiction over the states, a tax revenue bureaucracy with powers that preceed judicial review, a “federal city” governed by an aristocratic officialdom not directly subject to its citizens.
Governmental institutions can guide, protect and preserve the individuals of a country in the formation of attitudes, manners, ethical principles and even the character of the arts and sciences developed in such a culture. The springs of action and the strength of social ties, however, ultimately depend upon the “feelings of the heart” (History 4) and when we search our hearts carefully, in the light of Mercy Otis Warren’s analysis, we can see the constitution as originally proposed and its convention as “betray[ing] the rights of the people, under the specious and popular pretence of justice, consolidation and dignity.” For freedom is established and maintained on the underlying realization of benevolent character, allowed and encouraged through social institutions, the family, the church and the government, as the means and the way to restrain the personal desire for wealth and power and to encourage equal access to power and wealth in a republic of “rational liberty” (History 43).
This is not the understanding of freedom of John Adams, who held that the principle of freedom is the silence of law, and that that principle depends upon a civil constitution which will regulate the natural inequalities of men in such a fashion as to preserve the rights of all, by creating a republican government of the best and the wisest (Adams, VI,65). Nor is it the conception of freedom of Thomas Jefferson, who maintains that freedom of thought and speech is the primary guarantee of all the other liberties in a democratic republic; that with it and through it, the government will adapt itself to new and different situations, or be overturned (Jefferson 530).
This constitution was adopted. Mercy Otis Warren lost her plea for longer deliberations and for a better instrument to preserve the original virtues and spirit of the American Revolution. In the Observations, as was noted above, she agreed to complete acceptance of the judgment of the people of the “confederated states.” She did accept this judgment and went on to see the development of this constitution and its government as a protector of her concept of freedom, truly based on the principles she had elaborated:
Perfection in government is not to be expected from so imperfect a creature as man; experience has taught, that he falls... Perhaps genius has never devised a system more congenial to their wishes, or better adapted to the conditions of man, than the American constitution. At the same time it is left open to amendments whenever its imperfections are discovered by the wisdom of future generations, or when contingencies may arise either here or abroad, to make alterations necessary. On the principles of republicanism was this constitution founded; and on this it must stand (History 692).Freedom for Mercy Otis Warren is a fundamental principle of republicanism. The civil constitution, however, is not its only agency. The family, the church and the culture, as well as the government, must assure each member of the right and the opportunity to gain sufficient wealth and distinction and, thus, to share in the fullness of this country.
The difference in Mercy Otis Warren’s formulation of the concept of freedom is only one example of her unique understanding of political concepts which follows from a fully developed political philosophy. John Adams once said of his differences with Thomas Jefferson in political philosophy “Whether you or I are right, posterity must judge.” Hopefully, someday the study of the political philosophy of Mercy Otis Warren will be a part of our understanding of the history and the foundation of the United States of America. And hopefully, it will become, equally with Adams’ and Jefferson’s philosophy, subject to the judgment of posterity.
Mercy Otis Warren believed in the elemental reality of two human passions: survival and distinction. Reason and religion must find institutional ways to regulate and guide these passions if the social fabric is to be preserved and promoted. These two original forces animated all of her work, from the earliest satirical political drama, through her voluminous correspondence to her final monumental history of the War of Independence. The nature of humanity is such that unchecked desire leads to despotic rule. Republics throughout history have self-destructed because of the growth of personal avarice and political ambition.
Public opinion, when grounded on false principles, and dictated by the breath of ambitious individuals, sometimes creates a tyranny, felt by the minority more severely, than that usually inflicted by the hand of the sceptred monarch (History, 695).An understanding of these fundamental principles of all human action energize all the enthusiasms and all the fears that drive Mercy Otis Warren’s political philosophy.
The study of human character opens at once a beautiful and a deformed picture of the soul. We find a noble principle implanted in the nature of man, that pants for distinction. This principle operates in every bosom and when kept under control of reason and the influence of humanity, it. produces the most benevolent effects, but when the checks of conscience are thrown aside, or the moral sense weakened by the sudden acquisition of wealth or power, humanity is obscured, and if favorable coincidence of circumstances permits profligacy, tyranny, and the wanton exercise of arbitrary sway (History, 3).This original spring of goodness must be guided by a system of government that furthers human benevolence. If the social, moral and political circumstances are roughly equal, then a democratic institution can keep open the avenues of freedom and opportunity for all. On the other hand if the rich and the poor, the politically powerful and a large weakened populace grow, with them will grow the arbitrary use of power. Eventually such a concentration of power will destroy a republic and lead to absolute tyranny and moral anarchy.
In 1888, Observations was reprinted still being attributed to Elbridge Gerry by Paul Leicester Ford in his centennial celebration, the Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States. By the 1950’s research into the life and the letters of Mercy Otis Warren, specifically a letter to Catherine MacCaulay in England, established Mercy’s authorship of the pamphlet. It’s republication has remained rare. One is in the 1962 Quadrangle Books edition of Richard Henry Lee’s Letters from a Federal Farmer to the Republican. Observations is there only as an additional example of the anti-federalist argument. The last and most careful publication is in Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist, 7 volumes, Chicago, 1981. Observations is in Volume 4, pages 270-287.
The political doctrine set forth by Mercy Otis Warren in these Observations is singular. Here is a distinct and distinguishing political philosophy. The concept of freedom, the institutions that support it, and their particular ways of doing so are uniquely and insightfully drawn in the terms of human achievement throughout the history of revolutions. It is a politically dangerous time when the citizens of a new republic create the instruments whereby their new freedom will be maintained. Mercy Otis Warren knows of the failures of the past --in her two completed and formal dramas The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castile she presented examples of those failures--here she refers to such failures as “the most mortifying instances of human weakness.” Throughout her objections to various “ambiguities of expression” that fill this constitution, she appeals to arguments of the founders of the philosophy of English law, to Matthew Hale, and to William Blackstone, but always adding new distinctions and understandings to concepts of trial by jury, taxation rights, legislative limitation, the parameters of political office, etc. Mercy Otis Warren is one of the first philosophers to use the late 18th century term “responsibility.” She uses it twice in the Observations, once arguing that politically “annual election is the basis of responsibility,” and secondly arguing that a Senate chosen for six years sets up a legislature “beyond all responsibility.” Thus, use of one of the newest concepts in political philosophy is again a mark of the depth and the originality of Mercy Otis Warren’s philosophy.
As you read and study this work, you will be in contact with a specification of political philosophy that Mercy Otis Warren wrote in a passion and under an assurance that its author would always remain anonymous. Hopefully that passion and the protection of that assumed anonymity will bring to you new insights into the practice of what political freedom should mean in a republic.
AAll 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 History) 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.
All uncited quotations in this Introduction are taken from the Observations as it appears in this anthology.