Known as the “Conscience of the American Revolution,” Mercy Otis Warren accomplished things unknown to women in her time. She was a prolific and influential writer, the first woman playwright, wrote the first history of the American Revolutionary War (by a man or woman), and influenced most of founding fathers, as well as speaking up for women’s rights.
John Adams, later the second president of the United States, once told Mercy’s husband in a letter:
Tell your wife that God Almighty has entrusted her with the Powers for the good of the World, which … he bestows on few of the human race. That instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them. (Schweitzer, Ivy. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Fifth ed. CENGAGE Learning. Lauter, Paul ed. 2 Apr. 2011.)
Mercy Otis Warren was born on September 14th, 1728 to Colonel James Otis and Mary Allyne, who was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Edward Doty. She was the fifth of thirteen children. Such a large number of children was not unusual during that time.
Mercy Otis Warren by John Singleton Copley (d. 1815)
Mercy’s father, Colonel James Otis, was an outspoken man, leading the movement against British rule. His example surely helped inspire Mercy’s writings in later years.
Mercy never had a formal education, like many girls of her time. For the most part, only boys received a thorough education, though she was allowed to sit in some of her older brother’s classes with a tutor. The Rev. Jonathon Russell, however, the minister of the local parish, took pity on her and supplied her with both books and counsel.
As she became older, it was her brother, James Otis, who became her companion in literary pursuits. It is he who is rumored to have said, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”
In 1754, Mercy Otis Warren met and married James Warren, who was her second cousin, and like herself, a descendant of a Mayflower passenger (Richard Warren). They were, by report, a happy couple. Three years later, they had their first child, James, and continued to have children until she reached five boys total. Her last son, George, was born in 1766.
Her husband’s involvement in the patriotic movement inspired Mercy to write, for which she became famous. James Warren senior had a very distinguished political career and made his living off of his passion. He was more involved in the early beginnings of the American Revolutionary War than he was in the War itself, although he fought alongside her brother, James Otis, at Bunker Hill. James Warren became president of the Massachusetts House of Representatives eleven years into his marriage with Mercy. He also became a speaker of the House and President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
When her husband realized she could speak more clearly than he ever could, he encouraged her to write about her convictions. James Warren affectionately dubbed his wife his “scribbler.” Together, they helped motivate the patriots to freedom. Their house even became a meeting place for the Sons of Liberty.
The Influence of Mercy Otis Warren
With the influences she had in her life, it should come as no surprise that she took up her pen in behalf of the liberty of America.
Here we must express our gratitude to the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York (see note next paragraph) for their preservation of a section of The Women of the American Revolution, written by Elizabeth Ellet in 1849. Ms. Ellet preserves sections of correspondence that were obtained directly from Mercy Otis Warren’s descendants, and the quotes that follow are obtained from her work.
Note: The National Society of Colonial Dames has moved the page linked above. The quotes cited below can also be found at alphahistory.com.
In 1774, she described the American situation as follows:
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. But may we not hope for more lenient measures! (Ellett, E.F. 1849. Women of the American Revolution: Vol. I. New York: Baker & Scribner. p. 79.)
Years later, she describes America as standing more ready:
I hinted that the sword was half drawn from the scabfood. Since then it has been unsheathed. … Almost every tongue is calling on the justice of heaven to punish the disturbers of the peace, liberty, and happiness of their country. (Ellett, E.F. 1849. Women of the American Revolution: Vol. I. New York: Baker & Scribner. p. 45.)
Along with these letters, she wrote plays expressing her political opinions. in 1772, she published The Adulateur, which was directed against Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts and predicted the Revolutionary War. Several other plays were written, also cryptically directed against Governor Hutchinson, and all were written anonymously. It would be 1790 before Mercy Otis Warren would put her own name to a book.
The attacks on the British, and specifically on Governor Hutchinson, weighed on Mercy, and she worried that she had overstepped propriety. Abigail Adams, another influential Revolutionary War woman, wrote to encourage her:
Though ‘an eagle’s talon asks an eagle’s eye,’ and satire in the hands of some is a very dangerous weapon; yet when it is so happily blended with benevolence, and is awakened only by the love of virtue and abhorrence of vice—when truth is unavoidably preserved, and ridiculous and vicious actions are alone the subject, it is so far from blamable that it is certainly meritorious. (Ellett, E.F. 1849. Women of the American Revolution: Vol. I. New York: Baker & Scribner. p. 85.)
In other words, Ms. Adams argues that Mercy’s sharp satire is mixed with benevolence, love of virtue, and abhorrence of vice, and that as such she is to be praised and not blamed.
The Generals Washington, Lee, and Gates, with several other distinguished officers from head-quarters, dined with us (at Watertown) three days since. The first of these I think one of the most amiable and accomplished gentlemen, both in person, mind, and manners, that I have met with. The second, whom I never saw before, I think plain in his person to a degree of ugliness, careless even to unpoliteness–his garb ordinary, his voice rough, his manners rather morose; yet sensible, learned, judicious, and penetrating: a considerable traveller, agreeable in his narrations, and a zealous, indefatigable friend to the American cause; but much more from a love of freedom, and an impartial sense of the inherent rights of mankind at large, than from any attachment or disgust to particular persons or countries. The last is a brave soldier, a high republican, a sensible companion, an honest man, of unaffected manners and easy deportment. (Ellett, E.F. 1849. Women of the American Revolution: Vol. I. New York: Baker & Scribner. p. 82)
Mercy Otis Warren was a woman on fire for what she held dearly. If she wasn’t able to speak her opinions, she wrote them down. Her writings contained her beliefs, thoughts, and opinions about wars and political issues.
She wrote her last book, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, in 1805. President Jefferson ordered advance copies for himself and every cabinet member in the White House.
Death and Legacy
Mercy Otis Warren died on October 19, 1814. The cause of death is unknown. She was 86 years old. She was buried at Old Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts beside her husband, James Warren, who had died in 1808. In her honor a warship which fought in World War II was called the SS Mercy Warren.
Mercy was inducted into the Woman’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York in 2002.
The legacy she left behind is amazing.
Seldom has one woman in any age, acquired such an ascendancy over the strongest, by the mere force of a powerful intellect. She is said to have supplied political parties with their arguments; and she was the first of her sex in America who taught the reading world in matters of state policy and history. (Ellett, E.F. 1849. Women of the American Revolution: Vol. I. New York: Baker & Scribner. p. 105.)
Mercy Otis Warren’s life encourages women to speak up. Mercy’s example can be followed in many ways. She spoke up when she needed to, and everyone benefited from the things she said. She was inspirational and worth remembering as a builder of our nation.