Mercy Otis Warren, Historian of the Revolution
In a time when politics and war were considered the province of men, Mercy Otis Warren provided powerful arguments for the Patriot cause, stoking the fires of revolution several years before Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Born in 1728 in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, to James and Mary Otis, Mercy was one of 13 children. Though she received no formal education, Mercy sat in on her brother’s lessons as he prepared to attend Harvard College. From an early age, she developed a keen interest in politics that only grew stronger when she found herself at the center of the revolutionary movement. Not only was her brother, James Otis, an early opponent of the Stamp Act and Writs of Assistance, but her husband, James Warren, whom she married in 1754, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1765, served as its speaker and eventually became president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress on the eve of the Revolution.
Their parlor in Plymouth, Massachusetts, became a focal point of local politics where they hosted protest and strategy meetings with other revolutionaries including Sam Adams, John Hancock and John Adams. From this vantage point, Mercy picked up her pen to write satirically about the British and their Loyalist followers. Through poems, pamphlets and plays, she gave voice to Patriot complaints, detailed British atrocities in Boston, and staunchly advocated for independence. When newspapers up and down the seacoast carried her works, she became one of the most influential propagandists of her time.
Mercy formed a circle of friends with whom she corresponded regularly, including Abigail and John Adams, Martha Washington and Hannah Winthrop. Over time, she also corresponded with Sam Adams, John Hancock, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton and other early leaders. Knowing she occupied a unique position as confidante to many key players in the Revolution, she decided early in 1775, with enthusiastic support from John Adams, to write a history of the American Revolution. From then on, she actively coerced the men she’d be writing about to send her accounts of debates in Congress, copies of correspondence and any other information they could supply. Mercy continued writing plays, poems and pamphlets during and after the war. When her History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution was finally published in 1805, President Thomas Jefferson ordered advance copies for himself and for every member of his cabinet. Now a fierce anti-Federalist, Mercy used this opportunity to contrast the virtuous self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries with what she saw as a postwar lapse in revolutionary principles.
In her plays, Mercy Otis Warren placed women in the center of political turmoil. Though she didn’t advocate formal political rights for women, she did not believe they should divorce themselves from politics entirely. Through her characters, she suggested that a healthy republic required politically conscious women willing to make sacrifices for public good. And through her writings, Mercy proved such women could inspire their countrymen to action.