Perhaps no woman of the War for American Independence lent her voice to the Revolution as passionately as Mercy Otis Warren, a female writer whose works played a critical role in supporting and promoting the Patriot cause. Born in 1728 in Barnstable, Massachusetts to Colonel James Otis, Sr. and Mary Allyne Otis, Mercy was the third of the Otis family’s thirteen children. Mercy’s father, James Otis, Sr., was a prominent attorney and judge within their community, who later became a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Mercy and the other Otis children became familiar with politics from a young age, as their father was a well-known opponent of the colony’s British leadership. As a result, Mercy was well-versed in the Revolutionary ideals that would take the country by storm in the 1770s, preparing her to express her keen political insights amidst the growing Patriot movement.
As a girl, Mercy did not receive a formal education, but she was allowed to study alongside her brothers as they prepared for college. Mercy was an avid reader and writer throughout her childhood. Unlike many young girls of the colonial era, Mercy received encouragement from her father and brother to continue her academic pursuits, which included learning as much as she could about history, politics, and language. Her brother, James, attended Harvard College, where he studied alongside James Warren, who would also encourage Mercy in her literary endeavors.
Mercy married James Warren on November 14, 1754, and the couple moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they raised their five sons. In Plymouth, Mercy’s husband followed in his family’s footsteps and became active in local politics, serving as sheriff and later as a member of the Massachusetts Legislature. During the early stages of the Revolution, the Warrens often hosted gatherings of political activists in their home, including members of the Sons of Liberty. Mercy supported several of the early protest movements, including the Boston Tea Party, boycotting British imports, and the Committees of Correspondence, all of which helped lay the groundwork for the Revolution.
With continued encouragement from her husband, Mercy began to put her political observations and insights into writing, all the while raising her family and tending to the Warren household. In the early days of colonial opposition to British rule, Warren produced several plays, which were published anonymously, but helped fan the flames of American Patriotism. Among Warren’s most influential works were three satirical plays that criticized British colonial leaders. “The Adulator” appeared in the Massachusetts Spy newspaper in 1772, followed by The Defeat in 1773, and The Group in 1775, each of which painted the British political agents in Massachusetts as enemies of liberty, providing propaganda for the fledgling Revolutionary movement and its early supporters.
Warren’s knowledge of the politics of the American Revolution, and her family’s close connections to many of its major players prompted Mercy to correspond frequently with Patriot leaders like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, as well as future presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Martha Washington, Hannah Winthrop, and the female British historian, Catharine Macaulay, were also among Warren’s notable correspondents. During the Revolution, Warren maintained an active correspondence and close friendship with both John and Abigail Adams. Though her relationship with John Adams was fraught with disagreement over the best courses of political action for the new republic, especially after her criticism of his politics in her history of the American Revolution, the pair reconciled by the end of their careers.
Warren’s literary career did not end with the American victory in the War for Independence but continued through the foundation of the government under the United States Constitution and into the first years of the early republic. Mercy’s writings often reflected her staunch advocacy for natural rights. During the Constitutional Conventions of the late 1780s, Warren produced a pamphlet titled Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions, under the alias of “A Columbian Patriot.” The pamphlet, originally believed to have been the work of Elbridge Gerry, opposed ratification of the Constitution without an accompanying Bill of Rights. In 1790, Mercy published a book of political poems and short plays called Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, making her one of the first American women to publish literary works in her own name. Warren completed History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution in 1805, making her the first woman to write a history of the Revolution.
Mercy Otis Warren died in 1814, at age eighty-six, at her home in Plymouth. She maintained a correspondence with many of her friends and political allies while remaining active in her literary pursuits until the end of her life. Warren represented one of the first major female writers in American history. In addition to transcending the role typically allotted to women of the colonial era, Warren’s intellectual and political savvy set her apart as an important literary force of the Revolution. Though she was a woman, Warren reached a broad audience with her writing and political insight, inspiring her fellow colonists’ to adopt the Patriot cause, and contributing to the American Revolution in her own unique way. Today, Mercy Otis Warren has been commemorated for her contributions to the American Revolution by being made a part of the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, and the namesake for the SS Mercy Warren.
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