Freedom Fighter With a Pen: Mercy Otis Warren and American Liberty

BY Jeff Minick TIMEMarch 22, 2023 PRINT

Any American with a high school diploma should recognize the names and deeds of our country’s most renowned Founders, patriots like Washington, Jefferson, and Abigail and John Adams. Some former students may recollect less familiar figures from that era who appear in most history texts, like Nathan Hale, Lafayette, Molly Pitcher, and John Paul Jones.

Behind these heroes stand a host of other patriots—thousands of them, little known except to their immediate contemporaries—their names and faces long lost to those now living. Here were the men who fought at places like Saratoga and Cowpens, who wintered in Valley Forge, and who read and debated the points of the proposed Constitution. Here were the sisters, wives, and mothers who kept the home fires burning, tending livestock and growing crops, educating their children, and bolstering the morale of their families.

Between these two groups—the great and the obscure—stand a few others, participants in that earth-shattering revolution who were known far and wide in their day, but today live on only in the pages of some dusty, neglected book of history. Few of us have heard of John Randolph, that gloomy Virginia libertarian, most famous for saying: “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality.” And Ethan Allen more likely brings to the minds of many Americans the furniture company rather than the rip-roaring Vermonter from whom the name is derived.

In this company, we find Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), widely known in her time, all but forgotten today.

Daughter, Wife, Mother, and Luminary of Literature

Mrs James Warren (Mercy Otis), by John Singleton Copley
The woman who contributed to our nation’s beginning. A portrait of Mercy Otis Warren, circa 1763, by John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (Public Domain)

In “The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation,” biographer Nancy Rubin Stuart opens with a garland of praise delivered by some of Mercy Warren’s illustrious contemporaries. John Adams once called her “the most accomplished woman in America” and described her written works as “incontestable instances of genius.” One of Mercy’s closest friends, John’s wife Abigail, delighted in her poetry and plays. Both Jefferson and Washington touted her skills and insights as a writer. Though not included in Stuart’s inventory of admirers, in a 1791 letter to Mercy after reading a volume of her poems, Alexander Hamilton wrote to her: “Not being a poet myself, I am in the less danger of feeling mortification at the idea, that in the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has outstripped the Male.”

In many ways, this recipient of Hamilton’s praise was very much a woman of her time. The third child of 13 of James and Mary Otis, Mercy appears by all the evidence to have grown up in a loving, prosperous household in Barnstable, Massachusetts. She learned the usual household arts from her mother and was showered with affection by her father, a lawyer and a politician active in the independence movement. At 26, older by several years than the average bride of the time, she married James Warren, a 28-year-old merchant and farmer who also advocated separation from Great Britain. Judging by the letters that survived them, Mercy and James deeply loved each other throughout their 54-year marriage. That union produced five sons, three of whom Mercy outlived.

Until shortly before her death in 1814, Mercy remained a vivacious conversationalist and welcoming hostess to all who visited her.

3 Men Make Their Mark

James Otis Sr.
Warren’s father provided her an excellent education. Portrait of James Otis Sr., circa 1760, by John Singleton Copley. Oil on canvas. Roland P. Murdock Collection, Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kan. (Public Domain)

So, who helped forge this wife and mother into a woman of letters and the revolutionary firebrand whose poems and prose impacted our history and helped bring about the Bill of Rights?

First up among these influences was Mercy’s father, James Otis. Eventually a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, he carried political news and opinions home with him, and shared them with the family. Moreover, when Mercy was 9, and contrary to the custom of the time, James gave her permission to join her brothers in their tutoring sessions with their uncle, the Reverend Jonathan Russell. Mercy learned to write from her uncle. As Stuart tells us in her biography, Mercy “devoured Pope and Dryden’s translations of Virgil and Homer,” and read the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton.

James Otis jr
Warren’s older brother James was an able mentor. A likeness of James Otis, after the painting by Blackburn. Emmet Collection of Manuscripts. (Public Domain)

Her older brother James, called “Jemmy” by the family, encouraged Mercy in her studies, often discussing their reading once the tutorial sessions had ended. When Mercy was 11, James left home to attend Harvard, but he continued to encourage his sister in her education through letters and on his visits home. And even more than his father, he was an ardent believer in American liberty. It was James, in fact, who in the 1760s originated and popularized the expression, “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

James Warren
Warren’s husband, James, offered his unstinting support to his wife’s vocation. Portrait, 1763, by John Singleton Copley. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (Public Domain)

Her beloved husband, James Warren, also proved most crucial in Mercy’s writing pursuits. Sometimes affectionately calling her “Scribbler,” Warren encouraged his wife in her literary endeavors throughout their many years together. Like his in-laws, he too was a strong believer in American independence, holding several important offices during the Revolution, though later falling out of favor with the new government over his stance on Shays’s Rebellion and his opposition to the Constitution, particularly its initial lack of a bill of rights.

The Scribbler at Work

history of the rise, progess, and termination of the American Revolution
The title page of a copy of Warren’s “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, Vol. 1,” from Thomas Jefferson’s library. (Public Domain)

Using a pen name, in the early 1770s Mercy wrote a trio of plays criticizing Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, works having tone and subject matter that foreshadowed the American Revolution. Her plays helped lead to the removal of the governor. During the Revolution, she continued to compose plays, poems, and pamphlets in support of the American cause. Following the war, she also published her collection “Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous,” the first writing of any kind she issued under her own name.

In 1805, Mercy Warren published her three-volume “History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution.” Today, that history, which extends from the time of the first colonists to the ratification of the Constitution, would attract few general readers—in large part because of the florid style, typical of the period, in which Mercy wrote her magnum opus. Even in her own day, sales of the book were poor, and criticism was mixed.

One reader, however, reacted violently to Mercy’s history. Her good friend and a longtime admirer of her writing, John Adams, was offended by her treatment of him and his place in America’s history. In a fiery exchange of letters, he attacked her for misinforming the public about his actions and intentions while also sniping away at mistakes in the book. Though the two had a bitter falling out, Abigail Adams remained Mercy’s friend. And after several years, just as she had done with the rift between her husband and Thomas Jefferson, Abigail repaired the friendship between the Warren and Adams families.

Helpmate to the Bill of Rights

Signing of the Constitution
Mercy Otis Warren has a lasting legacy as the secret muse of the American Revolution and the Bill of Rights. “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” 1940, by Howard Chandler Christy. United States Capitol. (Public Domain)

A second strain between the two families, and between many Americans, had occurred years before the appearance of Mercy’s history of the new country. Adams and many others were Federalists, desiring a stronger central government to cope with the problems facing the new nation after the Revolution. The Constitution was largely the product of this party.

Opposed to these efforts were the anti-Federalists, represented by men like Thomas Jefferson. Mercy Warren and her family stood staunchly in this camp, fearful that the Constitution as written, especially with no direct statement regarding rights and liberties, would establish a federal government that might trample on the freedoms of the people. The Federalists put out newspaper articles, later collectively called “The Federalist Papers,” supporting the Constitution in preparation for a vote on the matter. The anti-Federalists followed suit in a less organized fashion, issuing pamphlets denouncing certain points of the Constitution and calling for a Bill of Rights.

One of those writers was Mercy Warren, who anonymously authored a much-read pamphlet, “Observations on the new Constitution; and on the federal and state conventions.” Though over a century passed before historians realized that Mercy had penned these arguments—a descendent discovered a revealing reference in one of Mercy’s letters—her eloquent plea helped bring about the rights and liberties that we enjoy today. As Danielle Herring of the Law Library of Congress notes, “Mercy Otis Warren has a lasting legacy as the secret muse of the American Revolution and the Bill of Rights.”

Lessons From a Life

Mercy Otis Warren bronze statue at Barnstable County Courthouse, Massachusetts.
She wrote a history of our emerging nation. Mercy Otis Warren bronze statue, by David Lewis, at Barnstable County Courthouse, Mass. (Kenneth C. Zirkel/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mercy Warren’s life reveals the vital importance of education, morality, and a loving family to a happy life. Her husband’s unstinting support and love underscore the significance of these same attributes in development and growth. The many snippets of Mercy’s correspondence included in “The Muse of the Revolution” reveal an independent woman who took pleasure in friends and family, who returned that same gift to those around her, and who squarely faced up to hardships and criticism.

Moreover, by her words and deeds, Mercy Warren reminds us once again of that old warning “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” She stood post to guard to those liberties. May the rest of us remember her and do the same.

the muse of the revolution
An excellent biography on Mercy Warren by Nancy Rubin Stuart.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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