A WOMAN AHEAD OF HER TIME: MERCY OTIS WARREN - Laurence Jurdem
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A WOMAN AHEAD OF HER TIME: MERCY OTIS WARREN

Mercy Otis – Warren (1728-1814) was one of seven children born to a prominent family in Plymouth Massachusetts. Her father was a prominent lawyer and local judge who was greatly interested in the political issues within the community and Mercy, who was curious, became fascinated by the subject of politics at an early age.[1] As the eldest daughter, Mercy was expected to fulfill the traditional woman’s role to marry, bare children and keep house. However, she was also someone who enjoyed reading and hearing about the news of the day. Fascinated by ideas, Mercy convinced her father to allow her to sit in on the lessons her brothers were receiving as they prepared for Harvard.[2]

As she continued to educate herself though her study of politics and philosophy, Mercy met and soon married James Warren. Warren was a successful merchant whose father was the Sherriff of Plymouth. Mercy was 26 when she married Warren in 1754. The marriage lasted for over half a century, produced five sons. From all accounts the marriage, which lasted more than half a century, was a highly affectionate one with the two exchanging a number of loving letters over the many years James and Mercy were together.[3] While the marriage progressed and her children grew Mercy still found time to read about politics as well as other subjects she had grown so fond of. However, her husband and children now represented the center of her world and while those obligations took her away from her literary activities she knew her responsibilities as wife and mother was a far more sacred duty one that had been given to her by God. “ Whatever delight we may have in the use of the pen, or however eager we may be in the pursuit of knowledge, yet heaven has so ordained the lot of female life that every literary attention must give place to family avocations…” she wrote to a friend.[4] Warren also believed that while the two sexes may have been intellectually equal, in terms of traditional order Warren believed men were superior. “Men, had opportunities of gratifying their inquisitive humour to the utmost, in the great school of the world, whereas women are confined are confined to the narrow circle of domestic cares,” Mercy wrote to her close friend Abigail Adams.[5]

During the 1760’s as tensions between the British and the American colonies grew, Mercy became acquainted with a number of the figures who became responsible the founding of the new nation. Her brother, James Otis, Jr., became active with the Sons of Liberty and the group frequently met at the Warren home. Over time Mercy became aware of the various arguments that the colonists had with Great Britain, she also became acquainted with people like Samuel Adams and his cousin John Adams, who was then a young lawyer who accompanied her father as men rode from from one small community to another conducting a variety of legal services. During gatherings at her home both Adams’ would occasionally drop by to engage in the latest debates or discuss the latest outrage that had been initiated by the British crown. [6]

As Mercy continued to read and listen to the arguments made by her husband and brother she began to develop her own political ideas and opinions on the issues of the day. Mercy was a great reader and studied works by John Locke, David Hume and other political philosophers of the day. In the 1770’s she began to publish bits of political poetry anonymously – quite common at the time, but also the only way that a woman could publish material in the public domain. John Adams encouraged Mercy’s writing and was pleased when her first poem – one on the Boston Tea Party – was accepted for publication. While publishing politically provocative poetry was not something women did in eighteenth century America, however the fact that Mercy received permission from as respected a figure as John Adams gave her permission to engage in literary activity. While Mercy was an outspoken woman for her times, she still believed in the traditional boundaries her gender occupied during that time and therefore required the approval of a male figure to allow her to engage in her literary activity. [7]

One wonders if Adams role as a kind of patron to Mercy was an example of forward thinking? The answer is probably not. As Joseph Ellis argues, Adams enjoyed interacting with women who possessed a sharp intellect and clever sense of humor his wife Abigail was an example of that. Adams was also a highly strategic thinker. Adams was also a lawyer and one could say a strategic thinker. Mercy was a gifted writer and her ideas clearly galvanized the public and increased the revolutionary fervor that existed at the time.

Warren’s focus on her home and family did not preclude her from continuing to have strong opinions about the conflict that existed between Britain and the colonies. She was quite critical toward London’s representative in Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson whose home was destroyed as a result of the riots associated with the outrage over the Stamp Act. But for Mercy it was more personal than that. She resented Hutchinson for preventing her father from attaining certain political positions within the state because of his outspoken opinions regarding Britain’s policies in the colonies. Mercy’s dislike of the Lt. Governor was evident in her characterization of him in her first satire, “The Adulterer,” received with popular acclaim in 1772. (Mercy’s plays were written to be read rather than to be performed.) In her description Mercy said of Hutchinson: “He was dark, intriguing, insinuating, haughty and ambitious while the extreme of avarice marked every feature of his character. His abilities were little elevated above the line of mediocrity.”[8]

For Mercy the play was not just a critique of Hutchinson but, an indictment of the many encroachments that were being committed by the British on American colonists. In her view the British were attempting tax by tax and one encroachment after the next to create a systematic plan of slowly eliminating the capacity of the colonists from having a say in their own affairs. “Only if these measures would cease,” she wrote to a friend in 1773, “ may we yet prevent the sad alternative of either bowing beneath the bands of slavery or of repurchasing our plundered rights by the blood of the virtuous citizens.[9]

As tensions grew between the British and the colonies, Mercy continued to engage in writing political satire. In 1775, a week between the first military encounter between the colonists and the British at Lexington and Concord, she published the play entitled: “The Group,” a satire that was highly critical of those colonists who continued to support the British. The play printed in a number of magazines, gained a great deal of popularity in cities like New York and Philadelphia increased the anti British fever and caused Mercy to become a bit of a literary celebrity to those friends and others who knew she was the author. A number of them encouraged her to publish her work under her own name, but Mercy was apprehensive, because she did not want to become a target for those who were caught up in the intense passions of the day. She also did not want to publish under who own name because she believed that if that occurred the work would be overshadowed by the fact that it was written by a woman, not simply judged as a well written play.[10]

During the American Revolution that lasted from 1775 to 1783, Mercy served the important role of updating women around the colonies regarding developments of both a military and political nature as the nation fought for its independence. The revolution was just as difficult for women as it was for men. While their husbands were away women were forced into the role of not only managing their family, but overseeing the administration of their farms as well. It was a very stressful and equally a very lonely time for many women including Mercy Otis Warren whose husband James was off fulfilling obligations he had been appointed by the Continental Congress.[11]

It is important to remember that life in the colonies was difficult, particularly during the Revolutionary period. Colonial cities were under attack such as Boston and New York as well as taking days to get anywhere in terms of travel. Many of these women felt isolated and cut off form the world. To try to stem the loneliness they engaged in extensive letter writing as a means of trying to regain sense of comfort and regularity. Many, such as John and Abigail Adams wrote each other as much as three times a day. The constant letter writing filled a void giving a sense of one being in touch even if the other person was not physically there. During the period to stem the feelings of loneliness of her own husband being away, Mercy wrote frequently to John Adams and Martha Washington hoping to receive updates about the progress of the war. When she received replies she frequently forwarded the information to a number of women who she knew were desperate for news of the latest developments.[12]

As she communicated to women around the colonies on the progress of the war, Mercy also chose to initiate a dialogue about certain political issues that pertained to the future of the nation. In offering her political insights questions, Mercy outlined certain opinions she had developed based on her own detailed readings. However, in doing so, she took care to deliver these ideas in a way so as to not to alienate many of these women who may not have shared her interest in civic affairs. “Pardon on my touching on a subject so much out of the road of female attention as the contents of this must be…” she would write when she was about to make a point that pertained to politics. Over time the letters exchanged helped Mercy and other “war widows” bond during a period of loneliness and even greater uncertainty.[13]

Mercy’s political ideas stemmed not only from what she read but the attitudes that she and her family displayed in their own lives. Having grown up in an affluent environment, she believed in a life that was based on virtue and honor.  Those beliefs were represented by her belief in the philosophy of disinterestedness, the idea being that a person should focus their abilities on serving the public good as opposed to enhancing their wealth or influence. It was those members of her class who shared her beliefs in that type of noblesse oblige who Mercy believed should receive places of influence and authority if the colonies were lucky enough to win the war. But as the war continued Mercy became concerned about the colonies changing social structure. Many of those who had struggled economically became wealthy due to their taking advantage of economic benefits that came with the war. The was a redistribution of wealth, as farmers and others saw their once meager profits grow in selling their products to the continental army.[14]

Mercy was shocked to see merchants raise the prices of scarce products and become wealthy at the expense of her fellow citizens. There was massive fluctuation in the colonial economy and speculators made massive fortunes betting on which prices would rise and fall. A blatant display of wealth began to be shown among what became to be called the nouveau riche that shocked people like James Warren who said in a letter to John Adams in 1778:

“ I am still drudging at the Navy Board for a morsel of bread while others…who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots.”[15]

As the war continued and the class system continued to shift a new group of politicians emerged. These were in Mercy and her husbands view opinion, a group who saw no harm in using office as a means of building up their reputation and influence. One of those who Mercy particularly disliked was John Hancock a man both Warren’s believed was not ashamed in his desire for political power nor willing to whatever favors were necessary to get it. The two saw Hancock as a man of low character and Mercy viewed him in the same way as she character as her former nemesis Thomas Hutcheson. “I can’t bare the influence,” James Warren wrote to Sam Adams in 1778, “of men who were so hid in holes and Corners a few years ago that it was difficult to find them; and when found dared not tell you which side they belonged to.”[16] Mercy shared her husband’s hatred for Hancock. In a letter to John Adams she referred to the signer of the Declaration of Independence and future governor of Massachusetts him “an idol of straw and accusing him of being vain, ostentatious and contemptible. But Hancock was a highly successful politician who understood the realities of political power and that organization and the use of influence and allies were key in attaining it. Mercy and her husband came form an older generation and clearly had difficulty to adapting to the new age.[17]

Throughout the revolution and after Mercy continued to write. In looking back on her work, she considered her account of the American Revolution to be her finest achievement. Published in 1805, it is a huge work of three three volumes and over a 1000 pages long. In her research for the work begun in at the beginning of the conflict in 1775, she collected tons of information and corresponded with many of its leaders, such as John Adams and General Benjamin Lincoln among them. The book like all memoirs despite Mercy’s use of documents and letters is not objective. While she was a clear proponent of Republican government, Mercy emphasized that the Revolution was brought about by the principles of liberty and virtue that had made the success against the British possible. “A concern for the welfare of society ought equally to glow in every human breast,” she wrote in her chronicle. In Mercy’s opinion, the revolution was a morality play. It was virtue vs. vice or passion vs. reason and liberty against tyranny.[18]

Mercy also analyzed the presidencies of Washington and Adams and was quite hard on both of them calling the Federalists “monarchists who had betrayed the spirit of the revolution.”[19] One of the key aspects of the work was Mercy’s belief that the Revolution had led to the fall of public virtue, personal corruption and a decline in the character of the individual. “Avarice without frugality and profusion without taste were indulged and soon banished the simplicity and elegance that had formerly reigned,” she wrote.[20] Besides the decline of the American character Mercy was concerned that the country seemed to rely so deeply on European political systems and institutions. She was wary of the new nation involving itself in European affairs, she hated the idea of excessive spending and debt, she worried about the idea of the government having a strong executive and saw it as potentially becoming overly monarchical. As one can tell from Mercy’s views she was not a realist – times change – to accomplish anything in politics one has to compromise and form alliances with individuals and ideas one may not always agree with to accomplish something bigger than themselves – Mercy was not a politician and didn’t have to deal with those realities.

The public response to the book was disappointing – John Marshall had written an extensive biography of Washington that chronicled many of the same events and overshadowed Mercy’s book. The one person who did read her book extensively was John Adams, who to say the least was not pleased by Mercy’s negative view of him and his presidency. There had been a lot of bad blood between the Adams and the Warren’s and for a variety of reasons the friendship had dissipated over the years. Mercy and her old patron exchanged a lot of heated letters over her portrayal of his presidency and it was only after four years of no communication between 1807 and 1811 that they eventually reconciled, though the friendship never returned to what it had been. Mercy herself had endured a lot of tragedy following the revolution. Three of her five sons had died, though one of her son’s marriages did produce 8 grandchildren and the other moved home to Plymouth to live with her. Her husband died in 1808 they had been married for 54 years and Mercy died in 1814 at age 86.

Mercy Otis Warren today because she was a unique woman for her time and I think was someone who was indeed ahead of it. Life for women in the eighteenth century under was challenging to say the least. There were different kinds of women during the colonial period just like there are different kinds of women today. One can hold Mercy Otis Warren up as a model for our own time.  She was someone who was confident in her abilities, knew what she could do well and what she couldn’t, possessed drive and determination and most importantly wanted to create a life for herself outside of the traditional world that existed for women during the colonial period. She is not read as widely as she was during her own time because her language is convoluted and is not as straight forward or clear as someone like Abigail Adams. But Mercy Otis Warren is important because despite experiencing a number of societal constraints, she was able stretch the rules of the day to enjoy life and experience the benefits of a larger world.

[1] As one biographer writes, Warren “came to love politics and the study of history.” Rosemarie Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2015), 13.

[2] Nancy Rubin Stuart, Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of A Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 13.

[3] Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival and Freedom in a New World (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLEO, Inc., 2004), 412.

[4] Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 71.

[5] Ibid.

[6] As historian Joseph Ellis writes “Warren was a friend of John and Abigail Adams for nearly fifty years standing. Joseph J. Ellis, Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), 69. Stuart, The Muse of the Revolution, 4. John Blundell, Ladies for Liberty: Women Who Made A Difference in American History (New York: Algora Publishing, 2011), 10.

[7] The Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, inspired Warren’s first published political poem.  John Adams requested she write a tribute to commemorate the event based on an idea he outlined in a letter to her husband James Warren. “Mercy Otis Warren,” Project Continua.org. As Ellis writes of the relationship between Adams and Warren, “over a long friendship…he had shown himself capable of establishing a relationship of both intimacy and intellectual equity with a woman whose unconventional abilities would have terrified most men…” Ellis, Passionate Sage, 69.

[8] Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 31. Warren’s satires like many of the period as described by historian Gordon S. Wood, “derived much of their force from the intimate knowledge the author presumed the audience or readers had of the persons being ridiculed or satirized.” Gordon S. Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (New York: The Penguin Press, 2006), 251.

[9] Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 51.

[10] Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 68.

[11] James Warren had a year around appointment with the Navy Board, one that required him to be away extensively throughout the year. Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 134.

[12] Helen Bryan, Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty (New York: Jon Wiley and sons, 2002), 203.

[13] Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 86.

[14] Gordon S. Wood, “Interests and Disinterestedness in the Making of the Constitution” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, Richard Beeman, Edward C. Carter II and Stephen Botein, eds., (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987).  

[15] Robert A. Gross, “A Yankee Rebellion: The Regulators, New England and the New Nation ” The New England QuarterlyLXXXII, no.1 (March, 2009):112.

[16] Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 106.

[17] Mercy Otis Warren to John Adams, May (no date) 1783 in Mercy Otis Warren Selected Letters, Jeffrey H. Richards and Sharon M. Harris, eds. (Atlanta: University of Georgia Press, 2009),167.

[18] Angela Vietto, Women and Authorship in Revolutionary America (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, LTD.), 53.

[19] Zegarri, A Woman’s Dilemma, 146.

[20] Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (Boston: Manning and Loring, 1805), 236.

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