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Conscience of the Revolution: The Story of Mercy Otis Warren

By Nancy Rubin Stuart
4/6/2016 • American History Magazine

Mercy Otis Warren helped John Adams sound a clarion call for independence, but suffered his wrath when she charged that the new federal government encroached on the rights of individual.

Following the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, John Adams asked his friend Mercy Otis Warren to write a broadside honoring the band of patriots who disguised themselves as native warriors, boarded three East India company ships and unceremoniously dumped 342 casks of tea in the sea to protest British tax laws. In a satirical epic poem titled “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs” Warren immortalized the tomahawk-wielding Sons of Liberty as “The heroes of the Tuscararo tribe, / Who scorn’d alike a fetter and a bribe, / In order rang’d, and waited freedom’s nod, / To make an offering to wat’ry god.”

Even though she had already endeared herself to Adams and his fellow insurrectionaries by scripting two popular anti-British plays that helped kindle the spirit of revolution, Warren was insecure about how her poem would be received. “If Mr. Adams thinks it deserving of any further notice, he will point out the faults” so they “may perhaps be corrected,” she wrote John’s wife Abigail. “If he is silent, I…will for the future, lay aside the pen of the poet.” To the contrary, Adams found “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs” so clever that he published it on the front page of the March 24 Boston Gazette.

Warren’s incendiary plays and poems were published anonymously, so the public at large had no idea that the patriot propagandist was a woman. Over time, however, she came to be known as the “Conscience of the Revolution,” a founding mother whose writings alternately delighted and infuriated the Founding Fathers. John Adams wrote in 1776 that “of all the genius’s which have yet arisen in America, there has been none superior.” But he bristled when, after the war, she castigated the new federal government for encroaching on the rights of states and individuals and penned an influential pamphlet urging the adoption of a Bill of Rights. When Warren culminated her literary career in 1805 with the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Adams was so peeved by the way he was portrayed that he peppered her with a barrage of angry letters and disowned her as a friend. She was subsequently shunted aside and largely forgotten by history.

Education beyond an elementary level was considered a male privilege in the colonies when Mercy was horn on September 26, 1728. But thanks to the unusual indulgence of her father James Otis, a politically ambitious lawyer in West Barnstable, Mass., she was allowed to study with her eldest brother, James Jr. (nicknamed Jemmy), as he prepared for Harvard College. In addition to Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and Dryden, she read translations of Greek and Latin classics, as well as Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. Later, during Jemmy’s visits home from Harvard, he introduced her to the writings of English philosopher John Locke on government and its obligation to serve the “natural rights of man.”

One price Mercy may have paid for her unorthodox education was a late marriage by the standards of the day. She was 26 when she wed James Warren, then 28, one of Jemmy’s friends from Harvard and the son of the high sheriff of Plymouth County. While some historians claim that the marriage was arranged to enhance the mutual business interests of their fathers, the two apparently were enamored. James was “the center of my early wishes and the star which attracts my attention,” wrote Mercy. James, in turn, wrote of his admiration for his wife’s “busy and brilliant imagination” and her “masculine mind stocked with learning.”

The couple settled in Plymouth, where Mercy raised five sons as James became more involved in the patriot cause. Jemmy, by then a prominent Boston attorney, ignited a political firestorm in 1761 when he quit his position as advocate general of the Admiralty Court and initiated a legal suit against the use of writs of assistance—general search warrants—that allowed customs officials to forcibly enter homes, shops and warehouses to collect a hated tax on molasses. Molasses was the key ingredient in rum, a staple of the New England economy. In a brilliant four-hour speech before the Council Chamber, the highest court in Massachusetts, Jemmy argued that “taxation without representation is tyranny.”

The audience was stunned. Among them was 26-year-old John Adams, who later observed, “It was then that the child of Independence was born.”

Ultimately, Jemmy—or James “The Patriot” Otis as he would later be called—would suffer a mental breakdown subsequent to a brutal assault by a British customs officer in September 1769. The following November, the anguished Otis family had Jemmy declared non compos mentis and dispatched him to the country.

In the wake of her beloved brother’s deterioration, Mercy felt it her solemn duty to champion the patriotic cause. She penned The Adulateur, a satirical play mocking the administration of the newly appointed—and already detested—Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and published it anonymously in the widely read Massachusetts Spy in March and April 1772. Though unbylined articles often appeared in the era’s newspapers, Mercy’s authorship was hidden both because of her gender and because she was James Otis’ sister.

The Adulateur depicted the tyrannical Rapatlo—a thinly disguised Hutchinson—-who ruled the fictional country of Upper Servia and vowed to destroy his rebellious subjects. Pitted against him were virtuous patriots with lofty Latin names including Hortensius, Cassius and Brutus, the last representing Jemmy, who, in the play’s final scene, predicted eventual triumph.

Response to The Adulateur was so enthusiastic that a year later it was published as a pamphlet. Encouraged, Mercy penned a second satire. The Defeat, which appeared on May 24, 1773, in the Boston Gazette. Again the setting was Upper Servia, but Mercy drew Rapatio even more darkly, as a Satanic figure who bribed his followers to remain loyal. Rapatio dies offstage, but in the last scene, Limpit, a mocking representation of Hutchinson’s brother-in-law Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, warns readers that his spirit still survives as a “dangerous foe / Of Liberty of truth, and of mankind.”

Mercy would skewer Hutchinson yet again in her poem about the Boston Tea Party. As she described it to Abigail Adams, “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs” was about a “squabble among the celestials of the sea arising from a scarcity of nectar and ambrosia.” By the poem’s final scene, the nymphs who resisted drinking from the tea-filled ocean had created triumphant confusion around Neponsit Hill, where Hutchinson’s country mansion was located.

Mercy did more than write propaganda on behalf of revolution. After the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, when James became president of the Provincial Congress and paymaster general of the Continental Army, she shuttled the 35 miles between Plymouth and the Massachusetts government headquarters in Watertown to serve as his private secretary. She also supplied John Adams, then in Philadelphia where the Continental Congress was in session, with reports about the American army and occupied Boston.

By the last half of 1775, Mercy was already contemplating writing a comprehensive history of the extraordinary chain of events that led to hostilities with Great Britain. Over the next several years, she asked a host of Massachusetts patriots, including Abigail and John Adams, General Benjamin Lincoln, Elbridge Gerry and Samuel Adams, for letters, personal accounts and official documents related to the course of the Revolution.

As the war dragged on, flagging public support, hoarding, smuggling and black-market importations greatly dismayed Mercy. She poured her outrage into an anonymous political poem, “The Genius of America Weeping the Absurd Follies of the Day,” which appeared in October 1778 in the Boston Gazette. Even as “our country bleeds and bleeds at every pore,” she scolded readers, “gold” had become “the deity whom all adore.”

In spite of the Warrens’ affluence, they were political egalitarians who abhorred the acquisition of wealth, advantage or privilege at the expense of others. “I think it by no means necessary that a gentleman…of good breeding, should drop his humanity…renounce the moral feelings, or…his life should be a contrast to every precept of Christianity,” she chastised her son Winslow when he extolled the virtues of Chesterfield’s Letters, an imported British book that encouraged Machiavellian behavior. She went so far as to print her letter to Winslow in Boston Magazine in 1784, this time under her own name. No longer hesitant to express her views, Mercy became a public symbol of the republican values of simplicity, thrift, honesty and self-sacrifice for the commonweal, which had long since been dismissed by a war-weary generation of Americans and a rising “new money” class.

Nor did she remain mute after the war, when British luxury goods flooded the marketplace, creating trade imbalances and exacerbating the scarcity of hard currency. Intent upon instructing the public to resist temptations for the greater good, in early 1784 she penned two plays, The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castile.

The first, based upon Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and set in the 5th century AD, focused on Mercy’s favorite themes—the power of luxury and decadence to destroy a nation and the victimization of politically powerless women. The second was set in 16th-century Spain during that country’s “last struggles for liberty,” when the election of government officials was threatened by the tumultuous reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The Ladies of Castile was the most feminist of Mercy’s plays and contrasted the reaction of two noblewomen to the deaths of their liberty-loving husbands. The first, Donna Marie, in spite of the acknowledged “weakness of my sex,” vowed to perpetuate her late husband’s patriotic campaign at the risk of her own life. The second, the cowardly Donna Louisa, committed suicide. Implicitly, Mercy urged women to act courageously and empathetically even in the face of defeat and hardship. Both men and women, she also suggested, must realize that the sword of justice can never be “resheath’d” and that a just government must respect “the rights of man.”

While neither The Sack of Rome nor The Ladies of Castile would be published until 1790, Mercy’s disapproval of the new American thirst for materialism, foreign goods and fashionable amusements were hardly secret. She worried over the Federalist government’s tenuous economic policies and disregard for the plight of the common man, and her fears came to fruition when Shays’ Rebellion erupted in western Massachusetts in 1786. An armed group of impoverished farmers, many of them Revolutionary War veterans, shut down the courts to protest high property taxes and the lack of hard currency to pay them. More important than the immediate “discontent, disorder and riot” of that event, however, was the war, she castigated the new federal government for encroaching on the rights of states and individuals and penned an influential pamphlet urging the adoption of a Bill of Rights. When Warren culminated her literary career in 1805 with the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Adams was so peeved by the way he was portrayed that he peppered her with a barrage of angry letters and disowned her as a friend. She was subsequently shunted aside and largely forgotten by history.

A Learned Woman

Education beyond an elementary level was considered a male privilege in the colonies when Mercy was born on September 26, 1728. But thanks to the unusual indulgence of her father James Otis, a politically ambitious lawyer in West Barnstable, Mass., she was allowed to study with her eldest brother, James Jr. (nicknamed Jemmy), as he prepared for Harvard College. In addition to Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and Dryden, she read translations of Greek and Latin classics, as well as Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. Later, during Jemmy’s visits home from Harvard, he introduced her to the writings of English philosopher John Locke on government and its obligation to serve the “natural rights of man.”

One price Mercy may have paid for her unorthodox education was a late marriage by the standards of the day. She was 26 when she wed James Warren, then 28, one of Jemmy’s friends from Harvard and the son of the high sheriff of Plymouth County. While some historians claim that the marriage was arranged to enhance the mutual business interests of their fathers, the two apparently were enamored. James was “the center of my early wishes and the star which attracts my attention,” wrote Mercy. James, in turn, wrote of his admiration for his wife’s “busy and brilliant imagination” and her “masculine mind stocked with learning.”

The couple settled in Plymouth, where Mercy raised five sons as James became more involved in the patriot cause. Jemmy, by then a prominent Boston attorney, ignited a political firestorm in 1761 when he quit his position as advocate general of the Admiralty Court and initiated a legal suit against the use of writs of assistance—general search warrants—that allowed customs officials to forcibly enter homes, shops and warehouses to collect a hated tax on molasses. Molasses was the key ingredient in rum, a staple of the New England economy. In a brilliant four-hour speech before the Council Chamber, the highest court in Massachusetts, Jemmy argued that “taxation without representation is tyranny.”

The audience was stunned. Among them was 26-year-old John Adams, who later observed, “It was then that the child of Independence was born.”

Ultimately, Jemmy—or James “The Patriot” Otis as he would later be called—would suffer a mental breakdown subsequent to a brutal assault by a British customs officer in September 1769. The following November, the anguished Otis family had Jemmy declared non compos mentis and dispatched him to the country.

In the wake of her beloved brother’s deterioration, Mercy felt it her solemn duty to champion the patriotic cause. She penned The Adulateur, a satirical play mocking the administration of the newly appointed—and already detested—Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and published it anonymously in the widely read Massachusetts Spy in March and April 1772. Though unbylined articles often appeared in the era’s newspapers, Mercy’s authorship was hidden both because of her gender and because she was James Otis’ sister.

The Adulateur depicted the tyrannical Rapatio—a thinly disguised Hutchinson—who ruled the fictional country of Upper Servia and vowed to destroy his rebellious subjects. Pitted against him were virtuous patriots with lofty Latin names including Hortensius, Cassius and Brutus, the last representing Jemmy, who, in the play’s final scene, predicted eventual triumph.

Response to The Adulateur was so enthusiastic that a year later it was published as a pamphlet. Encouraged, Mercy penned a second satire, The Defeat, which appeared on May 24, 1773, in the Boston Gazette. Again the setting was Upper Servia, but Mercy drew Rapatio even more darkly, as a satanic figure who bribed his followers to remain loyal. Rapatio dies offstage, but in the last scene, Limpit, a mocking representation of Hutchinson’s brother-in-law Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver, warns readers that his spirit still survives as a “dangerous foe / Of Liberty of truth, and of mankind.”

Mercy would skewer Hutchinson yet again in her poem about the Boston Tea Party. As she described it to Abigail Adams, “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs” was about a “squabble among the celestials of the sea arising from a scar city of nectar and ambrosia.” By the poem’s final scene, the nymphs who resisted drinking from the tea-filled ocean had created triumphant confusion around Neponsit Hill, where Hutchinson’s country mansion was located. Mercy did more than write propaganda on behalf of revolution. After the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, when James became president of the Provincial Congress and paymaster general of the Continental Army, she shuttled the 35 miles between Plymouth and the Massachusetts government head the goad it provided to those intent on strengthening the central government.

In the ensuing debates that led to the adoption of the Constitution, Mercy and James Warren were firm Anti-federalists who favored states’ rights and feared that the voice of the people would be stifled by a strong central government. Ultimately that stance alienated Mercy from her old friend and supporter John Adams and made the Warrens political outcasts in staunchly Federalist New England. Mercy consequently wrote Observations on the New Constitution, urging the addition of a “bill of rights to guard against the dangerous encroachments of power.” Among the rights she believed inadequately protected were freedom of speech, freedom of the press and trial by jury in civil suits. She also supported time limits on public office. By-lined “The Columbia Patriot, Sic Transit Gloria,” the tract was so enthusiastically received by the Anti-federalists of Massachusetts that they distributed 1,600 copies to several states in early 1788. By April 2, it had been reprinted in the influential New York Journal and other newspapers.

One of those most curious about the treatise’s authorship was Mercy’s Federalist brother, Samuel Allyne Otis, then the newly elected secretary of the U.S. Senate. “I have heard in the circles here you, or Sister W. [Mercy] have written the ‘Columbian Patriot.’ I suspect you,” he wrote to James. Over time, the treatise was attributed to Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts Anti-federalist who refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights. Mercy was finally revealed as the Columbia Patriot 140 years later when her descendant and legal scholar Charles Warren discovered the truth as he read through her correspondence to the radical British historian Catharine Macaulay.

Mercy’s History

Mercy had written the bulk of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution hesitated to publish her magnum opus because of the public outcry directed by the early 1790s, but The History of against her and James for their Anti-federalism. Later in the decade she and James told the visiting French Duke Rochefoucauld that the History would not be published until after their deaths. Only then, the couple insisted, “would the truth be safely declared.”

Two events finally led Mercy to complete her long-delayed History. The first was the 1800 presidential election of Anti-federalist Thomas Jefferson. Thrilled, Mercy noted that it was the Virginian’s “elegant and energetic pen” that had fashioned the Declaration of Independence. A November 1803 letter from former President John Adams may have provided the final goad. In spite of his strained relationship with the Warrens over Federalism, John informed Mercy that his wife Abigail lay critically ill. “The day is far spent with us all,” John wrote. “It cannot be long before we must exchange this theatre for some other.”

Still, it was not until 1805 that the first volume of Mercy’s three-volume, 1,200-page History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution appeared. Thomas Jefferson, then in his second term as president, ordered copies for himself and all the members of his cabinet. But the massive tome drew little attention from the public at large. Other accounts, among them Englishman William Gordon’s 1788 The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America and Southerner David Ramsay’s 1789 Federalist interpretation, The History of the American Revolution, were already on the record. By 1804 Chief Justice John Marshall’s newly published The Life of George Washington had also become enormously popular.

Poor sales weren’t the only disappointment. During the summer of 1807, when John Adams finished reading Mercy’s History, he penned 10 letters lambasting her for ignoring many of his contributions to the Revolution as well as for labeling him a “monarchist.” Insisting that she had merely reflected public opinion, Mercy retorted by recalling his words of 1775 that the “faithful historian delineates characters truly, let the censure fall where it will.” For five years, the old friends did not speak or write.

A grudging review in a religious periodical, The Panoplist, added to Mercy’s dismay. The chronicle, the reviewer declared, emanated from “a mind that had not yielded to the assertion that all political attentions lay outside the road of female life.”

In 1810 the widowed, 82-year-old Mercy was finally vindicated when a review in Worcester’s tiny National Aegis declared that her History “exalts the character of the female and the human intellect.” Its pages had fulfilled the “sacred obligation of a historian,” wrote the reviewer, with its “strict adherence to every minutiae of truth.” While historians today continue to debate the “truths” of the Revolution, the patriotic concepts expressed in Mercy’s nearly forgotten History remain at the core of American idealism.

“If peace and unanimity are cherished, and the equalization of liberty, and the equity of energy of law, maintained by harmony and justice, the present representative government may stand for ages, a luminous monument of republican wisdom, virtue and integrity,” Mercy wrote. “The principles of the revolution ought ever to be the pole-star of the statesman, respected by the rising generation….The people may again be reminded that the elective franchise is in their own hands; that it ought not be abused, either for personal gratifications, or the indulgence of partisan acrimony.”

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