Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,358

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,358


This is the grave of Mercy Otis Warren.

Born in 1728 in Barnstable, Massachusetts, Mercy Otis grew up in the relative elite of eighteenth-century Massachusetts, which really wasn’t that elite. I mean, even John Adams had his little farm. Otis’s father was a farmer as well, in addition to being a lawyer and a member of the colonial legislature. What we do know about her parents is that they were extremely encouraging of their daughter to be as highly educated and professional as possible. There was no pathway here. Puritan women could read at high rates, yes. But outside of that, they were not generally trained in the languages, math, science, or any of the other fields of the day. Mercy’s brothers got to go to Harvard, but that was not open to her. So her parents strongly encouraged her self-education and then her writing when she started publishing poetry. Imagine if only other parents encouraged their daughters to be the best they could be.

Otis married James Warren, a sheriff in Plymouth (an inherited position!) in 1754 and they moved there. James also respected his new wife’s learning and political opinions; hard to see how they could have married otherwise. James rose in colonial politics too and as the colonies began to chafe from British control (which mostly meant having to actually pay taxes and not start wars with the tribes), the Warrens and the Otises became leaders in the anti-British movement in Massachusetts. She hosted Sons of Liberty meetings in her home, even when her husband was away. It was in her home that the idea of the Committees of Correspondence was created, so that’s quite something.

As the colonies moved toward the American Revolution, perhaps only Abigail Adams was as important a woman to the cause. She sent letters of advice and political discussion to all the major political figures of the day, not only Adams, but Jefferson and Washington too. How they took this, I don’t really know. I don’t doubt there was some patriarchal dismissal involved, as we know from how John Adams dismissed Abigail’s “Remember the Ladies” letter. But they had to at least take her seriously.

Warren began to write political poetry that got published anonymously in Boston newspapers. She then started publishing satirical plays, such as 1772’s The Adulateur, which was an attack on Thomas Hutchinson, the British-favoring governor of Massachusetts. The play was a big hit among the anti-British colonialists and they started taunting Hutchinson was his character name from it. So Warren continued in this vein the next year with The Defeat, another attack on Hutchinson, and The Group, in 1775, which was a satire about what would happen if the King took away Massachusetts’ rights. She was so popular with the Revolution’s political leadership that Alexander Hamilton famously said of Warren, “In the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has outstripped the male.”

After the Revolution, Warren remained involved in the politics of the Early Republic. Unlike most of the New England elite, she became much more a follower of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party than the Federalists and this caused her and Adams to break. She could be a harsh writer and wouldn’t hide what she thought of you and ended up insulting a lot of the Federalist leadership. She was a strong anti-Federalist in the debates over the Constitution, which she thought did not protect the rights of the individual nearly enough, even after the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

Warren actually never published under her own name until 1790, when she published Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, a collection of her poetry and two new plays. In 1805, she wrote perhaps her most known work today (if any of it is really that well known I guess), History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. This is one of the first real histories of the Revolution and she certainly knew everyone. Most of them were still alive, though Washington and Hamilton notably were not. The thing is over 1,300 pages, published in three volumes, and is an important insider’s view on all the happenings from the reaction to the Stamp Act to the ratification of the Constitution. She worked on it for a long time. Her health wasn’t what it once was and she suffered temporary bouts of blindness, which sounds terrible and scary. Given the date of publication and the politics of the time, it was not without controversy. It definitely was a Jeffersonian view. Jefferson himself, now president, loved it and ordered lots of copies to give away. John Adams thought it was terrible. Warren was pretty dismissive of Adams’ acts in the Revolution in the book and he was furious. Moreover, he was not a man to take a slight easily and she was more than happy to fight back. So they exchanged some nasty letters. As Adams said to one his friends, “History is not the province of the ladies.” OK John. I haven’t read this so I have no thoughts on the content, but the condescension in unavoidable. Luckily, like with Jefferson, they did eventually reconcile to some extent. As for the book itself, I don’t think it is considered particularly reliable today–these things had happened a long time ago, Warren had very strong opinions, and there are lots of clear inaccuracies. But as for understanding the mood of a time and how the Revolution was now remembered by serious people at its top, it has a great deal of value.

Warren died in 1816. She was 86 years old. Pretty good for that time.

Mercy Otis Warren is buried in Burial Hill, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other leading women of the American Revolution, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Margaret Moore Barry is in Roebuck, South Carolina and Nancy Hart is in Henderson, Kentucky. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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