The Righteous Revolution of Mercy Otis Warren

by Ray Raphael

"History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution," frontispiece, c. 1805. (Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division)Seven months after British Regulars marched on Lexington and Concord, three months after King George III declared the colonies in a state of rebellion, and a month after British artillery leveled the town of Falmouth (now Portland, Maine), even the most radical delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia did not dare utter the “I” word: independence. Their caution bothered Mercy Otis Warren, and she, for one, was ready to take the next step. On November 15, 1775, as her husband James penned a letter to the Warrens’ close friend John Adams, a delegate to Congress, Mercy suddenly interrupted:

She [Mrs. Warren] sits at the table with me, will have a paragraph of her own; says you [Congress] “should no longer piddle at the threshold. It is time to leap into the theatre, to unlock the bars, and open every gate that impedes the rise and growth of the American republic, and then let the giddy potentate send forth his puerile proclamations to France, to Spain and all the commercial world who may be united in building up an Empire which he can’t prevent.

Then and there she composed some verse, “extempore”:

At leisure then may G[eor]ge his reign review,
And bid to empire and to crown adieu.
For lordly mandates and despotic kings
Are obsolete like other quondam things.

Mercy Otis Warren had not always been so brazen. She was true-blue Puritan, a Mayflower descendent who lived a mere stone’s throw from Plymouth Rock. She learned early on that her supreme duty, and the supreme duty of all women, was to submit to the will of God. But try as she must to submit, two things challenged her resolve: education and politics. As a child, when her two older brothers studied with a private tutor so they might attend Harvard, she convinced her father to let her crash the course. With a passion her brothers lacked, she devoured world history, English literature, Enlightenment philosophy, and everything else that came her way, filtering it all through a Calvinist lens to heighten its moral tone and didactic purpose.

Perhaps, in normal times, the ideas of the Enlightenment would have produced no more than minor diversions from the straight and narrow, but this was no ordinary epoch. In 1761, Mrs. Warren’s older brother James Otis had argued in the Superior Court of Massachusetts that blanket search warrants, called “writs of assistance,” should be declared null and void because they violated natural law. Four years later, during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, her husband, James Warren, entered the fray as well. At least for her menfolk, the times were politically charged.

At first Mercy Warren tried to resist the pull of politics. Consulting her religion and her muse, Mrs. Warren produced a sweeping condemnation of political involvement, with its “dismal train of warring passions” and “endless strife.” In a poem she titled “To J. Warren, Esqr./ An Invitation to retirement,” she urged him to “Come leave the noisy smoky town/ Where vice and folly reign./ The vain pursuits of busy men/ We wisely will disdain.”

It would not be long, however, before Mercy Warren succumbed to the warring passions and joined the dismal train. The turning point coincided with the mental and emotional unhinging of brother James. By 1769, even Otis’s protégé John Adams admitted that the patriots’ hero had become “raving mad.” Strangely, James Otis’s insanity strengthened the emerging bond between the Adams family (John and his wife, Abigail) and the family of Otis’s sister (Mercy Otis Warren and her husband, James). For the next several years, as resistance turned to rebellion, these four came together frequently and wrote to each other incessantly, their friendship part-and-parcel of the dramatic events unfolding around them.

Meeting informally at the Warrens’ home in Plymouth, John Adams, James Warren, and a cadre of patriot leaders surveyed the political landscape, discussed prospects, and developed strategies. According to one contemporary account, it was in the Warrens’ salon that a new infrastructure for the growing resistance was first discussed: Committees of Correspondence for each local community throughout the province.

Contrary to custom, Mercy Warren contributed liberally to these conversations—and when she talked, men listened. Impressed by her learning and her talent for verbal expression, John Adams took a particular interest in James Warren’s wife. He encouraged her to use her facility with verse to benefit their shared cause. Despite her professed admiration for the “gentleness, charity, and piety that adorned the female of earlier times,” she obliged. Combining her knowledge of classical history with a penchant for flourish, she composed a series of dramatic satires—The Adulateur, The Defeat (and a sequel by the same name), The Group, The Blockheads—that she published anonymously in the patriotic press. These were no-holds-barred attacks on prominent local supporters of Crown policy, most notably Governor Thomas Hutchinson, thinly disguised as Rapatio, the rapacious “Bashaw” of “Upper Servia.” Rapatio’s opening soliloquy in The Adulateur set the tone:

O Fortunate!
Could I have tho’t my stars would be so kind
As thus to bring my deep laid schemes to bear!
Tho’ from my youth ambition’s path I trod,
Suck’d the contagion from my mother’s breast;
The early taint has rankl’d in my veins,
And lust for pow’r is still my darling lust;
Despotic rule my first, my sov’reign wish;
Yet to succeed beyond my sanguine hope,
To quench the gen’rous flame, the ardent love
Of liberty in SERVIA’S freeborn sons,
Destroy their boasted rights, and mark them slaves,
To ride triumphant o’er my native land,
And revel on its spoils.

When tradesmen and apprentices picked up the Boston Gazette or Massachusetts Spy to read Warren’s biting satires (not knowing the author was a woman, of course), they might not get all the classical allusions, but they certainly got the gist of her critique: Colonial society was in the throes of an epic battle between the virtuous and the wicked. For the author, this fight had enormous repercussions, with the moral tone of the British Empire hanging in the balance.

There was no hint of charity or even nuance in Mercy Warren’s vindictive attacks. Her own rancor seemed to startle her, and nagged by her Puritan upbringing, she fretted. Early in 1775, after publishing her fourth confrontational piece, she asked John Adams whether he thought her “satiric propensity” should be “reined in.” Was it justifiable to make a particular individual “the object of public derision”? Was it “consistent with the benevolent system of Christianity to vilify the delinquent, when we only wish to ward off the fatal consequences of his crime”? And one further question, peculiar to her particular circumstance: Was it permissible for a woman to vilify people this way, or was that overstepping the “narrow bounds” that circumscribed her proper role?

Mrs. Warren’s most ardent admirer responded with the assurances she wanted and needed to receive, and perhaps the answer she was fishing for:

If we look into human nature . . . we shall find it is really a dread of satyr that restrains our species from exorbitances, more than laws, human, moral or divine. . . . The business of satyr is to expose vice and vicious men as such to this scorn and to enrobe Virtue in all the charms which fancy can paint.

So Mercy Otis Warren, through her biting pen, was exposing vice to ensure virtue.

In these pre-war years, John Adams and Mercy Otis Warren developed a mutual admiration society of the first order, she praising his valiant forays in the political arena, and he trumpeting her literary works and urging her to write more. She willingly complied. In October of 1773, for his personal perusal, she penned sixty-four lines of verse, which she called simply “To Mr. Adams.” In thirty-two rhyming couplets, marked by no shortage of abstract nouns (including Reason, Truth, Virtue, each capitalized), she entertained her audience of one and cajoled him to keep up the patriotic fight. Two months later, after patriots dumped tea into the Boston Harbor, Mercy Warren received a personal request from Adams for “a certain poetical pen, which has no equal that I know of in this Country . . . to describe a late frolic among the sea nymphs and goddesses.” Flattered, Warren consulted her muse and responded with over one hundred lines.

Half a year later, as Adams headed off to the First Continental Congress, he asked his good friends James and Mercy Otis Warren for advice: “I must entreat the favour of your sentiments and Mrs. Warrens,” he wrote to James, “what is proper, practicable expedient, wise, just, good necessary to be done at Phyladelphia.” His request was not in jest this time, for serious business was at hand. James wrote back with his ideas, but Mercy politely declined to contribute: “I shall not be so presumptuous as to offer anything but my fervant wishes that the enemies of America may hereafter tremble at the wisdom the firmness the prudence and justice of the delegates.” A few weeks later, however, she decided she had some important advice to offer after all. In a letter to Abigail Adams, she gave counsel to John: “[T]ell him I hope they will beware that no future annals may say they chose an ambitious Philip for their leader, who subverted the noble order of the American Amphyctiones [council of the ancient Greek league of Delphi] and built up a monarchy on the ruins of the happy institution.” Ever suspicious of power and always vigilant against its corrupting influence, Mercy Warren had no immediate cause to worry that her good friend would abandon republican principles, and yet, in hindsight, her warning seems almost prophetic.

* * *

Mercy Otis Warren and John Adams experienced the war years from very different perspectives. He played first on a national stage in Philadelphia, where he helped steer Congress toward independence, and then on an international stage in Europe, where he represented American interests, both diplomatic and financial. She, meanwhile, stayed in Massachusetts, doing what she could to support her husband James in public duties that included president of the Provincial Congress, speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly, general in the Massachusetts militia, and paymaster general for the Continental Army. She continued to write, but only for private audiences. Reading her letters today, we see that the war took its toll on Mercy Otis Warren, dampening her dreams of a perfect, virtuous republic. She viewed the wartime profiteering in commercial Boston, offensive in its own right, as a personal affront. She groused, and as the war dragged on she groused even more. Meanwhile, her one-time friend and political partner John Adams was being corrupted by the decadence of European high society—at least that’s how she saw the matter.

Politically, the two parted ways irrevocably in 1787–1788 during the debates over the proposed new Constitution for the United States. Although Adams himself was not present at the Constitutional Convention, the basic structure of the document reflected his thinking, his writings, and the constitution he had drafted for the state of Massachusetts back in 1779. Warren was no great fan of Adams’s Massachusetts constitution, and she viewed the new framework for the nation as a clear repudiation of the republican ideals for which the Revolutionary War had been fought. Writing as “A Columbian Patriot,” she argued that the Constitution, which lacked a bill of rights, undermined several liberties key to republican thought: freedom of the press, prohibition of warrantless searches and seizures, civil trials by jury, freedom from military oppression, annual elections, rotation of elected officials (“term limits” in today’s parlance), direct access to representatives, explicit repudiation of aristocratic rule, and local control over taxation. Not knowing the “Columbian Patriot” was a woman, Antifederalists in the key battleground state of New York printed and distributed 1,700 copies of Warren’s Columbian Patriot pamphlet to counter the 500 printed copies of the now-famous Federalist Papers.

In the fight over ratification, Warren lost the battle but not the war. With other Antifederalists, she could soon claim credit for passage of the Bill of Rights. After that, of course, Federalists controlled the government for a dozen years, a dominance climaxed by the near-dictatorial rule (in her eyes) of that republican-gone-astray, John Adams. But Mercy Warren and her allies, styling themselves republican defenders of the Revolution, rallied behind Thomas Jefferson to win back what they termed the soul of their nation. In 1805, feeling that the Revolution had been vindicated after all, and writing under her own name this time, Warren published her three-volume magnum opus, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations, a book three decades in the making. Her most sweeping “moral observation” was that the American Revolution had been a great and heroic struggle for republican values—“the natural equality of man, their right of adopting their own modes of government, the dignity of the people.” Another observation, though, was that the Revolution had started strong but slowly regressed, culminating in John Adams’s betrayal of its most basic values. After “living near the splendor of courts and couriers,” she wrote, Adams had “relinquished the republican system, and forgotten the principles of the American Revolution, which he had advocated for near twenty years.” He even displayed “a partiality for monarchy”—a phrase she hung around his neck not once but twice.

Back in 1775, when the two were close comrades and Warren was just starting to jot down notes for her History, Adams had encouraged her to tell the truth on all occasions, come what may: “The faithful historian delineates characters truly, let the censure fall where it will.” But that was not his attitude now. While Warren felt betrayed by Adams’s politics, Adams thought he had been vilified unfairly by Warren’s defamatory pen. Perhaps he was stunned, or perhaps he had suspected such an outcome (“I dread her history,” he had said jokingly back in 1780, when the two had first begun to fall out), but in any case he fired back with an angry letter to his former admirer, then another, and yet another, ten in all within a six-week period, some as long as twenty pages. “Why am I singled out to be stigmatized?” he demanded. And why had she not given him more credit for his role in the early stages of resistance? “I ought not to have been shoved off the theatre and kept behind the screen for fourteen years,” he griped, without even the role “of a doorkeeper, a livery servant, a dancer, a singer, or a harlequin.” Adams, by any standard, was unhinged by Warren’s accusations. He accused her of pandering “to gratify the passions, prejudices, and feelings of the party who are now predominant,” of adjusting her history to suit “the taste of the nineteenth century,” and even of writing for revenge, since Adams, when in power, had not granted official positions to her sons.

In the face of Adams’s wrath, Warren stood firm. “It is not in the design of my historic work to write a panegyric on your life and character, though fully sensible of your virtues and your services,” she stated flatly. She observed that she had also said several favorable things (Adams was “endowed with a comprehensive genius” and “actuated by the principles of integrity”; he was also a man with “unimpeachable . . . habits of morality, decency, and religion”), but she refused to bend on political matters. Still, Adams continued his assault, writing additional letters before she had answered the previous one. Finally she just cut him off:

The lines with which you concluded your late correspondence cap the climax of rancor, indecency, and vulgarism. Yet, as an old friend, I pity you; as a Christian, I forgive you; but there must be some acknowledgment of your injurious treatment or some advances to conciliation, to which my mind is ever open, before I can again feel that respect and affection toward Mr. Adams which once existed in the bosom of MERCY WARREN.

While once Warren had expressed concerns that as a woman she was overstepping her bounds by speaking harshly, those doubts were now gone. She accepted without complaint that men were better suited “to repel the bold invader,” and beyond that, to “describe the blood-stained field” with “manly eloquence.” But that advantage did not extend to moral history, her chosen genre. “A concern for the welfare of society ought equally to glow in every human heart,” she wrote in the introduction to History. “Every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty,” and as a woman, she suffered no disadvantage when transmitting the love of liberty “to the rising youth of my country.”

Mercy Otis Warren was no modern feminist. She did not promote woman suffrage, but she did foster and model women’s participation in the body politic through the promulgation of virtue in the public arena. She spoke her mind, wrote from her heart, and bowed to nobody. The Revolution, with its “warring passions” and challenges to traditional modes of political behavior, certainly affected this once-submissive woman—and she in turn placed her own stamp on the Revolution.


Ray Raphael is the author of Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation (2009) and A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (2002).

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