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Warren, Mercy Otis (1728–1814), writer and historian in America, was born on 25 September 1728 in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, the third of the thirteen children of , merchant and politician, and his wife, Mary Allyne (1702–1767) of Connecticut. Mercy did not receive any formal schooling, but when the Revd Jonathan Russell tutored her brothers and Joseph for entry to Harvard College, Mercy also attended the college preparatory classes. At these sessions we know that she read such authors as Pope, Dryden, and Raleigh. In obtaining some education along with her brothers, she was typical of other well-to-do early American women writers whose fathers, brothers, or husbands encouraged them to study and write within the confines of the home. But unlike such earlier colonial women intellectuals as Anne Bradstreet, for example, Mercy engaged very directly (and sometimes publicly) with current political events and used her writing talent for patriotic as well as aesthetic purposes. As Mercy herself states in the poem ‘To Fidelio’, which begins as a love letter to her husband but then moves to argue their joint revolutionary responsibilities, she accepts that ‘A patriot zeal must warm the female mind’.

On 14 November 1754 Mercy married , a farmer and politician who shared her family's whig beliefs, and moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where she spent the rest of her life (barring eight years just after the American War of Independence when she lived in nearby Milton, Massachusetts). There the couple raised five sons, who were born from 1757 to 1766. The marriage seems to have been a love match, and both partners fostered each other's private and public aspirations. In particular, James respected and supported his wife's intellectual pursuits and literary talents. By 1759, for example, she was already writing poems. But it was the heated political atmosphere of the 1770s in which her father, husband, and brother played such prominent roles that really propelled her into impassioned writing.

When her brother James was cruelly satirized in tory propaganda and then, in 1769, brutally beaten by one of his political enemies (an attack that left the patriot leader permanently impaired mentally and physically), Mercy Warren decided to use her writing skills for public and political ends. Her first works (which include some collaborative sections) were three propaganda pamphlet plays which appeared anonymously: The Adulateur (originally published in the Massachusetts Spy in 1772 and then separately in 1773), The Defeat (1773), and The Group (1775), which was her most famous satirical play. By using character names that exemplified a particular quality (for example, Governor Thomas Hutchinson was named Rapatio for his rapaciousness), Warren wrote in the tradition of eighteenth-century English political drama, but she added emotion and immediacy to heighten her strong convictions. Two socio-political plays traditionally attributed to Warren, The Blockheads (1776) and The Motley Assembly (1779), are not now believed to be by her.

During the American War of Independence, Mercy Warren maintained an active correspondence with several patriot leaders, including John Adams and Samuel Adams, and several influential women, including Abigail Adams, Hannah Winthrop, and the English historian Catharine Macauley. But as her eye problems increased, she cut back on her letter writing and might have curtailed her other literary activities too had it not been for the help of her son James, a wounded veteran who lived at home latterly and who acted as her amanuensis.

After the revolution, as Massachusetts became more federalist, the Warrens became more republican, and they spoke out against what they perceived to be tyrannical American behaviour. When they supported Shays's rebellion of 1786, which they interpreted as a justifiable reaction against a new despotism, they alienated themselves from such previously close friends and political allies as John Adams. But Mercy Warren decided once again to wield her pen for political and moral purposes, protesting against the diminution of rights so painfully won from the British and also reminding the lax younger generation of their parents' sacrifices. As she said in a note to her poem ‘The genius of America’, which appeared in her next publication, Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous (1790):
This poem was written when a most remarkable depravity of manners pervaded the cities of the United States, in consequence of a state of war; a relaxation of government; the sudden acquisition of fortune; a depreciating currency; and a new intercourse with foreign nations.
Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous contains two neo-classical verse tragedies, The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castile, as well as eighteen poems in the form of political satires, epistles, elegies, and lyrics. Mercy Warren dedicated the book to George Washington, who expressed his admiration of the volume, as did another prolific woman writer, Judith Sargent Murray. While The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castile are set in Rome and Spain respectively, the themes and situations are clearly American. According to Jean Fritz, Warren's message ‘was as blatant as ever: liberty threatened, liberty lost, liberty married victoriously to virtue, liberty defeated by luxury—always liberty, and how could it be otherwise?’ (Fritz, 235). One significant aspect of the plays is her interest in portraying strong women characters, particularly Donna Maria in The Ladies of Castile, who stands as Warren's depiction of the ideal woman.

Finally, at the turn of the century, Mercy Warren resumed work on her history of the revolution, a task she had laboured over for almost three decades. The three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution was published in 1805 and 1806. It was her last publication and the one she most wished to be remembered by. Unfortunately, it appeared after other accounts by her contemporaries, so it did not have the same currency as theirs, and it received generally mixed reviews. With a moral patriotic eye, Warren had sought to memorialize the contributions of her brother James and to criticize those of her old friend John Adams. Her critique of Adams led to a series of angry letters between the two of them, then a breach in the friendship that was reconciled only in 1813.

On 27 November 1808 Mercy's husband, James, died. Over eighty at the time, Mercy herself became increasingly weak, and died in Plymouth on 19 October 1814. She was buried three days later at Old Burial Hill, Plymouth. Her sons James and Henry, the only two of her five children to outlive her, preserved her correspondence and other unpublished materials, most of which are deposited at the Massachusetts Historical Society, in Boston. A painting of Mercy Warren in her mid-thirties by the famous American artist John Singleton Copley shows a fashionably dressed, attractive woman with an intelligent, serious expression and an intent, level gaze. Her visual identity mirrors her verbal one. For the variety and complexity of her writings, her consistent production, and her position as one of the few early American women writers and intellectuals to be published in her own lifetime, Mercy Warren is now considered a major eighteenth-century author and commentator on her times.

Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola

Sources  

J. H. Richards, Mercy Otis Warren (1995) · R. Zagarri, A woman's dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American revolution (1995) · J. Fritz, Cast for a revolution: some American friends and enemies, 1728–1814 (1972) · K. Anthony, First lady of the revolution (1958) · L. H. Cohen, ‘Explaining the revolution: ideology and ethics in Mercy Otis Warren's historical theory’, William and Mary Quarterly, 37 (1980), 200–18 · F. Shuffelton, ‘Mercy Otis Warren’, American colonial writers, 1735–1781, ed. E. Elliott, DLitB, 31 (1984) · W. J. Meserve, An emerging entertainment: the drama of the American people to 1828 (1977) · T. F. Nicolay, Gender roles, literary authority and three American women writers (1995)

Archives  

Mass. Hist. Soc., papers


Likenesses  

J. S. Copley, oils, c.1763, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston