It is not often that women of the American Revolutionary War era are described as “formidable” and “intellectual,” but Mercy Otis Warren is such a woman. Born to wealthy Cape Cod family in 1728, Warren received no formal education but was tutored by her uncle. In 1754, she married James Warren, who became a Massachusetts state senator.
It was the murder of her brother at the hands of colonial revenue officers that drove Warren to political writings and action.
Combining her unique vantage point and fervent beliefs with a talent for writing, she then became both a poet and a historian of the Revolutionary era, beginning with a trio of scathingly polemical plays in verse that were published serially in a Boston newspaper. The Adulateur (1772) foretold the War of Revolution through the actions of Rapatio, a haughty, imperious official obviously modeled on Massachusetts’s royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson. The Defeat, also featuring Rapatio, followed a year later, and in 1775 Warren published The Group, a satire conjecturing what would happen if the British king abrogated the Massachusetts charter of rights.
A true revolutionary, Warren dared to ask, “Why do people obey a despotic government?”
[T]here is a certain supineness which generally overspreads the multitude, and disposes mankind to submit quietly to any form of government, rather than to be at the expense and hazard of resistance. They become attached to ancient modes by habits of obedience, though the reins of authority are sometimes held by the most rigorous hand. Thus we have seen in all ages the many become the slaves of the few; preferring the wretched tranquillity of inglorious ease, they patiently yield to despotic masters, until awakened by multiplied wrongs to the feelings of human nature; which when once aroused to a consciousness of the native freedom and equal rights of man, ever revolts at the idea of servitude.
After the war, Warren maintained correspondence with John and Abigail Adams, and spoke with Abigail about the role of women in this new nation. Warren was of the mind that women were being assigned minor roles, not because they were incapable of greater things, but because their educational opportunities were inferior.
Warren’s most audacious trespass on masculine turf, however, was her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution in three volumes, which appeared in 1805. It was written over twenty-five years and represents a brilliant and important female intervention in a conventionally masculine field of literature. As Warren states in her preface, she was uniquely positioned to experience events leading up to the Revolution, and she knew well many of the leaders who took part in the various military campaigns. More importantly, she argues that “every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty,” so that everyone, including women, had a crucial stake in the winning and maintenance of that liberty.
Mercy Otis Warren, with her unique vantage point, demanded of the new nation she helped found that they ask questions regarding liberty, power, virtue and reason.