An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Mercy Otis Warren

Jul 18, 2018 by

Mercy Otis Warren

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Mercy Otis Warren

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Professor Elder, in terms of literature and the American Revolution, the first item that comes to mind is Common Sense by Thomas Paine. But apparently Mercy Otis Warren wrote a great deal of poems, plays and other pamphlets.  What items of hers still exist and serve as documentary items in this regard?

While many items written during the 18th century no longer exist, a great deal of what Mercy Otis Warren wrote at that time has survived down to the present day.

For example, she wrote numerous letters to the influential people in American political life, and the Massachusetts Historical Society houses a great deal of that correspondence. She also wrote plays. For a number of years, she did not affix her name to any of her plays, but historians later authenticated them as her work. In 1790, she had a book published that included two new plays, “The Ladies of Castille” and “The Sack of Rome.” The book also contained 18 poems that she had written.

She also wrote History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, a three-volume work that gained critical acclaim from many American political leaders, including Thomas Jefferson. Finally, in 1788 she offered a sharp critique of the attempts to create a new national government in her political treatise “Observations on the new Constitution.”

While some of her writings may have disappeared, we clearly have access today to many of Mercy Otis Warren’s literary efforts from throughout her illustrious life.

2. Now, what do we know about her as a person, and as an individual?

Mercy Otis was born on September 25, 1728, in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. Her father farmed, and served as an attorney in the local area. Elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1745, Mercy’s father became increasingly critical of the manner in which the British ruled the colonies. When Great Britain appointed Thomas Hutchinson as the governor of Massachusetts in 1758, Mercy’s father focused his criticism on this appointee.

A number of historians have suggested that Mercy’s father thus played a significant role in the development of her political outlook.

We also know that while Mercy had no formal education, she undoubtedly benefited from the frequent presence in the Otis home of scholars tutoring her older brothers. At the age of 26 (quite old for that period of time), she married James Warren, who soon gained election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Like her father, Warren opposed British rule, and she and her husband frequently corresponded about methods for changing the odious policies.

She soon began to organize meetings in her home, and wrote anonymous poems, plays, and articles critical of the British. Patriot leader Sam Adams later gave her credit for having played an integral role in the development of the revolutionary movement in North America.

3. She specifically wrote about the British infringement on the rights of the then colonists.  What were some of her other concerns and issues?  And where are the records?

Like Sam Adams, Mercy Otis Warren sought to convince her fellow colonists to rebel against Great Britain. Also like Sam Adams, she became a critic of the efforts in the 1780s to create a new federal government. For that reason, she wrote Observations on the new Constitution to explain her fears to the American public.

Again using a pseudonym, she criticized a number of items in the proposed document, ranging from the prospect of a standing army to the lack of term limits. Although she failed to convince her fellow citizens to vote against ratification, her suggestion that the document should include a bill of rights did come to fruition.

4. Do we know anything about her after the Revolution ended?

Until 1790, Mercy Otis Warren chose to have all of her writings published anonymously, but at that time she allowed a collection of her stories, poems, and plays produced under her own name. Fifteen years later, she produced an in-depth study of the period before, during, and after the American Revolution. In addition to creating an extensive body of literary work, Mercy Otis Warren also raised five sons, all of whom lived into adulthood. For a number of reasons, then, Mercy Otis Warren deserves high praise for her life.

5. Many very courageous people do not really get the recognition that they deserve. Is Mercy Otis Warren one of them?

Looking at the list in the Massachusetts Historical Society of the individuals that Mercy Otis Warren corresponded with, it is readily apparent that she engaged in political conversations with a great many of the “movers and shakers” of the time. The letters reveal how carefully these individuals took her ideas under consideration, and it seems clear that she played an important role in shaping the course of colonial opposition. Unfortunately, few individuals outside of that influential circle knew of her importance, because she chose to write anonymously. It was only later that people learned of the works she had authored, and came to appreciate the role that she had played in shaping American thought.

6. What have I neglected to ask?

Looking at the period of the American Revolution, it seems obvious that Mercy Otis Warren deserves recognition as the most influential woman from that time period. When most Americans think of women from that time period, however, Abigail Adams would most likely come to their minds.

Undoubtedly, this stems from the PBS series “The Adams Chronicles,” or from the HBO series “John Adams.” Mercy Otis Warren’s historical reputation would therefore benefit from someone making a television series about her.

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