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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren was a poet, dramatist, satirist, patriot propagandist, and historian at a time when women, if they wrote, were confined to belle-lettres or religious subject matter. The American Revolution and her particular place in Massachusetts society and politics, however, practically forced Warren into the limelight. She was the third child of James Otis and Mary Allyne, of Barnstable, a farming town south of Plymouth, on Cape Cod. Both families were descended from the earliest Pilgrim settlers. James Otis was a farmer, merchant, and attorney, and his successful practice won him election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1745. Not an educated man himself, Otis wanted his two sons to have an education and hired the Reverend Jonathan Russell to prepare them for college. When Joseph, the oldest son, decided not to attend college, Mercy, the youngest child, was allowed to take his place. She studied the same curriculum as her brother James, except for Latin and Greek, which she read in translation.

Both James and Mercy were exceptional students. Mercy loved history—especially political history—invective, and wit; Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World (1614) became a lifelong model for her. Both of the Otis children studied literature, including Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, and became able writers and rhetoricians. It was the younger James who first uttered the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” which became the battle cry for the American Revolution. In 1754, Mercy married James Warren, a farmer from Plymouth and a Harvard classmate of her brother. They had a long, happy marriage and raised five sons. Like the Otis men, James Warren was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He served continuously from 1766 to 1778, eventually becoming speaker of the House and president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which had moved to Watertown during the British occupation of Boston. A radical and outspoken activist, he became an active leader in local revolutionary politics.

Because of her family connections, no other woman, with the exception of Abigail Adams, was as intimately involved as Mercy Otis Warren with the political issues of the day. Thus, when Tory supporters brutally beat her brother James in a Boston tavern in 1769, friends in her circle urged her to step in and take his place as a revolutionary polemicist. Warren complied, although a comment by her friend and fellow patriot John Adams suggests the social conventions massed against her. “Tell your wife,” Adams wrote to James Warren, that “God Almighty (I use a bold style) has entrusted her with Powers for the good of the World, which, in the Cause of His Providence, he bestows on few of the human race. That instead of being a fault to use them, it would be criminal to neglect them.”

Warren used her “Powers” for the revolutionary cause. She wrote numerous letters and poems, which she published anonymously in newspapers. Her most effective efforts at propaganda were a series of satirical plays—the first plays written by an American woman. They appeared in newspapers and as pamphlets, instead of being performed, because Puritan Boston had laws against staging plays and did not have a theater until 1794. Three political plays have been identified as hers: The Adulateur (1772), The Defeat (1773), and The Group (1775), although the only play she acknowledged authorship of was The Group. All three focus on the moral evil of the Tory administration in Massachusetts, its hypocrisy, crass ambition, warmongering, and the invidious policies of its arch villain, Governor Thomas Hutchinson. In her biting satires, Warren calls Hutchinson “Rapatio,” to contrast him to the self-sacrifice, heroism, and virtue of the patriots. The best of the three is The Group, printed in the Heath Anthology in full, a brilliant defense of the patriot cause. Instead of staging debates in this play, Warren offers a series of dialogues among Tory sympathizers and turncoats, many of whom were connected to her family, in which they drop their public masks to reveal their ignoble choices and reprehensible designs. Although her use of blank verse and allusions to Greek and Roman politics lend the plays a “tragic” tone that later critics found “grandiose,” their savage satire was an effective propaganda tool.

At the end of the Revolution, both Warrens fell out with their old friends: James for supporting Daniel Shays and his rebellion; Mercy for her comments on the overly passionate nature of John Adams. In 1781, they purchased the estate of their former antagonist, Governor Hutchinson, but lived there only eight years before moving back to Plymouth, where Warren attended to her writing. In 1790, she brought out the collection Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous in her own name. It contained two more plays, The Sack of Rome and The Ladies of Castille. Both works dramatize historical analogues to the American Revolution and explore another important theme in Warren’s satires and poetry: the issue of women as writers and revolutionary activists. These historical plays prominently feature women—and mothers—as public orators and rebel leaders. Warren gives them the most stirring speeches; an example from The Ladies of Castille is excerpted in the Heath Anthology..

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.

Ivy Schweitzer
Dartmouth College

In the Heath Anthology
from An Address to the Inhabitants of the United States of America (c.1775)
from The Ladies of Castille (c.1775)
The Group (1775)
To Fidelio, Long Absent re the Great Public Cause (c.1775)

Other Works

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MERCY or A Puritan Revolutionary
"A comedy in two acts by Richard Seltzer," site containing the full-text of the play about Warren.

Mercy Otis Warren
A brief biography and a scanned portrait.

Mercy Otis Warren's Gendered Melodrama of Revolution
An academic paper on Warren by Nina Baym.

The Mercy Otis Warren Home Page
Substantive web site offering Warren's biography, writings, political positions, and the opinions of her contemporaries.

The Mercy Otis Warren Project
Project describing the group's efforts to place a statue of Warren in front of the Barnstable County Superior Courthouse, MA.

Secondary Sources

Susan Anthony, First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren, 1958

Nina Baym, "Between Enlightenment and Victorian: Towards a Narrative of American Women Writing History," Critical Inquiry, Autumn 18(1) 1991: 22-41

Cheryl Oreovicz, "Heroic Drama for Uncertain Age: The Plays of Mercy Otis Warren," in Early American Literature and Culture: Essays Honoring Harrison T. Meserole, ed. Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, 1992: 192-210

Jeffrey Richards, Mercy Otis Warren, 1995