This Day in History: Revolutionary War heroine Mercy Otis Warren
On this day in 1728, Mercy Otis Warren is born in Massachusetts. This Patriot used her writing abilities to creatively serve the Revolutionary cause. At the urging of John Adams, she would eventually write a three-volume history of the war.
“I hope you will continue,” Adams wrote in 1787, “for there are few Persons possessed of more Facts, or who can record them in a more agreable manner.”
Mercy Otis was the daughter of a prosperous merchant and lawyer, James Otis. Many details of her early years have been lost. “[A]s a colonial female,” one of her biographers writes, “her life was expected to be as anonymous as the era’s needlework.”
Hmm. Not this one!
She may not have had much in the way of formal schooling, but she insisted on observing her brother’s school lessons and she was a voracious reader. She embarked on her adult life traditionally enough. She married James Warren, managed the household, bore children, and wrote poetry. But as tensions between America and Britain began to grow, she and her husband jumped in to help.
James Warren was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1765 and served until 1777. The two of them were thus in a position to host meetings and strategy sessions for Patriots in the years before the Revolution. Then Mercy found a new way to serve the Patriot cause. She began writing satirical anti-Tory plays in which the Royal Governor was portrayed as the villain. They were published anonymously, but were nevertheless the first American plays to be published by a woman.
Mercy lived in the midst of the political turmoil, and she recorded much of what was happening. Her comprehensive notes later allowed her to publish a three-volume history of the American Revolution in 1805. The Adams family was not a big fan of the finished product! She had greatly downplayed John Adams’s contributions to the Revolution in her work, even claiming that Adams had been “corrupted” by his time spent overseas. “History is not the Province of the Ladies,” scoffed Adams to Elbridge Gerry afterwards.
How ironic that he was so unhappy, since he had encouraged her to write the history in the first place.
Mercy’s history was the only full scale history of the Revolution written by a woman at that time. In her preface, we get a taste for her motivations during the war. She wrote that “every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty.”
Another unsung female hero who served the cause of liberty!
P.S. On a logistical note, Mercy’s birthday was September 14 (old style), but it was September 25 (new style).
David McCullough, John Adams (2001)
Letter from John Adams to Elbridge Gerry (April 17, 1813)
Letter from John Adams to Mercy Warren (December 25, 1787)
Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805)
Nancy Rubin Stuart, The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation (2008)
Rosemarie Zagarri, A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution (1995)