Two centuries before “women’s lib,” in the run-up to America’s Revolutionary War, Mercy Otis Warren was already a liberated woman by the standards of her day. And she did the liberating herself.
In the latter half of the 18th century, Warren was an accomplished poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and historian — though much of what she wrote was anonymous, in part to get a hearing where a woman might not otherwise be listened to. She also risked reprisal from King George III and the British troops with her subversive rhetoric in favor of American liberty and independence.
She was a close friend and confidant to almost all the major figures of the revolution: the Adamses (Samuel as well as John and Abigail), the Washingtons (both George and Martha), Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, and Patrick Henry, among others. Many of the plans and activities of the Sons of Liberty and, later, the Committees of Correspondence were hatched in her Massachusetts home.
For decades, she advocated for women’s rights at a time when progress on that front must have seemed glacial at best. When the Constitution was debated, she was an outspoken anti-Federalist who insisted on the adoption of a Bill of Rights. She was the first person, man or woman, to pen a history of the conflict with Britain.
It’s for eminently good reason that Mercy Otis Warren is regarded in history as “the conscience of the revolution.”
Born in 1728 in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, Warren was stewed in the juices of independence from an early age. She was homeschooled by parents who encouraged every sign of interest in her studies in general and her literary interests in particular. Her mother was a descendent of a passenger aboard the Mayflower, the ship that brought the separatist Pilgrims to New England in 1620. Her father was a vocal opponent of British rule in the colonial legislature. Both her father and her brother led the fight against the king’s writs of assistance (searches without warrants), and her brother is credited with the first usage of the phrase, “No taxation without representation.” Husband James affectionately labeled her “the scribbler.”
As tensions rose between the mother country and the colonies, Warren was drawn into the fray. “Every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty,” she wrote. Encroachments on that liberty, particularly when they came under orders from the unpopular British governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, earned Warren’s articulate opprobrium.
Hutchinson was the model for (and intended target of) her famous play, The Adulateur, which appeared in 1772. It foretold the coming of the revolution through the words of a disagreeable and imperious official named Rapatio. Published anonymously, it enjoyed an enthusiastic reception. “With the publication of The Adulateur,” writes biographer Nancy Rubin Stuart, “Mercy made her debut as the patriots’ secret pen, whose barbed lampoons provoked laughter and longing for liberation from British rule.”
With war clouds gathering in 1775, Warren saw the contending sides in stark terms:
America stands armed with resolution and virtue; but she still recoils at the idea of drawing the sword against the nation from whom she derived her origin. Yet Britain, like an unnatural parent, is ready to plunge her dagger into the bosom of her affectionate offspring.
During the war, Warren not only wrote plays and pamphlets that championed the American cause; she also dared to promote women’s rights simultaneously. In her tragedy, “The Ladies of Castile,” set in Spain during the reign of Emperor Charles V and regarded as the most feminist of her patriotic works, the heroine warns the audience,
Though weak compassion sinks the female mind
And our frail sex dissolve in pity’s tears;
Yet justice’s sword can never be resheathed
‘Till Charles is taught to know we will be free;
And learns the duty that a monarch owes,
To heaven, the people, and the rights of man.
When the Convention of 1787 deliberated over what became the US Constitution, Warren urged extraordinary measures to prevent a new government from straying from the principles of republicanism. In February 1788, she published a 19-page pamphlet called “Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions.” She argued that the Constitution as it stood proposed, not yet with a Bill of Rights, threatened to violate individuals’ and states’ rights.
“All writers on government agree … that man is born free and possessed of certain unalienable rights — that government is instituted for the protection, safety, and happiness of the people,” she wrote. But the Constitution would “betray the people of the United States into an acceptance of a most complicated system of government, marked on the one side with the dark, secret and profound intrigues of the statesman … and on the other, with the ideal project of young ambition … to intoxicate the inexperienced votary.”
She argued that without provisions to explicitly ensure freedoms of speech and press, limits on the judiciary, guarantees of trial by jury, and other protections, the document would undermine what Americans had fought for. She demanded the addition of, in her words, “a bill of rights to guard against the dangerous encroachments of power.”
Ultimately, in large measure because James Madison was finally swayed by the arguments of Warren and her anti-Federalist compatriots, the Bill of Rights became the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. (See my essay, “The Holiday That Isn’t.”)
Warren was deeply offended when President John Adams signed into law the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. They led to the closure of newspapers critical of the administration, which Warren saw as the grossest violation of American liberty — and she said so without reservation. Her fierce objections strained her relationship with the president but without injuring her longstanding friendship with his wife, Abigail. Warren’s warnings against a postwar lapse in revolutionary principles helped bring about the ouster of John Adams and the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800.
Her last major work was History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Appearing it 1805, it was the first important history of the period from 1765 to 1789. President Jefferson ordered copies for himself and for every member of his cabinet and no doubt took note of her concern for the country’s future:
The people of the United States are bound together in sacred compact and a union of interests which ought never to be separated. But the confederation is recent, and their experience immatured; they are, however, generally sensible … [understanding that history demonstrates that] deception as well as violence have operated to the subversion of the freedom of the people.
Warren knew full well that the imperfect Constitution, even improved with a Bill of Rights, was still a scrap of paper. Whether or not it lived to protect the freedom won by war depended on something more uncertain though just as real, namely, the wisdom and spirit of the people. She had already witnessed a dismaying retreat from its principles in the Adams administration. She worried that with the passing of the generation of the revolution, future Americans might embrace diminutions of their liberties through moral corruption, false promises, lies and unprincipled compromise. “The characters of nations,” she observed,
have been disgraced by their weak partialities, until their freedom has been irretrievably lost in that vortex of folly which throws a lethargy over the mind, till awakened by the fatal consequences which result from arbitrary power, disguised by specious pretexts amidst a general relaxation of manners [by which she meant personal character].
When Warren died in 1814 at age 86, she was celebrated as a principled defender of the revolution, an eloquent advocate of liberty and limited government, and the epitome of what it meant to be a true “conscience” of great causes. In the two centuries since, how faithfully have Americans lived up to her standards of conscience for those same causes?