Mercy Otis Warren

American Revolution Propagandist

Mercy Otis Warren. Kean Collection / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Known for: propaganda written to support the American Revolution

Occupation: writer, playwright, poet, historian
Dates: September 14 O.S., 1728 (September 25) - October 19, 1844
Also known as Mercy Otis, Marcia (pseudonym)

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Mary Allyne
  • Father: James Otis, Sr., a lawyer, merchant, and politician
  • Siblings: three siblings, including older brother James Otis Jr., a figure in the American Revolution

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: James Warren (married November 14, 1754; political leader)
  • children: five sons

Mercy Otis Warren Biography:

Mercy Otis was born in Barnstable in Massachusetts, then a colony of England, in 1728. Her father was an attorney and merchant who also played an active role in the political life of the colony.

Mercy was, as was usual for girls then, not given any formal education. She was taught to read and write. Her older brother James had a tutor who permitted Mercy to sit in on some sessions; the tutor also permitted Mercy to use his library.

In 1754, Mercy Otis married James Warren, and they had five sons. They lived most of their marriage in Plymouth, Massachusetts. James Warren, like Mercy's brother James Otis Jr., was involved in the growing resistance to British rule of the colony. James Otis Jr. actively opposed the Stamp Act and the Writs of Assistance, and he wrote the famous line, "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Mercy Otis Warren was in the middle of the revolutionary culture and counted as friends or acquaintances many if not most of the Massachusetts leaders -- and some who were from farther away.

Propaganda Playwright

In 1772, a meeting at the Warren house initiated the Committees of Correspondence, and Mercy Otis Warren was most likely part of that discussion. She continued her involvement that year by publishing in a Massachusetts periodical in two parts a play she called The Adulateur: A Tragedy. This drama depicted Massachusetts colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson as hoping to "smile to see my country bleed." The next year, the play was published as a pamphlet.

Also in 1773, Mercy Otis Warren first published another play, The Defeat, followed in 1775 by another, The Group. In 1776, a farcical play, The Blockheads; or, The Affrighted Officers was published anonymously; this play is usually thought to be by Mercy Otis Warren, as is another anonymously published play, The Motley Assembly, which appeared in 1779. By this time, Mercy's satire was directed more at Americans than at the British. The plays were part of the propaganda campaign that helped solidify opposition to the British.

During the war, James Warren served for a time as paymaster of George Washington's revolutionary army. Mercy also carried out an extensive correspondence with her friends, among whom were John and Abigail Adams and Samuel Adams. Other frequent correspondents included Thomas Jefferson. With Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren contended that women taxpayers should be represented in the new nation's government.

After the Revolution

In 1781, the British defeated, the Warrens purchased the home formerly owned by Mercy's one-time target, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. They lived there in Milton, Massachusetts, for about ten years, before returning to Plymouth.

Mercy Otis Warren was among those who opposed the new Constitution as it was being proposed, and in 1788 wrote about her opposition in Observations on the New Constitution. She believed that it would favor aristocratic over democratic government.

In 1790, Warren published a collection of her writings as Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous. This included two tragedies, "The Sack of Rome" and "The Ladies of Castile." While highly conventional in style, these plays were critical of American aristocratic tendencies which Warren feared were gaining in strength, and also explored expanded roles for women on public issues.

In 1805, Mercy Otis Warren published what had occupied her for some time: she titled the three-volumes the History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. In this history, she documented from her perspective what had led up to the revolution, how it had progressed, and how it had ended. She included many anecdotes about participants she knew personally. Her history viewed favorably Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Sam Adams. It was, however, fairly negative about others, including Alexander Hamilton and her friend, John Adams. President Jefferson ordered copies of the history for himself and for his cabinet.

The Adams Feud

About John Adams, she wrote in her History, "his passions and prejudices were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment." She intimated that John Adams had become pro-monarchy and ambitious. She lost the friendship of both John and Abigail Adams as a result. John Adams sent her a letter on April 11, 1807, expressing his disagreement, and this was followed by three months of exchanging letters, with the correspondence growing more and more contentious.

Mercy Otis Warren wrote about Adams' letters that they were "so marked with passion, absurdity, and inconsistency as to appear more like the ravings of a maniac than the cool critique of genius and science."

A mutual friend, Eldridge Gerry, managed to reconcile the two by 1812, about 5 years after Adams' first letter to Warren. Adams, not fully mollified, wrote to Gerry that one of his lessons was "History is not the Province of the Ladies."

Death and Legacy

Mercy Otis Warren died not long after this feud ended, in the fall of 1814. Her history, especially because of the feud with Adams, has been largely ignored.

In 2002, Mercy Otis Warren was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Mercy Otis Warren." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 16). Mercy Otis Warren. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Mercy Otis Warren." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).