Those of us who follow American politics tend to be pretty resigned to its incivility and pettiness. Yet even among the usual bluster, certain things, such as the media’s refusal to let First Lady Melania Trump recuperate from surgery without turning it into a phony scandal, stand out as particularly vicious.
People often point to the bitter fights of the Founding Era to demonstrate that this perniciousness is somehow endemic to American politics. This puts conservatives in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, we crave civility in political discourse, but on the other, we are wont to take our cues from the Founders. For this reason, we find ourselves in the perfect moment to recover the life and work of an unfairly neglected founding figure.
Neglected in our time, Mercy Otis Warren, the Revolutionary writer, playwright, and poet, was quite renowned in hers. Hailing from a family of patriots (her brother, James Otis, coined the phrase “taxation without representation is tyranny”), Warren wrote prolifically throughout the Revolutionary Era on the rights of man, the importance of limited government, and the promise of democracy.
After the War, she wrote against ratifying a Constitution that lacked a bill of rights, and was a vociferous critic of the administration of her longtime friend John Adams. Her principles, which had made her the darling of the revolution in Massachusetts, made her deeply unpopular with the postwar Federalist elite, who pushed her out of public life.
Although we may not find common cause with Warren in her opposition to the Constitution per se, we can still turn to her as a model of principled conservatism. She defended the idea of America above all else, including her own reputation, against the shouts of popular opinion.
If Barry Goldwater was right—and I think he was—that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, then we must conclude that it is a tragic mistake to neglect Warren as a thinker and historical figure, extremist though she was. Those of us who seek to restore our Founders’ vision for this country and hold steady to a conservative position against the growing liberal orthodoxy could stand to learn a lot from Warren.
1806 saw the publication of Warren’s only book, the “History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution Interspersed with Biographical, Political, and Moral Observations,” which is as much a work of political philosophy as it is a historical account. The “History” offers Warren’s thoughts on democracy, civic virtue, and the conditions necessary to sustain the American republic, which she thought was in grave danger.
Warren’s chief concern was that “the progress of the American Revolution has been so rapid… that the principles which animated to the noblest exertions have been nearly annihilated [and] many who first stepped forth in vindication of the rights of human nature are forgotten.” In other words, Warren thought that Americans were already forgetting the lessons of the Founding, and the statesmen who fought for independence. She was convinced that this forgetfulness was detrimental to the development of a still young and fragile nation.
So in addition to reminding Americans of the lessons of the Founding, Warren’s “History” is also a type of guide for future generations, one that instructs how to cultivate and identify true statesmen. Warren signals this intention upfront, with a subtitle that announces “biographical, political, and moral observations” interspersed among the history.
Warren draws a connection between the three, and back to the book as a whole. Indeed, the book introduces no major figure without a section devoted entirely to “his character,” allowing Warren to unequivocally differentiate between statesmen (George Washington) and scoundrels (Benedict Arnold).
In the first chapter of the “History,” Warren commences her instruction on statesmanship in theory, by contending that “political distress” begins when secrecy replaces openness in government, and people are prevented from choosing their own leaders. Warren takes up this thread throughout the book, including when she reminds the American people that “the elective franchise is in their own hands [and] that it ought not to be abused, either for personal gratifications, or the indulgence of partisan acrimony.”
Although to modern ears this sounds like an early warning against the dangers of the administrative state, it is, in fact, Warren’s reminder that the fate of the republic turns on the character of its elected representatives. A citizenry that does not take the franchise seriously will not take care to vote for the type of statesman Warren describes throughout her book, who would act in the national interest.
Instead, they will vote for selfish and unfit leaders, who, once in office, will use their power for personal gain and derail the American experiment. To Warren, it is not enough to know what a statesman is. It is imperative to elevate them to public office and, once installed, to hold them to a higher standard by engaging in politics.
As mentioned, Warren examines statesmanship in practice by exploring specific examples. Most notably, Adams, Warren’s longtime friend and ally, received some of the book’s most scathing critiques. Warren writes that while “Mr. Adams was undoubtedly a statesman of penetration and ability…his passions were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgement.” She claimed that during his tenure as president, “Mr. Adams’s former opinions were beclouded by a partiality for monarchy.” Adams, not one to take an insult lightly, responded to Warren in a series of ten acrimonious letters, sent in the months following the book’s publication.
Although Warren’s critique of Adams is useful in its own right, we should focus more intently on her ultimate response to his letters. Warren tells Adams that his reaction to her book was “more like the ravings of a maniac than the cool critique of genius and science,” and chastises him for such an ineffective rejoinder, noting that “criticism, in order to be useful, should always be decent.” In her response, Warren gives us one of her most important lessons on statesmanship.
Criticism, which lets us publicly identify individuals and policies we think are bad for the country, is a necessary part of politics. However, to make criticism effective—that is, to ensure our fellow citizens hear it, consider it, and act on it—it must be decent. Condescending shouts and ad hominem attacks fall on deaf ears for those you are trying to persuade, and often alienate those who already agree with you.
Contemporary politics is marred by stagnation in part for precisely this reason: we have stopped trying to be decent, and in doing so, we have stopped having an impact. Cultivating statesmen and elevating them to public office; heeding the lessons of the Founding; and restoring decency to public life, so that politics can be productive. We strive towards these lofty goals as we struggle to preserve our freedom and the promise of America.
Mercy Otis Warren gives us, in her life and works, an example of how to grapple with these challenges, as she did more than two centuries ago. Faced with vitriolic opposition, we would do well to take a page from Warren’s book, take solace in our love of liberty, and enter the fray with a cool, confident demeanor.