Mercy Otis was an extreme rarity for her time. Beginning at a very young age she was a political writer, propagandist, and historian, despite those kinds of roles being generally restricted to men throughout her life. Family and peers always regarded Mercy—the eldest of 13 children—as exceptionally outspoken and a natural leader.
She was born in 1728 to an affluent Cape Cod family that had a strong voice in Massachusetts law. One of her brothers was political activist James Otis, which exposed her to great debates and insight into the pending American Revolution that her otherwise simple education would not have prepared her for. Additionally, her uncle, Rev. Jonathan Russell, educated her alongside her brothers as they were growing up, which was uncommon for young ladies.
In 1754 Mercy married James Warren, a local farmer and merchant who went on to serve in the Massachusetts legislature from 1766-1778. During this time, their home quickly became a safe haven for revolutionary meetings. Impressively, those meetings in her home are directly identified as the foundation of the Committees of Correspondence, contingents of local governments tasked with keeping other American governments aware of their activities in resisting British impositions.
A Mother of the American Revolution
Mercy’s personal involvement in the Revolution increased dramatically—despite her five children—after colonial officers brutally beat her brother James in 1769. Following that event Mercy combined her unique ability to write, her vantage point from those in-home meetings, and her educational background to dedicate herself to spreading messages that others would not.
When she anonymously published her play “The Adulateur: A Tragedy” in 1773, Mercy launched a long series of propagandist pieces. Many cite this as the first female writing primarily for public consumption, rather than personal correspondence. Specifically, “The Adulateur” laid out a hypothetical revolutionary war in which the main character was clearly a fictional Massachusetts royal Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, and in which she satirized the Tories as corrupt and the revolutionaries as defenders of freedom. She followed this with “The Defeat” (1773) and “The Group” (1775), which followed the situation through to action if the British monarchy retracted citizens’ rights, and ultimately, foreshadowed the pending revolution.
Her involvement did not end there. Mercy remained at the center of revolutionary events from the Stamp Act crisis to the founding of the federal republic in 1789. She additionally wrote publically about her belief that women’s inequality was not due to less intellect, but that societal offerings of the time that limited advancement of women. These beliefs solidified her friendship with Abigail Adams.
Influence on the U.S. Constitution
However, her later criticism of John Adams severed the relationship until soon before Mercy’s death. Specifically, during the debates over the U.S. Constitution, she distributed a pamphlet, “Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions”(1788), written under a pseudonym, reproaching the writers of the Constitution for abusing the power they were being entrusted with. At this time, the Bill of Rights and the first 10 amendments had not yet been added to the Constitution, and were eventually included in large part to address objections Mercy Otis Warren had raised.
Until her death in 1814, at the age of 86, Mercy continued to write and publish, now under her own name. Her writings include books of poetry and several very famous multi-volume books including “History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution.”