...in 1754, Mercy Otis of Barnstable and James Warren of Plymouth began their remarkable 54-year partnership. When she married into a family active in public affairs, Mercy embraced the chance to be involved in the events of the Revolutionary era. She was a keen and intelligent observer and an accomplished writer. In the 1770s, she had several satirical plays published anonymously before embarking on a history of the Revolution. Her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution appeared in 1805. The fact that the book discounted the diplomatic achievements of her old friend John Adams caused a bitter rift. "History is not the Province of the Ladies," Adams angrily declared.
Born in 1728, Mercy was the eldest daughter in James and Mary Otis's family of 13 children. The Otises were among the leading families of Cape Cod. A prosperous farmer, merchant, and lawyer, James Otis served as a judge of the Barnstable County court of common pleas. While he saw that his sons were all prepared for college, he gave his daughters no formal schooling. Mercy did, however, sit in on some of her brothers' private lessons.
At 26, she married James Warren and moved to Plymouth. In more than 50 years of marriage, the couple would raise five sons. The Warren and Otis families' increasing involvement in the conflict between the American colonies and the British parliament began with the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. That same year, James Warren was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and served there until 1777.
Mercy's brother James Otis, Jr. also played an active part in resistance to British rule. The Warrens frequently hosted protest meetings, attended by men such as John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams.
Although as a woman, Mercy Warren could play only a very limited public role, she was an active participant in and observer at these strategy sessions. She had been writing poetry since 1759, and now she began creating satirical plays written in verse. In 1772 The Adulateur appeared anonymously (as much of her work did) in the Massachusetts Spy, a Boston newspaper. It was written to be read, not performed, since plays were banned in Massachusetts. The play portrayed royal governor Thomas Hutchinson (as the character Rapatio) bent on destroying liberty in a fictional country of "free-born sons." The Defeat was published in 1773, starring Rapatio once again, and two years later, The Group featured the colony's evil Tories.
Towards the end of the Revolution and in the years that followed, James Warren's political career suffered. He turned down a number of positions, including an appointment to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Biographers suggest that Mercy may have encouraged her husband to stay close to home. The Warrens also parted company with the pro-Federalist majority that dominated the new state's politics. They worried about the ability of the Republic to survive and opposed adoption of the federal Constitution, fearing it would lead to "uncontrolled despotism."
In the late 1770s, Mercy Warren had begun working on a history of the Revolution, a Herculean effort supported by her husband, sons, and their long-time friends Abigail and John Adams. "I hope you will continue, for there are few Persons possessed of more Facts, or who can record them in a more agreeable manner," John Adams wrote her from London in 1787. He would come to regret his encouragement.
In 1805 Mercy Warren's three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution was published. Warren avoided describing "military havoc," focusing instead on the key figures involved in the transformational historic events. Whether it was an oversight or intentional, she ignored John Adams's remarkable diplomatic achievements in France and the Netherlands and wrote critically of his supposed "partiality in favor of monarchic government." This effectively ended a friendship between the families that was already shaky, given the dramatically different paths that John Adams and James Warren had taken in their careers and political views.
Mercy Warren continued her active correspondence with friends and remained as mentally alert and vigorous as ever to the end of her long life. She died at age 86 in Plymouth, where she had lived most of her life.
American National Biography, Vol. 22 (Oxford University Press, 1999).
"Bonds of Friendship: The Correspondence of Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren," by Edith B. Gelles, in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. CVIII, 1996.
Mercy Otis Warren, by Jeffrey Richards (Twayne Publishers, 1995).
Notable American Women, Vol. III (Harvard University Press, 1971).
A Woman's Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution, by Rosemarie Zagarri (Harlan Davidson, 1995).