Standing Up for a People Becoming a Nation


Mercy Otis Warren, prolific Revolutionary-era writer, fondly known by her spouse, the Speaker of the Massachusetts House, as the “scribbler.” She penned “Observations on the new Constitution and on the Federal and State Constitutions,” pointing out the need for a Bill of Rights to support personal freedoms lost under King George.

One prolific writer you probably never heard about: Mercy Otis Warren, who urged the Constitution not be approved in 1787. Her pamphlet Observation on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Constitutions expressed serious concerns about the lack of a Bill of Rights. Mercy wanted the new nation to avoid trannical rule like the colonies experienced under King George.

By September 1787 she reported to her friend British historian Catharine Macaulay (Graham): “Our situation is truly delicate & critical. On the one hand we stand in need of a strong Federal Government founded on principles that will support the prosperity & union of the colonies. On the other we have struggled for liberty & made lofty sacrifices at her shrine and there are still many among us who revere her name too much to relinquish (beyond a certain medium) the rights of man for the Dignity of Government. (1)

While news broadsheets were available, Colonists frequented places like Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern to learn the latest. Customers read pamphlets like Mercy’s “Observations on the New Constitution” while downing coffee, tea and stronger spirits. She called the new Constitution a “triple-headed monster” because it lacked limits on Judiciary Powers, that left “a boundless ocean that has broken over the chart of the Supreme Lawgiver, (saying) thus far (thou) shalt though go no further.” Next, the Executive and the Legislative are so “dangerously blended as to give just cause of alarm. . .in such vague and indefinite expression . . .that the authors dare not hazard to a clear investigation.” (2)

She saw “no protection for a rotation, nor anything to prevent the perpetuity of office in the same hands for life, which by a little well-timed bribery, will probably done, to the exclusion of men (before women had the vote or held office) of the best abilities from their share in the offices of government,” Mercy wrote lamenting the lack of checks and connections with “the feelings of the governed, and better qualifies him to govern in his turn.” (3)

Finally, Mercy attacked “warrants unsupported by evidence–the daring experiment of granting writs of assistance (arbitrary power to enter and arrest without a search warrant). . . to subject ourselves to the insolence of any petty revenue officer to enter our houses, search, insult, and seize at pleasure.” Her appeal to the Massachusetts representatives did not roll back the Constitution, but her state legislators voted to include a Bill of Rights as a companion to it, as did New York after having ample distribution of her pamphlet. Three other states supported what came to be called the Massachusetts Compromise, based on Mercy’s writing and helped guarantee our civil liberties today. (4)

If Mercy were with us now, would she take pen in hand to address an overreaching judiciary, executive orders, open-ended Congressional terms of office as legislators roll into their 80th year still sitting in seats where more agile men and women could have an opportunity to consider new ideas, instead of wading through perpetual gridlock? Using the counsel of elders, who would relinquish their chairmanships and voting powers, a new crop of legislators could learn the meaning of compromise. Today her concerns with a permanent governing class and the lack of protection against unlawful searches and seizures have not disappeared.

She wrote under the pseudonym “A Columbian Patriot” to protect her identity as a female writer, since there were so few and they were not taken seriously. Writing freely in opposition to the British Crown could be dangerous. Her readers thought the quality and substance of Warren’s work must be that of a man, particularly lawyer and Massachusetts legislator Elbridge Gerry. Both he and George Mason refused to sign the new Constitution as drafted. Gerry said it was “full of vices.” (5)(His story, which entails much more than the Constitutional Convention will appear next week). It wasn’t until Warren’s descendant, Charles Warren unearthed a reference to Mercy Warren’s work in a letter to British Historian Macaulay that Marcy received credit for her work. (6)

In her pamphlet “Observations on the New Constitution,” Mercy called the document a “many-headed monster” because of its weak definition of limits on the Judiciary powers, and the executive and legislative body, plus the lack of time limits for Congressional members, and allowing broad-brush searches and seizures to curtail individual rights. Judicial powers, incorporated into the original document she saw as a “boundless ocean that has broken over the Supreme Lawgiver” and the language in which they are written, “would be an Herculean labour to attempt to describe the dangers with which they are replete. . .” Concerning lack of protection from search and seizure, she wrote: “nor can we be so ungreatful to the memory of the patriots who counteracted their operation, as soon after their manly exertions to save us from such a detestable instrument of arbitrary power, to subject ourselves to the insolence of ant petty revenue officer to enter our houses, insult, and seize at pleasure.(7)

When the Constitution received approval by 18 states in Philadelphia in 1788, Mercy continued her quest for a Bill of Rights. Her writing shines through with her passion:

Animated with the firmest zeal for the interest of this country, the peace and union of the American States, and the freedom and happiness of a people who have made the most costly sacrifices in the case of liberty, who have braved the power of Britain, weathered the convulsions of war, and waded thro’ the blood of friends and foes to extablish their indepndence and to support the freedom of the human mind; I cannon silently witness this degradation without calling on them, before they are compelled to blush at their own servitude. . .” (8)

Mercy failed to prevent Massachusetts from ratifying the Constitution, but the state’s legislature did add an amendment requiring a Bill of Rights be attached to it, which became known as the Massachusetts Compromise. New York’s legislature, where her pamphlet was widely distributed, also voted for this compromise. That and the support of several important leaders, including Virginian Richard Henry Lee, former speaker of the U.S. House during the Revolution returned as his state’s first senator to assure passage of an American Bill of Rights.

How Mercy Gained Her Pen

At a time in the early 18th century when most women were occupied managing a home and raising children (though she had five children of her own), and were illiterate or could identify only a few passages in the Bible, Mercy’s desire for learning took her into the study of history and language. The men in her life supported her curiosity–starting with her father, Col. James Otis–farmer, attorney, and an outspoken opponent against British rule in the Massachusetts House. He saw his daughter’s promise and included her in tutoring sessions for his sons. She studied Latin and Greek along side her brothers as they prepared to enter Harvard, although women were not admitted then. Mercy received her father’s full support in her academic and literary efforts–treating her as an intellectual equal and confidante. (8)

Her personal writing ability and opposition to Britain’s sins against the Colonies blossomed and grew between the encouragement of her father and her husband, James Warren, who fought at Bunker Hill (he survived, unlike a Dr. James Warren). He became speaker of the Massachusetts House and served as paymaster to George Washington’s army for a time. Her brother, Samuel Otis, served as quartermaster during the Revolution and as a Massachusetts member of the Second Continental Congress. (9)

Warren fondly referred to his wife as a “scribbler” and expressed his pride at her “mind possessed of a Masculine Genius well stocked by philosophy & religion.” But she proved masculinity would not be required for her genius. (10)

With the assistance of their friend, Samuel Adams, the meetings at their home in Plymouth helped lay the foundation for the essential Committees of Correspondence–“no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies” by sharing information about the British. (11)

What makes Mercy’s role particularly striking are the people with whom she corresponded: In addition to Samuel, Abigail and John Adams, Martha Washington, (probably raising money for the troops in the Ladies Associations around the country–raising $300,000–huge back then and now 240 years later) (11) , John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Hannah Winthrop (second wife of John Winthrop, advisor to George Washington during the Revolution, Harvard mathematics department chair and astronomy wizard–worth a blog of his own).

Mercy stayed close to her quill from 1765–the heart of political events related to the Stamp Act–to 1789 and the founding of the federal republic, six years after the Revolution ended. Former warriors/now legislators sat down to hammer out how they were going to live together now that the British were gone.

It wasn’t until 1790 that her (18) political poems and two of her plays were published under her name. The plays “The Sack of Rome” and “The Ladies of Castille,” dealt with liberty and social and moral values that she saw as necessary to the success of the new republic. (12)

Not without humor, Mercy wrote “Blockhead,” a counterpoint to a play by former British General Johnny Burgoyne’s “The Blockade of Boston,” one of several including several popular on the London stage. But Mercy was dead serious when she completed her literary career by writing the history of the Revolution, published in 1805. Both Washington and Jefferson wished some author would take on this task to relay their stories to future generations. President Jefferson ordered a subscription for himself and his entire cabinet to the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Jefferson noted his “anticipation of her truthful account of the last thirty years that will furnish a more instructive lesson to mankind than any equal period known in history.” (13)

When John Adams, retired in his seventies read this work on his farm, Peacefield, two years after publication, he had an entirely different response. As early as 1789, Mercy distrusted strong central government, though admitted a federal system would be necessary in order to unify the country. Her relationship with Adams, then vice president under Washington began to suffer as Mercy believed that Adams had spent too much time among Europe’s monarchy as ambassador to Britain and the Netherlands. Elbridge Gerry shared concerns about “as complete an aristocracy as ever was framed.” (14)

In the first presidential election only five states (Delaware, Maryland,New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) chose electors purely by popular vote. (15) In Massachusetts the people voted for just two of the ten electors. Women, free men without land, slaves, and indentured servants were blocked from voting. In the first presidential election, in which voting continued from December 1788 to January 1789, only 43,782 individuals in a nation of 4 million souls cast presidential ballots. (16)

Greatest Hurt to Adams: Calling him a Monarchist

Mercy expressed concern that Adams failed the country in supporting Britain and falling on the side of the monarchs in Europe as violence broke out in France. She wrote: “Mr. Adams was undoubtedly a statesman of penetration and ability, but his prejudices and his passions were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment.. .(17)

. . . After Mr. Adams’s return from England, he was implicated (i.e. regarded) by a large portion of his country men, as having relinquished the republican system, and forgotten the principles of the American revolution, which he had advocated for near twenty years. . . (18) Mr. Adams’s former opinions were beclauded by a partiality for monarchy.” (19) As if to soften this strategic blow, she went on to explain that inspite of these “mistakes or changes in political opinion, or errors in public conduct, Mr. Adams supported an unimpeachable character; his habits of morality, decency, and religion, rendered him amiable in his family, and beloved by his neighbors.” (20)

These words cut deeply. The subsequent exchange of letters between Adams and Warren grew acrimonious. Adams wrote: “Mrs. Warren, it is my opinion, and that of all others of any long experience that I have conversed with, that our History has been written to the taste of the nineteenth century and accommodated to grantify the passions, prejudices, and feelings of the party who are now predominant. (21) The pair did reconcile a decade later in 1812 with the mediation of Abigail Adams, who prepared a locket for Mercy with locks of the Adams’s hair (wonder that she could find any of John’s), a custom of the time to signify their friendship. Mercy died two years later.

The lawn of Barnstable’s Greek Revival courthouse holds two seven-foot-high statues. One of James Otis Jr., remembered for “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” And next to it, Mercy Otis Owen in her fine Colonial fashion, holding a quill pen in her left hand and a small book in her right, representing her many works supporting liberty.

Stayed tuned next week for a man whose writing resembled Mercy Warren’s and he was one of three at the Constitutional Convention who refused to sign the final document. He went on to be the fifth Vice President of the U.S. when the office was mostly ceremonial. Today his name is remembered in connection with a method of rigging Congressional Districts for the benefit of one political party or the other–Gerrymandering. Next up: Elbridge Gerry

(1) Jean Fritz, Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies, 1728-1814. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1972), 14. Kate Davies, Catherine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren: The Revolutionary Atlantic and the Politics of Gender (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 290.

(2) Whipp, Koren (2014) “Mercy Otis Warren”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercy_Otis_Warren

(3) Mike Lee, “Written Out of History,”(New York: Penguin Random House, 2017) pp. 50-51.

(4) “Mercy Otis Warren, conscience of the American Revolution,” (http://www.selterbooks.com/warren/generalintroduction.html
.
(4) Lee, p. 59

(5) Ibid. p. 51

(6) “American Treasures of the Library of Congress” (https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/tm089.html) Historian of the American Revolution. Retrieved April 29, 2019

(7) Observations, 1788 (Boston: Richard Selzer, 1972), www,samizdat.com/warren/observations.html

(8) (9) Lee. p. 49.

(10) “The Women of American Revolution” (Mercy Warren) by Elizabeth F. Ellet http://threerivershms.amwomenmwarr.htm

(11) “American History for 21st Century Citizens: (https://web. archive.org/web/20080924113620/http://streamer3.lacoe.edu/American history/enactments/Walters/Wa;ters_biography.htm

(12) See “Spunky Martha Washington” blog.

(13) (14) “Mercy Otis Warren, conscience of the American Revolution,” Ibid. (http://www.selterbooks.com/warren/generalintroduction.html

(15) (16) Lee p. 61

(17) “The Electoral Count of the Presidential Election if 1789,” Internet Archives: The Papers of George Washington, November 12, 2016, https://web.archive.org/20130914141726/http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/documents/presidential/electoral.html

(18) Mercy Warren, History of the Rise, (Boston: E. Larkin, 1805), 304.

(19) Ibid. 392. (20) Ibid. 394. (21) Ibid. 395.

(22) Correspondence between John Adams and Mercy Warren Relating to Her “History of the American Revolution,” July-August, 1807 (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1878), 218. 422.

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