Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Mercy Otis Warren 1728 ~ 1814

 

Mercy Otis Warren 1728 ~ 1814
Mercy Otis Warren

The name of Mercy Warren belongs to American History. In the influence she exercised she was, perhaps, the most remarkable woman who lived during the Revolutionary period. Seldom has one woman in any age acquired such an ascendency over the strongest by mere force of a powerful intellect. She is said to have supplied political parties with their arguments; and she was the first of her sex in America who taught the reading world in matters of state policy and history.

She was the third child of Colonel James Otis, of Barnstable, in the old colony of Plymouth, and was born there, September 25, 1728. The youth of Miss Otis was passed in the retirement of her home, and her love for reading was early manifest. At that period the opportunities for woman's education were extremely limited and Miss Otis gained nothing from schools. Her only assistant in intellectual culture of her early years was Rev. Jonathan Russell, the minister of the parish from whose library she was supplied with books and by whose counsels her tastes were in a measure formed. It was from reading at his advice Raleigh's "History of the World" that her attention was particularly directed to history, the branch of literature to which she afterwards devoted herself. In later years, her brother James, who was himself an excellent scholar, became her adviser and companion in literary pursuits.

There existed between them a strong attachment, which nothing ever impaired Even in the wildest moods of that insanity with which, late in life, the great patriot was afflicted, her voice had power to calm him, when all else failed.

When about twenty-six. Miss Otis became the wife of James Warren, then a merchant of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and in him she found a partner of congenial mind

It was during the occasional visits of a few weeks at a time to their farm near Plymouth, which she called "Clifford," that most of her poetical productions were written.

With a fondness for historical studies, and the companion-ship of such a brother and husband, it is not strange that the active and powerful intellect of Mrs. Warren should have become engaged with interest in political affairs. How warmly Mrs. Warren espoused the cause of her country, how deeply her feelings were enlisted, appears in her letters to the great spirits of that era. This rich correspondence has been preserved by her descendants. It includes letters, besides those from members of her own family, and letters were dissertations, not a hodgepodge of trivialities in those days, from Samuel and John Adams, Jefferson, Dickinson, Gerry, Knox and others. These men asked her opinion in political matters, and acknowledged the excellence of her judgment. Referring to some of her observations on the critical state of affairs after the war. General Knox writes: "I should be happy. Madam, to receive your communications from time to time, particularly on the subject enlarged on in this letter. Your sentiments shall remain with me."

During the years that preceded the Revolution and after its outbreak, Mrs. Warren's house appears to have been the resort of much company. As she herself says, "by the Plymouth fireside were many political plans discussed and digested." Although her home was in Plymouth, her place of residence was occasionally changed during the war. At one time she lived in the house at Milton, which Governor Hutchinson had occupied. Wherever she was, the friends of America were always welcomed to the shelter of her roof, and the hospitalities of her table. In different passages of her letters to John Adams, the officers with whom she became acquainted are described. The following extract is interesting:

"The Generals, Washington, Lee, and Gates, with several other distinguished officers, dined with us three days since. The first of these, I think, is one of the most amiable and accomplished gentlemen, both in person, mind, and manners, that I have met. The second, whom I never saw before, I think plain in his person to a degree of ugliness, careless even to impoliteness, his garb ordinary, his voice rough, his manners rather morose; yet sensible, learned, judicious, and penetrating; a considerable traveler, agreeable in his narrations, and a zealous, indefatigable friend of the American cause, but much more for a love of freedom and an impartial sense of the inherent rights of mankind at large, than from any attachment or disgust to particular persons or countries. The last is a brave soldier, a high republican, a sensible companion, and an honest man, of unaffected manners and easy deportment."

And La Fayette is praised in this laconic fashion: "Penetrating, active, sensible, judicious, he acquits himself with the highest applause in the public eye, while the politeness of his manners and sociability of his temper insure his welcome at every hospitable board."

Every page from the pen of Mrs. Warren is remarkable for clearness and vigor of thought. Thus, her style is not vitiated by the artificial tastes of the day; yet, her expression is often studiously elaborated, in accordance with the prevalent fashion, and smothered in classic allusion. This is the case in her letters written with most care; while in others, her ardent spirit pours out its feelings with irrepressible energy, portraying itself in the genuine and simple language of emotion. Mrs. Warren kept a faithful record of occurrences during the dark days of her country's affliction, through times that engaged the attention of both the philosopher and the politician. She did this with the design of transmitting to posterity a faithful portraiture of the most distinguished characters of the day. Her intention was fulfilled in her history of the American Revolution. This work exhibits her as a writer in advance of her age. Its sound judgment and careful research, with its vigorous style, give it a high and lasting value. Her portraiture of Mr. Adams gave offense to the great statesman, which, for a time, threatened to interrupt the affectionate relations between the two families. But after a sharp correspondence, it was amicably settled, and as a token of reconciliation, Mrs. Adams sent her friend a ring containing her own and her husband's hair. This is now in possession of one of Mrs. Warren's descendants.

The several satirical dramatic pieces that Mrs. Warren wrote criticizing the follies of her day and humorously introducing the leading Tory characters, produced a marked sensation, and a strong political influence is ascribed to the bold and keen satire in these poems.

Her two tragedies, "The Sack of Rome'' and "The Ladies of Castile" are more remarkable for patriotic sentiment than for dramatic merit. The verse is smooth and flowing and the language poetical, but often wanting in the simplicity essential to true pathos. The tragedies were, however, read with interest and much praised in after years. Alexander Hamilton writes to the author, "It is certain that in the 'Ladies of Castile' the sex will find a new occasion of triumph. Not being a poet myself, I am in the less danger of feeling mortification at the idea that, in the career of dramatic composition at least, female genius in the United States has out-stripped the male."

Altogether, the literary workmanship and the political influence of Mercy Warren appears an anachronism in time and place, for a new country at war is not supposed to shape its course by literature, and surely the Puritan forbearance had shown little disposition to abide by the counsels of women, though ofttimes acting unconsciously under the influence of some brainy woman, who was too clever to let on that she recognized the conceptions of her fertile brain expressed by some man over whom she had subtle power.

In her last illness, her constant fear was that she might lose her mental faculties as death approached. She prayed effectively to be spared this dreaded condition. To her latest breath her mind was unclouded, and with an expression of thankfulness and peacefulness, she passed to the rest that awaits the faithful Christian, October 19, 1814, in the eighty-seventh year of her remarkably forceful life.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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