America was settled by Europeans primarily from Great Britain who came seeking religious freedom, economic opportunity, and the chance to establish new communities and social organizations and by slaves. In 1619, the first slaves were brought by Dutch traders.
Life wasn’t easy. Colonists (both Europeans and slaves) faced Indian raiders and diseases like malaria and typhus. Life in the colonies was different from life overseas in other ways, too. Many children died in infancy; adults died leaving children to grow up with relatives, family friends or foster parents. Remarriage and the formation of step families were common.
This was a departure from the norm the colonists had been used to in Europe where the nuclear family prevailed. (Steoff, 2003, p. 57)
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the roles of men and women were established by parents and the religious leaders of their communities. Colonial men worked at trades or owned businesses like farms. Colonial women spun, wove and sewed garments; cooked; cleaned; gardened; washed and ironed; chopped wood, and raised and educated their children.
Women were expected to be obedient to their fathers, husbands or other male relatives and to become wives and mothers. (Micklos, 2013, p. 5 – 12)
Nonetheless these differences and hardships propelled some women to stand out from the rest.
Mercy Otis Warren was born into a wealthy family in West Barnstable, Massachusetts. Mercy was not a typical girl even for the times in which she lived. Her father was a traveling lawyer and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who would bring home the latest political news from Boston. His two oldest children, Mercy and her brother James (Jemmy), found the colonists’ conflicts with Great Britain fascinating.
Like her sisters, Mercy was educated at home in the domestic arts. Mr. Otis, however, believed that girls as well as boys should learn to read and write so the two oldest children, Mercy and Jemmy, were tutored at home by a minister. Mercy loved reading and history. Her favorite book was Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World.
When he grew older, Jemmy enrolled at Harvard. Mercy stayed home because women weren’t allowed to go to college. She could, however, devour the books that Jemmy brought home especially the writings of the radical philosopher John Locke.
Locke wrote about freedom and the natural rights of man. He also wrote about the social contract. Individuals, he believed, created governments in order to protect their lives, liberty and prosperity. When a government threatened those rights, it broke the social contract. This meant that the people could change or even unmake their government. (Woelfle, 2012, p. 5)
Although the colonists created new communities and social organizations, they considered themselves subjects of Great Britain. Influenced by the ideas of Locke and the Enlightenment, the colonists began to question this relationship arguing that they should have more control over their local government. (Steoff, 2003, p. 96)
When Jemmy graduated from college, Mercy attended his graduation ceremony and graduation parties. She met Jemmy’s friend and her future husband, James Warren, there. He was a farmer and like her father, a politician. James wasn’t afraid of smart women. They married and together raised five sons on a farm in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Mercy raised their children and ran the family farm but secretly wrote and published poems and plays in her spare time.
While life in Plymouth was quiet and busy for the Warren family, Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty were rioting against the taxes imposed on the colonists by the British government in nearby Boston.
Neighboring communities like Plymouth joined the protests which eventually laid the groundwork for the American Revolution.
Women like Mercy who were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the colonists’ protests, would soon join their husbands, fathers and brothers in the struggle for the creation of a new republic. Women visited army camps and sewed clothes, nursed and fed the soldiers. They spied for the patriots and even wore men’s clothing and fought in numerous battles.
The Warren’s home became a meeting place for revolutionaries and intellectuals. They laid the plans for the Continental Congress there prompting Mercy to call her house “One Liberty Square.”
Mercy proudly and boldly participated in the planning sessions.
During this period, she began a regular correspondence with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Abigail Adams, whose husband John became the second President the United Sates. These friendships lasted most of her life.
Mercy continued to write and publish political poems and plays that were supportive of the rebels and the revolution during the period of the war for independence.
She used the pseudonym Fidelia for these poems and dramas which were intentionally anti-British. In Model Celebration, mermaids and other sea creatures enjoy sipping British tea during the Boston Tea Party of 1773. In Blockheads, Mercy made fun of the King George III.
The British did not know who wrote these works otherwise Mercy would have been hanged for treason.
In 1775, James became General James Warren but the aftermath of the war brought tragedy to Mercy’s family. In 1783, Jemmy was struck by lightning and died. Mercy and James lost their son Charles in 1785 to tuberculosis. Another son, Winslow, joined the army and was killed in an Indian raid in 1791. In 1800, George died of a fever.
Warren was noted for the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution Interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations published in 1805 when she was seventy-seven years old. She was able to sign the manuscript, “Mrs. Mercy Warren of Plymouth, Massachusetts.” It is considered the first history of the conflict between America and Britain.
Colonial widows, unlike most women, enjoyed a life of independence. Many had the experience of helping their husbands with the family farm or business and when their spouse died, they took over day-to-day operations.
Mercy Otis Warren was no different. Through all the personal tragedies, Mercy continued to write, operate the farm and support the new nation, the United States of America.
Mercy died in 1814. Mercy and James are buried in the Old Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Micklos, John. The Brave Women and Children of the American Revolution. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc. 2009
Steoff, Rebecca. Colonial Life. NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2003.
Woeffle, Gretchen. Write On, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren. Honesdale, PA: Calking Creek Books, 2012.