Mercy Otis Warren: The First Lady of the American Revolution
By Andrea Antidormi, Old North Foundation Educator
Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, Old North is highlighting influential women in both modern day and historic Massachusetts. This post is a short bio on Mercy Otis Warren, an influential writer and historian of the American Revolution.
Mercy Otis Warren was born in Barnstable, Massachusetts to a prominent family on September 28th, 1728.1 As a result, she was afforded more opportunities than the average person and in her youth, she was privileged to have her parents’ approval to sit in on her Harvard-bound brother’s privately tutored school lessons. In her spare time, she also educated herself by reading books of literature, philosophy, theology, and history, all of which aided her in her future intellectual pursuits.
Having been born into an eminent family coupled with her intellectual capabilities, Warren was able to form important connections among the revolutionary elite of America. John Adams, her mentor, and friend offered her encouragement in contributing her talents to the patriot cause.2
Prior to and during the American Revolution, Warren anonymously published several satirical plays and poems reflecting upon political tensions and speaking out against British Tyranny. It was not until after the war in 1790 when independence was assured that her political works were published under her name in the collection, Poems, Dramatic, and Miscellaneous.3
After the war, she contributed to the historical record by writing and publishing a three-volume history of the American Revolution titled The History of the Rise, and Termination of the American Revolution in 1805. Her previous revolutionary writing and this hugely influential work helped solidify Warren as one of the preeminent female writers of the American Revolutionary Era garnering her the nickname, “The First Lady of the American Revolution.”4
Furthermore, Mercy Otis Warren was also not one to shy away from criticizing her friends and leading figures of the Revolution. Among these was John Adams who was not pleased with the way Warren portrayed him in her history. In a series of 1807 letters, Adams expressed his many frustrations at his characterization, at one point lamenting “I am weary and ashamed of commenting on this monstrous Perversion of Truth and Decorum, in this bitter Satyr upon a Gentleman…It is…highly reprehensible in any Woman or Man in the World, to publish Such an envenomed Satyr under the Grave Title of a History.”5
Warren’s response to Adam’s “illiberal criticisms” was unswayed, where she at length countered his various arguments, concluding that she never “penned a line that I did not know or believe, upon very substantial grounds, to be literally and sacredly true.”6
Despite the ample criticism she faced, even from a former President of the United States, Warren persevered in supporting her own work. At a time when well-known women writers were rare, Warren succeeded in creating an unparalleled amount of politically motivated work that not only earned her the attention of her peers, but also the continued admiration of generations to come.
Andrea Antidormi graduated from Salem State University with a Bachelor’s degree in American Studies. In addition to working as an educator at The Old North Church, she also works at the Paul Revere House. Andrea was raised and lives here in the North End of Boston.
1. Vera Laska, Outstanding Women of the American Revolution (Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission, 1976), 36-58.
2. Ibid, 39.
3. Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Mercy Otis Warren”, Encyclopedia Britannica, April 1st, 2010, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mercy-Otis-Warren.
4. Vera Laska, Outstanding Women of the American Revolution (Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission, 1976), 36
5. John Adams, “From John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 8 August 1807,” National Historical Publications and Records Commission, March 16th, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5203.
6. Mercy Otis Warren, “To John Adams from Mercy Otis Warren, 7 August 1807,” National Historical Publications and Records Commission, March 16th, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5202.