In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mercy Otis Warren

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Online Resources
  • Manuscript Collections
  • Published Correspondence
  • Major Published Works Including Anthologies

American Literature Mercy Otis Warren
Sandra J. Sarkela
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0060


Mercy Otis Warren (b. 1728–d. 1814), a prolific and thoughtful correspondent, savvy propagandist, playwright, and political historian, was born into a prosperous and politically connected family in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Not formally educated, she was tutored at home, reading widely especially Pope, Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare and, a favorite, Raleigh’s History of the World. In 1754 she married local merchant James Warren and bore five sons. Warren became personally involved in Massachusetts politics when her father was denied a judgeship he had been promised and her brother, James Otis Jr., famously challenged the Writs of Assistance in 1761. Throughout these years of rising discontent, Warren participated within a circle of close friends and family who involved her as their intellectual equal, especially her husband and her brother along with Sam Adams, John Adams, and Elbridge Gerry. Nor was there a shortage of female correspondents, including Abigail Adams, Hannah Winthrop, and British historian Catharine Macaulay who looked to Warren for political commentary, advice, support, and consolation. As her brother collapsed into mental illness, Mercy began her own crusade against the Hutchinson administration in a series of “dramatic sketches” and at least one widely admired poem, which were published in the Boston newspapers. With conclusion of the war, Warren voiced concerns about the Federal constitution and her fears that virtue was giving way to vice and licentiousness. However, she claimed public authorship of a collection of poems and two new full-length tragedies in a book published in 1790. In 1805, with Jefferson’s election to the presidency, Warren published her three-volume history of the American Revolution. Throughout her life and writing, Warren maintained a consistent puritan-republican ideology. More specifically, her writing is characterized by a paranoid style and expresses her fear of power and a standing army, concern about aristocracy and excessive wealth, and a Manichean view of life as an ongoing struggle between virtue and vice. Consistent with these values, Warren created a role for herself and other women that has been termed “Republican Motherhood.” Women’s minds, she believed, were gender neutral but their social roles as women placed them in a special position to observe, comment, and teach the virtues necessary for a good and meaningful life. This is the argument from difference that has been used throughout American history to justify women’s participation in public life. It is the position from which Mercy Otis Warren built and sustained a remarkable contribution to American letters.

General Overviews

Warren’s writing was always rhetorical, conceived in response to political events and discussions in the world as she understood it, always with a persuasive goal. An understanding of the political, historical, and cultural context in which she lived and wrote is, therefore, essential to any study of her work. Norton 1996, Silverman 1987, and Tyler 1941 provide overviews of women’s lives, culture and literature. Richards 1991 analyzes Warren’s cultural milieu by tracing the significance of theater as metaphor. Bloch 1987 critically analyzes the complexity of republican discourse. Bailyn 1974 details the specifics of Thomas Hutchinson’s tenure as governor, while Fritz 1972, Kerber 1980, and Roberts 2004 place Warren in social context with her peers.

  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1974.

    A detailed study of the politics and major figures featured in Warren’s early dramatic sketches and anonymously published poetry. Offers important context and insight into the various events that motivated Warren’s writing.

  • Bloch, Ruth H. “The Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America.” Signs 13.1 (1987): 37–58.

    DOI: 10.1086/494385

    An important explication of the gender implications of protestant/republican discourse in early America.

  • Fritz, Jean. Cast for a Revolution: Some American Friends and Enemies, 1728–1814. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

    A readable survey of Warren’s life within her circle of close friends and family. Based on primary sources, Fritz builds a picture of Warren’s life from the perspective of her own close community.

  • Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

    Introduces the concept of “Republican Motherhood,” with Mercy Warren as a key figure in establishing the way in which women could participate politically in the new republic.

  • Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996.

    Details the gender barriers faced by most women during the American revolutionary era, revealing Warren as someone who transgressed some of those barriers as she established an intellectual foundation for American women to play a part in public life.

  • Richards, Jeffrey H. Theater Enough: American Culture and the Metaphor of the World Stage, 1607–1789. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780822378228

    The most significant scholar of Warren’s literary history describes and analyzes the metaphor of theater as it permeated the culture and discourse of colonial and early America. Of particular note is how Warren internalized this metaphor and actualized it in her own writing.

  • Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

    Clear, readable overview of Warren’s circle of friends and correspondents, Warren’s writing and activities, especially “Propagandist for the Revolution,” in chapter 2.

  • Silverman, Kenneth. A Cultural History of the Revolution: Painting, Music, Literature, and the Theatre in the Colonies and the United States from the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington, 1763–1789. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

    Important work for understanding the communication environment in which Mercy Warren chose to write and publish.

  • Tyler, Moses Coit. The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763–1783. 2 vols. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1941.

    A comprehensive overview of revolutionary era American literature. Warren’s writing is referenced throughout this groundbreaking work. Originally published 1897.

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