Mercy Otis Warren: An Introduction

Robin with Copley's portrait of Mercy Otis Warren at the MFA. Photo: Jim Donovan

As an education associate, I often get opportunities to work on interesting projects. My current project at the Bostonian Society is to build a character profile for Mercy Otis Warren so that she can be brought to life in our museum as one of our Revolutionary Characters Live! One of the most frequent questions I get asked when I mention her is: Who is Mercy Otis Warren?

Mercy Otis Warren is actually quite the character, and someone we should certainly study more about. She was a fairly typical upper class woman who lived in Plymouth during the Revolution. She was less typical in the fact that she was actually incredibly well educated. This was mostly due in part to her family. Her father was James Otis, Sr, a very well respected lawyer in Barnstable who also became a member of the Massachusetts General Assembly. Her brother, James Otis, Jr (more affectionately known as Jemmy), was a firebrand who was the first in the family to attend Harvard College. That meant that he had to be educated in Latin and Greek before he could attend, and fortunately for Mercy, it was decided that she would get to attend these tutoring sessions as well. She was not allowed to learn Latin or Greek - but she was allowed to read the classics in their English translations. Jemmy and Mercy would regularly debate what they read about and that moved into political debates as well - something the two siblings maintained through letters after Jemmy left for Harvard.

This knack for political debate was further encouraged when Mercy married Jemmy’s good friend, James Warren. He further pushed Mercy to political debate, and their house in Plymouth became known as One Liberty Square. Patriots regularly stopped in to debate politics - and this was how James and Mercy Warren ended up meeting some of their lifelong friends. Chief among those friends were John and Abigail Adams.

However, Mercy’s life was not empty of grief. One of the most devastating things that impacted her was watching her older brother Jemmy descend into madness. In September of 1769, Jemmy got into a fight with a customs commissioner that ended with him receiving a nasty blow to the head from a walking stick. Following this incident, Jemmy had more and more violent outbursts. He was eventually declared non compos mentis and retreated to live in the country, first with his father, then with some friends out in Andover. It was following this that Mercy began publishing her first political satires about what was going on in Massachusetts. Jemmy had been a leading voice against the new British policies. Without him, it seems Mercy decided to pick up his mantle in the only way she knew how - with her pen.

Mercy went on to publish several satirical plays, her most explosive being a play published in 1775 called The Group. She also wrote poems, including one entitled “Squabble of the Sea Nymphs” that commemorated the Boston Tea Party. The one work that she spent years compiling and is the one piece she is most well known for, however, was her history of the Revolution. She spent years collecting stories from friends and using her own experiences of the war to build a three volume work entitled The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution that was published in 1805. Mercy left her mark on the new nation, even if not everyone remembers who she is today.