A War of Words


There is a saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Remarkably, there have been times in the past when one person’s words have inspired a nation more than any military victory won on the battlefield. During the tumultuous political crises of the 1760s and the early 1770s, there was an American woman who strove to light the fires of revolution. Through her efforts, the fight for liberty became synonymous with the cause of American independence. Her name was Mercy Otis Warren. This is the story of how her pen was one of the first weapons used in fight against British oppression.

Mercy Otis Warren was a firm advocate of the principles of liberty throughout her life. She was born in 1728 in Massachusetts to a family that traced its roots back to some of the first English immigrants to America, one of which was a passenger on the Mayflower. Mercy’s early years were spent on the family farm performing various domestic duties like cooking and sewing. Unusual for girls of her time, however, her father allowed her to receive an education virtually unknown to women. She accompanied her older brother, James Otis, Jr., to study sessions at her uncle’s nearby home. Although not permitted to learn classical languages like Greek and Latin, she was taught to read English translations of classical works like Homer. She also excelled at writing   She became an accomplished woman for her day, but she still desired to attract a suitable husband. She married one of her brother’s Harvard classmates, James Warren of Plymouth, in November 1754 and soon settled into a comfortable life as a wife and mother of five. She also found time to write poetry. Her circle of friends included John and Abigail Adams. As the political crisis between America and Great Britain erupted, she used her literary talents to rally support for the embryonic cause of American liberty.

Despite living in Plymouth, Mercy Otis Warren soon became part of the leading group of Massachusetts’s patriots. She first became involved through the actions of her older brother. James Otis, Jr. had risen to become a leading figure in Massachusetts politics. In 1761, he launched the first volley against British oppression by boldly arguing against the Writs of Assistance, or general search warrants, used by the colony’s royal governor to enforce the Molasses Act of 1733. In a speech lasting over four hours, James argued that the writs fundamentally violated the principles of English liberty. He concluded by claiming, “taxation without representation is tyranny.” Though he lost the case, he gained wide support from across the colony, especially from his younger sister. Four years later, in 1765, the British Parliament passed the infamous Stamp Act to raise revenue to pay for the stationing of British troops in America. News of the act inflamed passions up and down the American colonies and resulted in numerous riots. Mercy soon set to work writing a political satire that celebrated the protests against the Stamp Act. It was only the beginning of her long struggle for the preservation of American liberty.

The Stamp Act was soon repealed, but Parliament continued to pass acts designed to draw funds from the American colonies. Parliament next passed the Townshend Acts, which included taxes on paint, paper, lead, glass and tea. The acts were designed not just to raise funds to pay for British troops but to directly pay the salaries of colonial officials. Again, there were protests over the acts. As protests mounted, Mercy and other American patriots directed their criticism at American Tories who continued to indulge in British goods. Mercy personally attacked female Tories in her letters to friends and family. Many of her poems also began to carry a political message. Some even credited her with composing the “Massachusetts Liberty Song.” From her home in Plymouth, she saw the protests over the Townshend Acts result in the stationing of British soldiers in nearby Boston. With the troops’ arrival, there was an increase in the arguments and physical altercations between supporters and opponents of British policies. To Mercy’s horror, one of those altercations resulted in the savage beating of her brother James. Despite recovering physically, he never fully recovered mentally, bordering on insanity at times. He was forced to withdraw from the forefront of the patriot movement. With his departure, it was Mercy who stepped up to take his place and inspire the patriot cause through her writing.

By the beginning of 1773 Mercy’s home in Plymouth had become a meeting place for the local Sons of Liberty. The organization spread throughout the colony, and Mercy used it as a forum to disseminate her views on the cause of liberty. Her first major work as a spokeswoman for the American opposition was the play The Adulateur, in which she wove a fictional tale of the political struggle within Massachusetts. She soon wrote another play, called The Defeat, telling of the continued struggle for liberty. As her plays gained popularity, the political crisis escalated. Most of the Townshend Acts had been repealed, but there was still a tax on tea. In May 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act, which provided for the sale of cheaper tea by the East India Company. On December 16, in an act of protest against the British, Bostonians held their celebrated Tea Party, dumping three hundred and forty-two tea chests into the harbor. To commemorate the event, Mercy wrote a satirical poem called “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs; or the Sacrifice of the Tuscararoes” about sacrificing luxury in order to maintain the civic good. With the help of John Adams, her newest defense of liberty was published. Adams personally praised her for her efforts and encouraged her to keep writing.

In the wake of and as punishment for the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed four repressive measures. The British called them the Coercive Acts; the Americans called them the Intolerable Acts. Under the acts, the port of Boston was closed to commerce, colonial officials would be appointed by government decree, British officers would be removed to other locations if unable to receive a fair trial in Massachusetts, and finally, British soldiers would be quartered in private homes and other buildings. Rage over the British reprisal and the punishment leveled on Boston built up in Massachusetts and in other colonies. In her letters, Mercy included descriptions of bands of Minutemen forming in each town and of inhabitants gathering reserves of gunpowder and weapons in preparation of hostilities.

In the fall of 1774 Mercy learned almost simultaneously that her good friend John Adams had been elected to the First Continental Congress and that her husband James had been elected to Massachusetts’ Provincial Congress. At the same time, she gave voice to her own thoughts on government, such as that there should be little intervention in citizens’ lives and that there should be proper respect for the voices of the governed. During the winter of 1774-75, she further amplified her views through her political satire entitled The Group. It was just as popular as her earlier plays. In the three months following the play’s publication, tensions continued to rise. Then, on April 18, 1775, James evacuated Mercy and the children to Providence, Rhode Island. Arriving the next day, they heard news of the battles of Lexington and Concord. The War of American Independence had begun.

For the rest of her life, Mercy Otis Warren continued to serve the new nation with her pen. During the early months of the war, she became one of America’s first female news reporters by writing her observations about the siege of British-occupied Boston. She then turned her attention to writing a history of the struggle as well as more poems designed to increase flagging support of the Revolution. She also remained informed of the larger struggle by corresponding with John Adams and offering support to her husband James as he served as the paymaster general of the Continental Army and on the Navy Board. For eight long years she did all she could for the cause. Like others, she finally and proudly wrote of the Revolution’s end in September 1783. After the war, she wrote two more plays called The Ladies of Castile and The Sack of Rome. In the trying days of the Constitution’s ratification, Mercy was one of those who argued that there needed to be a Bill of Rights to protect the citizens from government oppression. In her last years, she completed and published her three-volume set titled History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. She died on October 19, 1814 having seen the birth and early survival of the United States of America.

Mercy Otis Warren’s contributions to our country’s founding proved that the written word often has more power to bring about victory than any other means. It was her words that fanned the fires of freedom, that inspired resistance to tyranny and oppression, and that helped launch America on the road to becoming a republic of free men and women. She was one of the first Americans to wage battle in the name of self-government. She proudly took a stand alongside her brother James Otis and her friend John Adams to declare that America must determine its own course — not acquiesce to British subjugation. Through her mastery of literature and her defiant spirit, she earned the praise and admiration of her country. In Mercy Otis Warren, the American cause found a voice that refused to suffer under the yoke of British oppression any longer. Although we often talk of the Founding Fathers, she should in fact be remembered as one of America’s foremost Founding Mothers. Nothing could stop Mercy Otis Warren’s pen — not even the British sword.  

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