Mercy Otis Warren

The American writer Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), the first significant woman historian, wrote an eyewitness account of the American Revolution.

Mercy Otis was born at West Barnstable, Mass., on Sept. 14, 1728. She had no formal education, but the tutor of her elder brother, James Otis, permitted her to use his library. She married James Warren of Plymouth in 1754. Her husband became a distinguished political leader and served for a time as paymaster to George Washington's army during the Revolution.

During the Revolutionary period Warren became a poet and pamphleteer. Her particular enemy was Thomas Hutchinson, who had served as chief justice and governor of Massachusetts and had been prominent in the "writs of assistance" controversy. In 1773 she wrote a pamphlet, The Adulateur, and a play, The Defeat, based upon letters that Hutchinson and his lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver, had written to England criticizing the colonists. In 1775 she wrote The Group, a satirical play. The Warrens took a consistently anticonstitution, pro-states'-rights position in the debates over ratification of the Constitution in 1787-1788, and Warren even wrote a tract against the Constitution. Her Poems Dramatic and Miscellaneous was published in 1790.

Warren began writing the History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (3 vols., 1805) during the Revolutionary War, and after the peace treaty was signed she continued to work on it. The first volume covers the period from the Stamp Act to Valley Forge, the second goes to the end of the Revolutionary War, and the third to 1800. She based her history on firsthand sources, which included her own observations, the Benjamin Lincoln papers, and John Adams's correspondence concerning his diplomatic attempts to involve the Dutch in the war.

The history is not parochial, as Warren included British domestic affairs and the war in other theaters as well as in the continental United States. Her Revolutionary nationalism showed in her praise of Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson and in her castigation of Hutchinson. Despite her opposition to the Constitution, she praised Washington. Her treatment of John Adams helped alienate a friendship, and her description of Alexander Hamilton as a "foreign adventurer" won her no support from his friends. Merrill Jensen (1966) characterized Warren's history by saying, "Her view of the revolution is simple and anticipates in every way the views of the 'Whig historians' of the latter part of the nineteenth century." She died in Plymouth on Oct. 19, 1814.

Further Reading on Mercy Otis Warren

Alice Brown, Mercy Warren (1896), is dated, while Katherine Anthony, First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren (1958), is adulatory. The most complete evaluation of Warren as a historian is in William Raymond Smith, History as Argument: Three Patriot Historians of the American Revolution (1966). Merrill Jensen's "Historians and the Nature of the American Revolution" in Ray Allen Billington, ed., The Reinterpretation of Early American History (1966), places Warren in the larger context of Revolutionary historiography.