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The woman whose subversive writing spurred the American Revolution

Outspoken and cleverly sarcastic, Mercy Otis Warren may be one of the most important Bostonians you’ve never heard of.

Mercy Otis Warren, around 1763, in a portrait by John Singleton Copley that now belongs to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.Philadelphia Museum of Art

Abigail Adams is widely beloved, perhaps more than any other woman from the Founding Era. In her “Remember the Ladies” letter from 1776, she issued one of this country’s first feminist decrees. Her husband John remains a Massachusetts hero — a bedrock Revolutionary, a daring rebel, and the nation’s second president. They’re among the best-known historical figures in American annals.

However, they had a friend and frequent correspondent whose ideas about independence and womanhood probably made them both blush and stammer, and she remains perhaps the most important Bostonian you’ve never heard of.

Mercy Otis Warren was everything a woman wasn’t supposed to be in the late 18th century: outspoken, sarcastic, raw, and prolifically published. She had views more extreme than a Boston Tea Party reveler, but she was able to straddle the line of being a “proper” Boston socialite and a radical thinker who wielded influence over numerous Founding Fathers.

Her private correspondence and her published work highlighted this. Warren was subversive in her messaging, using tools like satire to make rebellious points when so much of America remained divided over the concept of a revolution and complete divorce from Britain. She was among the most notable early masters of using pop culture to make political arguments on behalf of the revolutionary cause.

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Warren was born in Barnstable in 1728, the third of 13 children. Girls weren’t afforded educational opportunities at the time, but she circumvented that by remaining present at her brothers’ lessons. When she was 17, Mercy’s father, James, was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature, perhaps igniting her interest in politics. Mercy’s brother James Otis Jr. is famous for his turn of phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” which became a rallying cry for Revolutionaries throughout the colonies. In 1754, Mercy married James Warren, who would go on to serve as a general in the Continental Army.

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Some of Mercy Otis Warren's correspondence in the 1770s.Image made for the Massachusetts Historical Society/Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society

It was through these connections that Mercy Warren would meet her two most notable friends: John and Abigail Adams. The Adamses served as confidantes, and Warren, who was reluctant to share work under her own name, sent drafts of her poetry and plays to the original American power couple.

In a letter to Abigail Adams in February 1774, Mercy enclosed a poem about the Boston Tea Party, which had taken place two months earlier. In fact, John Adams had requested that she write one.

Warren’s poem was all in favor of the Tea Party revelers. In an introductory note, she lauded them for “sacrificing several cargos of tea to the public welfare,” and in the poem itself, she assailed British greed, noting that “luxury creates such mighty feuds.” Even though Warren herself, as well as all colonists, had much to lose financially and otherwise in a potential failed revolution, she committed to the cause and tried to bring others along with her. The poem was largely metaphorical and used imagery from Greek and Roman mythology in lieu of Redcoats and colonists, but the message was clear: The Tea Party was glorious.

It was a compelling piece of writing, but Warren was apprehensive about releasing it into the world. In her letter to Abigail Adams accompanying her poem, Warren asked that the Adamses keep the piece private, at least at first. Warren also wanted to be sure Abigail showed it to John for his critique:

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“I will not trust the partiallity of my own sex so much as to rely on Mrs. Adams judgment though I know her to be a lady of taste and Discernment. If Mr. Adams thinks it deserving of any further notice and he will point out the faults, which doubtless are many, they may perhaps be corrected, when it shall be at his service.”

Why would Warren, with her progressive way of thinking, seek out John Adams’s approval for her writing instead of Abigail’s? Within the social structure of the time, a female poet’s chances of finding success were low, and John was well connected as an attorney and delegate. His endorsement would have meant more to Warren. Indeed, John loved the poem and had it published (anonymously) on the front page of the Boston Gazette on March 24, 1774.

Warren and Abigail Adams’s correspondence picked up in mid-1775 following the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19. On May 15, she wrote to Abigail celebrating the uprising. She expressed pride in being so closely connected with many people (including her husband) who were willing to “act so noble a part” as to rise up against the British.

The statue of Mercy Otis Warren in front of the Barnstable County Courthouse.Steve Haines

Mercy and Abigail were more radical in their loathing of the British than most members of the Continental Congress. The Congress started meeting in an official capacity on May 10, 1775 — a few weeks after Lexington and Concord — but it made a concerted effort to keep the relationship with Britain intact. In fact, on July 5, 1775, the Congress sent King George III the “Olive Branch Petition,” which suggested reconciliation between the colonies and the motherland.

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John Adams believed war was inevitable, and he privately opposed the document — a stance that Mercy Warren encouraged. On the same day the Olive Branch Petition was completed, she wrote to him with a scathing report on how the British were treating Bostonians in the aftermath of Lexington and Concord. She claimed that Britain now lacked “the generosity and humanity which has long been the boast of all civilized nations. And while the plagues of famine, pestilence and tyranny reign within the walls, the sword is lifted without and the artillery of war continually [thunders] in our Ears.” Mercy lauded the rebels who lost their lives at Lexington and Concord, claiming they had a sense of “honor, freedom, and valor.”

King George III refused to read the Olive Branch Petition and wouldn’t address its grievances. Perhaps that was because of a letter that John Adams wrote to James Warren in which he advocated that every British official be taken prisoner. The letter was intercepted and shared with Parliament. Before long, the Continental Congress was resigned to the idea that war was inevitable, and it formed a committee to write what would become the Declaration of Independence.

Meanwhile, Mercy Warren continued her furious pace of correspondence with such people as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. She also stirred up support for the Revolution in writing designed for public consumption.

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In 1776 she wrote a play called “The Blockheads.” Even though the British were laying siege to Boston, Warren imagined a satirical world in which the Redcoats were trapped and the local Bostonians were terrorizing them and their Loyalist supporters. It was the sort of humor that would have made for a very entertaining show at the time. The opening lines, delivered by a British general named Puff, describe the British as being in a sorry state. They had thought they’d easily ransack Boston, but “we are shamefully confined within the bounds of three miles, wrangling and starving among ourselves.”

Warren also wrote a character, a bumbling Loyalist named “Surly,” to lampoon the numerous colonists who still supported the British. Trapped in a saloon with the British, Surly laments that “my tenants and my oxen would have been much more agreeable companions than these herd of stalking poltroons.”

That would have stung. “Poltroons” means “gutless cowards,” and it was not an insult thrown around lightly in the 1770s. In fact, this was such an inflammatory play that Warren released the work anonymously. Nonetheless, it emboldened the Revolutionary experiment.

Nowadays, although many historians remember Warren for her contributions, she lacks the mainstream exposure of her famous correspondents or even her brother James. But her legacy is no less important. She was a woman who understood the power of her pen and was able to carve out a niche from which her views could be widely shared. She was a crucial communicator to Congress about the goings-on in Massachusetts during the most desperate days of the Revolution. She even wrote a complete history of the American Revolution in 1805 — the first by a woman.

Considering all that, it’s unsurprising that John Adams heaped praise on her in 1774, when he wrote to James Warren and asked him to encourage Mercy to produce a poem on the Boston Tea Party. “But for want of this same poetical genius [as Mercy] I can do nothing. I wish to see a late glorious event, celebrated, by a certain poetical pen, which has no equal that I know of in this country.”

Jon Mael is a freelance writer in Sharon who focuses on history. Follow him on Twitter @jmael2010.