Mercy Otis Warren, the anonymous writer who helped spark the Revolutionary War

August 9, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

When the heavy hand of the British crown grew more onerous on the American colonists in the 1760s and early 1770s, a satirical play appeared in the Massachusetts Spy lampooning Thomas Hutchinson, the crown-appointed governor of Massachusetts. The title of the play was The Adulateur,  and one of the main characters was Rapatio, who was a thinly-veiled representation of Hutchinson.

The reading public loved it and laughed. They loved it so much that referring to Hutchinson as “Rapatio” became part of the common conversation.

Only a select few knew who had written the play: Mercy Otis Warren.

The play was published in 1773 without naming an author, as was all of Warren’s other Revolution-era writing. And there was a lot of it.

Mercy Otis Warren — as much as any of her peers such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry — influenced the size, scope, and direction of revolutionary thinking in colonial America. But she lacks what they have always received: proper credit.

In addition to The Adulateur, Warren wrote two more plays that made fun of the British and their appointed leaders in the colonies: Defeat in 1773 and The Group in 1775. Warren was married to James Warren, one of the Massachusetts radicals that led the colonies away from British rule. She and Warren invited those radicals into her home and by every appearance was the model 18th century housewife. She and James had five children together.

Behind the dutiful, supportive wife facade, she and James were active collaborators in their quest for independence. They were joined by her brother James Otis, whose public and sometimes violent clashes with the British were well-known and infamous. Warren wrote polemics and poetry as well as plays in support of he cause. She carried on active correspondence with Abigail and John Adams, Martha Washington, and the English female historian Catharine Macaulay.

John Adams came to regard her “poetical pen” as one “which has no equal in this country.”

When the Revolutionary War was concluded and independence won, Warren continued to write about the politics of the new nation, and it’s here that one might find one of the reasons for her obscurity. She argued against the adoption of the new Constitution in 1788 in her Observations on the New Constitution, an anti-Federalist document that eventually put her on the wrong side of history.

Finally, in 1790, Warren published Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous, a work that for the first time bore her name. In 1805, she wrote one of the first histories of the Revolutionary times, a three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson was highly impressed with it, but the critical comments about John Adams precipitated a rupture in their friendship that took years to heal.

Warren died in 1814, six years after her husband passed away. They are both buried near their home in Plymouth, Massachusetts.



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