March is National Women’s History Month. But despite the heightened attention it brings to the influence women have had in American history, one woman, in particular, continues to get far too little attention-Mercy Otis Warren (178-1814), whom Elizabeth Ellet called “the most remarkable woman who lived in the days of the American Revolution,” and of whom John Adams said “of all the geniuses which have yet arisen in America, there has been none superior.”
Mercy Warren was the sister of James Otis and the wife of James Warren, both intense revolutionaries, and often hosted meetings with others in her home. However, it was primarily her writings–culminating in her wonderful 1805 history of the Revolution–that led her to be called “perhaps the most important of Revolutionary War women.”She was a leading force for the cause of the American Revolution. She wrote plays, poetry, and more (anonymously, until her 1790 Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous), as well as corresponding with many of America’s leading figures. But she is perhaps best known for a series of anonymous pro-independence plays that attacked British policies and officials, including The Adulateur (1772), The Defeat (1773), The Group (1775), and The Blockheads (1776).
She wrote the anti-federalist Observations on the New Constitution By a Columbian Patriot (once attributed to Ellbridge Gerry) in 1788, objecting to the U.S. Constitution for, among other things, its failure to include a bill of rights and safeguards against a standing army. She also wrote the 3-volume The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805), her eyewitness account of the revolution, which is celebrating its bicentennial this year.
Mercy Otis Warren was different from other advocates for American independence in being a woman, in an era when women didn’t write for the public. But she was as important a participant as many of our more famous founding fathers when it came to our founding principles and America’s role in making them into reality. And she was one of the most insightful when it came to what it would take to preserve the American Revolution away from tyranny and toward liberty. Consider some of her insights.
America’s Founding Principles
- …there is a certain supineness which generally overspreads the multitude and disposes mankind to submit quietly to any form of government, rather than to bear the expense and hazard of resistance…Thus we have seen in all ages the many become the slaves of the few; preferring the wretched tranquility of inglorious ease, they patiently yield to despotic masters, until awakened by multiplied wrongs to the feelings of human nature; which, when once aroused to a consciousness of the native freedom and equal rights of man, every one revolts at the idea of servitude.
- The love of domination and an uncontrolled lust of arbitrary power have prevailed among all nations…
- The bulk of mankind have indeed, in all countries in their turn, been made the prey of ambition…the great body of the people have either by force or fraud become the slaves of the few…
- …most governments are the result of fraud or violence…
- The game of deception is played over and over to mislead the judgment of men…ready to believe that mankind in general are incapable of the enjoyment that liberty which nature seems to prescribe…
- Public opinion, when grounded on false principles and dictated by the breath of ambitious individuals, sometimes creates a tyranny, felt by the minority more severely than that usually inflicted by the hand of the sceptered monarch.
- Power without limitation or amenability may endanger the brightest virtue.
- Mankind may amuse themselves with theoretic systems of liberty…but we can only discern its true value by the practical and wretched effects of slavery…
- The wild vagaries of the perfectibility of man…may be left to the dreaming socialist who wanders in search of impractical theories. He may remain entangled in his own web, while that rational liberty, to which all have a right, may be exhibited and defended by men of principle and heroism who better understand the laws of social order.
- All writers on government agree, and the feelings of the human mind witness the truth of these political axioms, that man is born free and possessed of certain unalienable rights-that government is instituted for the protection, safety and happiness of the people, and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any man, family, or class of men-That the origin of all power is in the people, and that they have an incontestable right to check the creatures of their own creation, vested with certain powers to guard the life, liberty and property of the community.
- The rights of individuals ought to be the primary object of all government, and cannot be too securely guarded by the most explicit declarations in their favor.
- …every domestic enjoyment depends on the unimpaired possession of civil and religious liberty…the right of personal liberty, which everyone justly claims…
- …when the first rudiments of society have been established, the right of private property has been held sacred.
- …a sacred regard to personal liberty and the protection of private property were opinions embraced by all who had any just ideas of government, law, equity, or morals. These were the rights of men….
America as Holder of Liberty’s Flame
- America…stepped forth in vindication of the rights of human nature…
- Freedom, long hunted round the globe by a succession of tyrants, appeared at this period…to erect her standard in America. The scimitar was drawn from principles that held life and property as a feather in the balance against the chains of servitude…
- Perhaps the story of political revolution never exhibited a more general enthusiasm in the cause of liberty, than that which for several years pervaded all ranks in America…
- But there is no age which bears a testimony so honorable to human nature; as shows mankind as to sublime a pitch of virtue that there are not always enough to be found ready to aid the arm of the oppressor, provided they may share in the spoils of the oppressed.
- America…where the standard of freedom had recently been erected…to receive and protect the persecuted subjects of arbitrary power, who might there seek an asylum from the chains of servitude to which they had been subjected in any part of the globe.
- America…has fought for her liberties. She has purchased them by the most costly sacrifices.
Maintaining American Liberty
- America has fought for the boon of liberty. It was now the duty of the
wise and patriotic characters who had by inconceivable labor and exertion obtained the prize, to guard it on every side that it might not be sported away by the folly of the people or the intrigue or deception of their rulers.
- Perfection in government is not to be expected from so imperfect a creature as man…Perhaps genius has never devised a system more congenial to their wishes or better adapted to the condition of man than the American Constitution…yet it is necessary to guard at every point against the intrigues of artful or ambitious men who may subvert the system which the inhabitants of the United States judged to be most conducive to the general happiness of society.
- …the independence of the United States must be secured by an undeviating adherence to the principles that produced the Revolution. These principles were grounded in the natural equality of man in their right of adopting their own modes of government, the dignity of the people, and that sovereignty which cannot be ceded either to representatives or to kings.
- …resist the first approaches of tyranny, which at this day threaten to sweep away the rights for which the brave Sons of America have fought…
- …a defalcation of these principles may leave the sapless vine of liberty to droop, or to be rooted out by the hand that had been stretched out to nourish it.
- Any attempt, either by secret fraud, or open violence, to…subvert the Constitution, or undermine the just principles which wrought out the American Revolution, cannot be too severely censured…If peace and unanimity are cherished, and the equalization of liberty, and the equity and energy of law maintained by harmony and justice, the present representative government may stand for ages, a luminous monument of republican wisdom, virtue, and integrity. The principles of the Revolution ought ever to be the polestar of the statesmen, respected by the rising generation; and the advantages bestowed by Providence should never be lost by negligence, indiscretion, or guilt.
- It is necessary for every American with becoming energy to endeavor to stop the dissemination of principles evidently destructive of the cause for which they have bled…to rescue and save their civil and religious rights from the outstretched arm of tyranny, which may appear under any mode of government.
- …we have struggled for liberty and made costly sacrifices at her shrine and there are still many among us who revere her name too much to relinquish the rights of man for the dignity of government.
- [America's] principles…may finally…spread universal liberty and peace as far at least as is compatible with the present state of human nature.
Mercy Otis Warren is not as well known as other founders of America. But because of her belief that we should “rejoice in the prospect of liberty,” and “with high hopes of the continued freedom and prosperity of America,” she was an important influence in supporting and spreading the ideals it was founded on.
And she was respected by other luminaries of liberty, such as Thomas Jefferson, who said “I have long possessed evidence of her high station in the ranks of genius.” She has been called the real daughter of the American Revolution. And her words are no less important today than over two centuries ago.