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Remembering a Founding Mother on Independence Day

In honor of Independence Day, Beacon Broadside invited this contribution from author Nancy Rubin Stuart about founding mother Mercy Otis Warren. Stuart is the author of The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation, and is an award-winning author, journalist and writer-producer who specializes in women and social history.

Museoftherevolution Should we think that our current problems as a nation—the falling value of the dollar, a perilous dependence upon overseas products, an administration that favors the wealthy over the ordinary man, and an edgy attitude towards women in politics—are unique to 2008, they also worried a nearly forgotten Founding Mother over two hundred and twenty years ago.

Her name was Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), America's first female playwright and historian, fervent patriot and close friend of John and Abigail Adams. Years before the Democratic presidential primary that brought Hillary Rodham Clinton to the brink of nomination this spring, I was intrigued by Mercy Otis Warren's spunk, her close association with leaders of the American Revolution and her determination to promote core patriotic values. That woman's voice in politics was forbidden—indeed, considered a scandal—Mercy refused to accept, exemplified by her popular and prolific, anonymously bylined plays, poems and essays.

Like many successful career women today, Mercy had a father who encouraged her to excel, which in colonial America meant she was tutored alongside her Harvard-bound brother James "the Patriot" Otis. Alas, for the brainy, literary Mercy a college education was impossible. Instead, she was expected to spend her life as a conventional colonial woman, cooking, sewing, making soap and candles, and eventually to marry and bear children.

Her husband, James Warren, apparently understood the "inner" Mercy from the start for he filled their Plymouth, Massachusetts home with books and encouraged her to read and write. Especially the latter. During the tense pre-Revolutionary years, in between birthing and raising five sons, Mercy began by writing poetry. In that, the first outpouring of her heart about the joys of nature, family events and musings upon human destiny, Mercy revealed herself in the full flower of womanhood, grateful for her sons, her husband, domestic felicity and the warmth of friends.

Historians have written little about that young, womanly Mercy. Today she is largely celebrated for her anti-British and anti-Tory plays, essays and especially her life's work, the 1805, three-volume, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution which extolled the patriotic values that spawned that extraordinary democratic experiment. While long encouraged to that task by her old mentor, John Adams, it was, ironically, the only Jeffersonian interpretation of the Revolution published in that era.

Those who read Mercy Otis Warren's works often struggle with her high-toned style, but as I studied her life I became impressed with her tender, feminine side. As she witnessed the outbreak of violence in 1775 in Massachusetts and the subsequent hardships the British occupation caused its residents, that womanly side grew increasingly protective, hidden under a steely insistence upon the democratic principles of the early patriots. By then, Mercy had already begun to speak out in a series of popular, widely published, often plagiarized anti-British and anti-Tory propaganda plays. To protect her both from British persecution and colonial mockery as a woman writer, her identity was kept secret.

Mercy's primary concern in 1775-1776, as she often wrote to her husband James, then President of the Provincial Congress, was his safety and that of her sons. Nevertheless, a future where her family and fellow citizens' "natural rights" would be compromised was equally unthinkable. Self-sacrifice was imperative if the patriots were to triumph over oppression.

Later, during the heady, materialistic days of the new republic, Mercy continued to remind her fellow Americans of the dangers of forgetting the core values that sparked the Revolution –fair play, honesty, thrift and national self-sufficiency.

By the late 1780s, Mercy's tolling messages in print became a reality for, by then, the young republic was mired in an economic depression. Faced with a towering national debt, a falling currency system, swamped with imported luxuries and lacking many basic commodities, America was veering towards the type of disaster, Mercy, her husband James and other "old-fashioned patriots" of the Revolution had repeatedly predicted.

Could Mercy return to the United States today, she would doubtless feel dismayed once again, especially since many of those excesses she lamented in the early Federal era were seemingly resolved before her death in 1814.

Nor did the first draft of the U.S. Constitution in late 1787 relieve Mercy's anxieties. Admittedly, the young nation stood "in need of a strong federal government that would support the prosperity and union of the colonies," but, as Mercy wrote, had not the first patriots "struggled for liberty" for all men?

In reaction, Mercy published (once again anonymously) an influential treatise in May 1788 entitled "Observations on the New Constitution," arguing for the necessity of a list of "natural rights" to protect the ordinary man. Among the key rights Mercy advocated were freedom of speech, freedom of the press, trial by jury in civil cases, and restrictions on the power of the executive branch of government by the judicial and legislative bodies—points which, eighteen months later, became part of the Bill of Rights.

This Fourth of July is also celebrated as Mercy Otis Warren Day at the Barnstable County Courthouse in Massachusetts, where a statue of Mercy Otis Warren stands with one arm raised holding up the Bill of Rights to which she was an unsung, but recently discovered, contributor.

For me, as for any student of American history, that statue is a powerful reminder of a Founding Mother's immortal warning about the human tendency to abuse power, but also the potential we have as individuals to make our voices heard.

Further reading: Boston Globe review of The Muse of the Revolution by Nancy Rubin Stuart and The Road to Monticello by Kevin J. Hayes; reviews in the Plymouth Bulletin and Augusta Metro Spirit; and Renée Bergland's post on another neglected woman of history, Maria Mitchell.