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Mercy Otis Warren: The Secret Muse of the Bill of Rights

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The following is a guest post by Danielle Herring, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the School of Information at Florida State University. She has previously written The Hands that Spun the American Revolution and Stede Bonnet and the Golden Age of Piracy, in two parts.

The Constitution of the United States was first drafted in 1787, its content was not without controversy among citizens of the newly formed country. There was a debate in the country over the ratification of the constitution, dividing the new nation into federalist (those who supported ratification) and anti-federalist camps.

Anti-federalists were concerned that the constitution lacked guarantees of certain liberties for individual citizens and granted too much power to the national government over state governments. They also argued that the new constitution did not guarantee freedom of the press or freedom from military oppression. The new constitution did not contain guarantees of certain legal rights to citizens, such as civil trials by jury or the prohibition of warrantless searches and seizures. They were also concerned with a lack of rights around elections and wanted to place limitations on the power of nationally elected officials by guaranteeing annual elections, term limits for elected officials, and the rights of citizens to directly access their elected representatives.

The anonymously published pamphlet, Observations on the new Constitution : and on the fœderal and state conventions shared common criticisms made by anti-federalists of the new constitution. The author of this anti-federalist pamphlet, along with other anti-federalist writers, ultimately lost the war against ratification, but the anti-federalists won the battle for the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

What anti-federalists were not aware of was that the author of “Observations on the new Constitution” was a woman. Originally attributed to Elbridge Gerry, the true identity of the author of the pamphlet remained hidden for over a century. It was not until lawyer and historian Charles Warren uncovered evidence that his ancestor, Mercy Otis Warren, had written the anti-federalist pamphlet, that historians began to properly credit her contribution to the argument for the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Face of Mercy Otis Warren with lace headpiece and top of dress.
Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis). Photo by flickr user Regan Vercruysse. March 15, 2018. Used Under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A black and white portrait of James Otis with a large white frame and an illegible signature at the bottom.
James Otis. Pelton, Oliver. [between 1840 to 1890?]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs.
Born Mercy Otis on September 25, 1728, in Barnstable, Massachusetts, to James Otis and Mary Allyne Otis, she was the third of the couple’s 13 children. Mercy’s intellectual and political interests were encouraged by her family.  Her father was a prosperous lawyer, politician, and intellectual leader of the Patriot movement in 1760s Boston, inspiring the slogan “no taxation without representation.” Once a prosecutor for British authorities, he changed sides in support of the colonists in 1761, resigning as advocate general. After his resignation, he used his legal knowledge to compose arguments against British laws he considered to be tyrannical, such as the Writs of Assistance.

Growing up in the midst of revolutionary ideals, she received tutoring at home alongside her brothers from her Yale-educated uncle, the Reverend Jonathan Russel. A voracious reader, she studied the classical literature of her uncle’s library, and the literature she had access to showed its influence on her historical and political writing. Her brother, James Otis, Jr., was also supportive of Mercy’s education. Treating his sister as an intellectual equal and confidante, the surviving correspondence between the siblings reflects his encouragement of her academic interests. [pp. 1-2]

[James Otis protesting the Writs of Assistance]. [1911]. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Her marriage to James Warren in 1754 plunged her more deeply into the rising tide of revolutionary politics. James Warren was a merchant and farmer with revolutionary ideals similar to the Otis family. He became a sheriff, then a member of the House of Representatives, and eventually speaker of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The Warrens began hosting the leading citizens of the town who opposed British laws from their home in Plymouth. The Warrens also supported social protests such as the Boston Tea Party and boycotted British goods. Mercy’s social status among the colonial elite allowed her to correspond with many significant figures of the American Revolution. She was particularly close to John and Abigail Adams, exchanging letters with them, both during and after the Revolution (pp. Zagarri, 90-91).

James Warren. Photo by flickr user ErgSap. October 19, 2015. Used under Public Domain Mark 1.0.

With her husband’s encouragement, she began to publish her writing anonymously. Considered the first American woman playwright, her first play was printed in a newspaper in 1771, four years prior to the start of the American Revolution. Mercy’s plays satirized British government policies, government officials in Massachusetts, and other British colonial leaders. Not only a participant in the revolution as a political organizer and commentator, she also documented the American Revolution as it unfolded, composing the three-volume set of books A History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution the only contemporary history of the American Revolution written by a woman.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution and the formation of a fully independent American government, the 1787 draft of the Constitution deeply concerned Mercy Otis Warren. She saw the centralized, powerful government outlined in the new constitution as a return to the monarchical rule that she and other revolutionaries had resisted during the Revolution (Zagarri, p. 122).

The divergence between the political views of the federalists and anti-federalists affected Mercy Otis Warren’s friendship with John and Abigail Adams. Adams’ work, Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America was regarded by many anti-federalists as a defense of the monarchy and disavowal of political ideals fought for in the American Revolution. On the part of the Adams, they resented James Warren’s early retirement from government service and had become suspicious of the couple’s patriotism and loyalty. Most of all, they scorned Mercy and James’ opposition to the new Constitution (Zagarri, p. 127).

Both Mercy and her husband felt compelled to make arguments against ratification, each anonymously publishing their own anti-federalist arguments. In 1787, James Warren anonymously published a series of seven articles in the newspaper Massachusetts Centinel. Criticizing the constitution for its inadequacies and technical shortcomings, he opposed ratification with carefully crafted legal arguments. (Zagarri, pp. 122-123).

Mercy, taking a different approach to criticizing the constitution, anonymously published the pamphlet Observations on the new Constitution in 1788. The pamphlet was written in her usual theatrical style, where she raised standard anti-federalist concerns, including a lack of a bill of rights in the new constitution. In her pamphlet, she attacked assumptions behind the entire proposed government outlined in the new constitution, making sweeping criticisms that the new constitution left too much room for human error, corruption and greed, going beyond more measured criticisms typically made by other anti-federalists. She urged states to reject or postpone hearings on ratification. The dramatic arguments had an impact on citizens concerned about ratification and Observations on the new Constitution became an influential work amongst anti-federalists. While her husband’s articles were only reprinted in Boston newspapers, Mercy Otis Warren’s pamphlet was reprinted in newspapers across several states. (Zagarri, pp. 124-125). In the state of New York, anti-federalists enthusiastically printed and distributed 1,700 copies of Observations on the new Constitution as a counter to the 500 copies that had been distributed of the ratification-supporting The Federalist Papers.

Anti-federalist arguments created strong opposition in each of the states to adopting the new constitution. The three most crucial states in the vote for ratification were Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, all three states making the inclusion of a bill of rights in the constitution a condition for ratification. In 1791, sensing the likely failure of ratification without anti-federalist votes, James Madison drafted a list of rights that would not be encroached upon by the federal government. These rights would make up the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

While the Bill of Rights was modeled after the English Bill of Rights and George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mercy Otis Warren’s pamphlet likely also played a role in its design. Without anti-federalist activism, one of the most significant aspects of the U.S. Constitution in the lives of everyday Americans may never have been included. In 1994, a joint resolution to name October 19 Mercy Otis Warren Day passed in the Senate. While the resolution never became a law, Mercy Otis Warren has a lasting legacy as the secret muse of the American Revolution and the Bill of Rights.

Bronze statue of woman holding book on white pedastal and wite brick. Statue is in a shadow with green trees in the background.
Mercy Otis Warren Monument in Barnstable, Massachusetts. Photo by flickr user Joseph. August 20, 2008. Used Under license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

If you would like to learn more about Mercy Otis Warren, as well as read her writings, you may wish to consult these selected resources:

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  1. Thank you for this article, I found it very interesting. I would like to know more about her, so I clicked on the sources listed. Luckily, there are some that are available through HathiTrust (and some in Stacks). I think it would be useful nto not only provide a list with links to the catalog but also indicate which ones are available online, as few people will go to the Rare Book/Special Collections Reading Room to read these works.
    Thank you!

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