Related Links in the Library:
Source: Editor's Introduction to Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations, in Two Volumes, Foreword by Lester H. Cohen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1994). Vol. 1.
Foreword by Lester Cohen
Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814) was the most formidable female intellectual in eighteenth-century America. In an era dominated by giants, she honorably may be numbered among the intellectuals of the second rank: those, for example, who served in colonial or state legislatures, the Continental Congress, and the Constitution-ratifying conventions and those who publicized the revolutionary cause through their writings.
Between 1772 and 1805, Warren published at least five plays —three political satires and two verse tragedies—a collection of poems, a political pamphlet warning of the dangers of the proposed Constitution, and one of the two most important contemporary histories of the American Revolution. Beginning about 1770 she became a prolific letter writer, entering into a kind of literary apprenticeship in one of the century’s more interesting genres—the “familiar letter”—and leaving to us a legacy of more than a thousand pages of correspondence devoted to a variety of political, cultural, economic, and social themes.
Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution was the culmination of her literary career. Through it she satisfied a powerful urge to fuse her personal and public convictions. It served as a means to unite her ethical, political, and philosophical concerns; it joined her personal religiosity with her ideological commitments; and it provided a vehicle for a female intellectual to be useful in a republican culture. For forty years Warren worked to develop the habits of mind and a style of writing that would satisfy these requirements. She thought it her principal responsibility as a poet, playwright, and historian “to form the minds, to fix the principles[,] to correct the errors, and to beckon by the soft allurements of love, as well as the stronger voice of reason, the young members of society (peculiarly my charge), to tread the path of true glory. . . .” Several years later she observed that “The Ladies of Castille,” which would be published with her collected poems in 1790, was created by a writer “who wishes only to cultivate the sentiments of public and private virtue in whatsoever falls from her pen.” These letters reveal that she found in writing a way to integrate private and public roles: the traditional role of mother—the young were “peculiarly my charge”—and the less conventional ambition to be a woman who gave voice to the central principles and values of the political culture.
Warren’s major literary and political aims—to form minds, fix principles, and cultivate virtue—characterized her writings from the beginning. Her satirical plays—“The Adulateur,” “The Defeat,” and “The Group”—are memorable chiefly as representative examples of early American political satire and as well-timed propaganda. Her poetry, long neglected, is now being taken seriously by scholars. That she was committed to poetry as an art and as a vehicle for political and didactic themes is evidenced by the dozens of poems that, until recently, remained unpublished and by her numerous, careful revisions of her work. But the best of Warren is her prose, and the best of her prose is her History.
In historical narrative Warren found the medium which, better than poetry or satire, satisfied her urge to be both an artist and a political and moral force. In her History she sustained the republican persona that she had been developing in her letters since the 1770s. And here she joined more successfully than ever the themes that lay at the center of her concern. These themes involved both her conception of history and her understanding of the proper role of the historian in a republican order.
Warren viewed history in terms of three fundamental conflicts: a political conflict between liberty and arbitrary power; an ethical conflict between virtue and avarice; and a philosophical conflict between reason and passion. The three were consistent with one another: History revealed a continual struggle between liberty, virtue, and reason against the blind pursuit of power, luxury, and passion. Beyond being mutually consistent, liberty, virtue, and reason were, for Warren as for many of her generation, necessary to sustain a republic. Liberty without virtue and reason to guide it led to licentiousness; virtue without reason and liberty to energize it led to passivity and quietism; and reason without liberty and virtue to focus it led to abstraction and cynicism. The need for all three animating principles demonstrated why republics had proven to be so fragile.
Warren sometimes characterized the three conflicts in the starkest terms, suggesting that she viewed history as a vast morality play—not unlike “The Sack of Rome,” which she had based on Joseph Addison’s “Cato” (1713)—in which simple, industrious, virtuous, liberty-loving republicans courageously resist the encroachments of kings, despots, and mannered aristocrats who care only to gratify their baser passions. While, for Warren, history may have been easy enough to categorize into strict oppositions, its outcomes were neither obvious nor inevitable. If history revealed any consistent tendency, it was that arbitrary power, corruption, and irrationality tended to defeat enlightened principles. That was why most of the world remained enslaved. “Ambition and avarice,” she wrote, “are the leading springs” of history, whereas “virtue in the sublimest sense, has an influence only on a chosen few,” and “the guidance of reason . . . operates too little on the generality of mankind.” Faced with those who lusted for power and self-aggrandizement, most people in the history of the world submitted, too ignorant, cowardly, or despairing to resist.
There were, of course, exceptions to this grim scenario, the most conspicuous of which in the modern world was that of the American colonists who, according to Warren, manifested the kind of virtue and commitment to liberty only rarely witnessed in history. Warren “trembled for the events of the present commotion,” she wrote in 1774; she believed that “there must be a noble struggle to recover the existing liberties of our injured country” and that no one could predict how the struggle would turn out. In retrospect, however, she was able to conclude: “Reduced nearly to a state of nature with regard to all civil or authoritative ties, it is almost incredible, that the principles of rectitude and common justice should have been so generally influential” among the people. From the Stamp Act to the introduction of a standing army in Massachusetts, from the nonimportation agreements to the Coercive Acts, and finally from these tensions to a state of war, “it must be ascribed to the virtue of the people . . . that they did not feel the effects of anarchy in the extreme.” The American Revolution was a signal victory over “an ungrateful, dissipated” Britain, a nation which had fallen into “barbarism” and internal corruption and whose “republican opinions and . . . freedom . . . had been on the wane” since the first Stuart.
Yet despite the triumph of liberty, virtue, and reason on this occasion, Warren was not confident and surely not complacent about the long-term prospects of the Revolution. On the contrary, when she drafted her History during the 1780s and ’90s, she wrote in a mood of profound concern. The new nation seemed to be manifesting the same dreaded signs of decay that had characterized the decline of all earlier republics: political partisanship that would undermine revolutionary unity; financial insolvency that threatened the continued existence of government on all levels; social rivalries that could destroy stability; and, above all, moral and political degeneration that substituted private passion for enlightened self-interest and that eventually would make a mockery of a “republican” culture.
As early as 1780, she wrote to her friend John Adams, wishing for his speedy return from Amsterdam, where he was negotiating loans and a treaty. “We need the steady influence of all the old republicans,” she wrote, “to keep the principles of the revolution in view.” “The truth is,” she added to her son Winslow, then in Europe, America has “deviated from the principles, manners, and spirit, that instigated to an opposition to Britain” and that were essential to the success of the republic. By 1786 she believed the revolutionary venture might fail entirely. Here were the new states, “emancipated from a foreign yoke,” a long and bloody war finally ended, “with the liberty of forming our own governments, framing our own laws, choosing our own magistrates, and adopting manners the most favourable to freedom and happiness, yet sorry I am to say I fear we have not virtue sufficient to avail ourselves of these superior advantages.” Instead, she wrote a year later to Catharine Macaulay, republicanism and independence “are nearly dwindled into theory.” Republicanism was “defaced by a spirit of anarchy,” while independence was “almost annihilated … by a kind of public gambling, instead of private industry.”
Events in Warren’s personal life no doubt intensified her feelings of melancholy and heightened her sense of widespread public decline. Before her History went to press, three of the five Warren sons had died. Charles died of consumption at the age of twenty-four in 1786; the favored Winslow, seeking to avoid a lawsuit for moneys owed, joined General Arthur St. Clair’s ill-fated expedition against the Miami Indians and died in battle in Ohio in 1791 at thirty-one; and the youngest, George, died in Maine at the age of twenty-four. Her oldest son, James Jr., a naval lieutenant, returned from a mission to France in 1779, crippled for life with a shattered right knee that he suffered when the Alliance encountered two English sloops. Moreover, her husband James, distinguished for his service as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, president of the Provincial Congress, and commissary general in the Continental Army, had, incredibly, become politically suspect to the ruling Hancock forces in Massachusetts. James’s sympathy for the Shaysites in 1786, his frequent laments about public corruption, and his moderate antifederalism placed him outside the growing federalist mainstream. Even John Adams, a long-time friend, found his views increasingly obnoxious. Though James was elected lieutenant governor in 1780 (to serve in a Hancock administration), he declined the post and sank into undeserved obscurity.
Although these private events added to Warren’s gloom, they should not be allowed to overshadow her public vision or to depreciate her broader understanding of national affairs. In her fifties and sixties when her History was taking shape, Warren was seventy-seven when it was published, and her commitment to her role as a historian had long since developed into a public as well as a personal one. At the heart of that commitment was the complex of motives that she had mentioned in her letters to Winslow and implied in her letters to John Adams and Catharine Macaulay. Writing history was less a means of edification than a mode of exhortation. Narrative was a political and ethical performance, calculated to instill in a new generation a vigilance toward their liberties and to animate responsibility for their actions. History also provided an opportunity to define the terms—literally, the vocabulary—with which people could properly discuss politics and history.
In short, history was “philosophy teaching by examples,” as Lord Bolingbroke had written; it “inculcates images of virtue and vice,” and its proper task was to train people, especially young people, in “public and private virtue.” This was the eighteenth-century version of the classical “exemplary theory of history,” which swept the Revolutionary generation of historians and which accorded perfectly with Warren’s understanding of her proper role. If she frequently painted history in blacks and whites and with broad strokes, creating simple moral oppositions wherever possible, she did so in order to make utterly clear to the rising generation that the struggle never ended. She stated the lesson plainly near the end of the History. Once corruption begins among individuals, it will, left unchecked, become systemic. If that should ever happen in America, she exhorted, “let some unborn historian, in a far distant day, detail the lapse, and hold up the contrast between a simple, virtuous, and free people, and a degenerate, servile race of beings. . . .”
But, Warren lamented, that “far distant day” already had arrived, and something had to be done to reverse the decline. While a few “old republicans” sought political or constitutional remedies for the disease ailing the body politic, Warren turned to the word, for historical narrative had the power to redeem.
* * *
Warren’s ambition to be useful was no accident. For four generations before her birth on September 14, 1728, the Otises had served in town and colony offices, reaching as high as the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Governor’s Council. Her father had been Speaker of the House. Mercy Otis entered the world, the third child and first daughter of James and Mary Allyne Otis, with all the family’s privileges: wealth, social prestige, and political power; she added to these intellect and energy, and she made the most of her gifts.
When Mercy Otis married James Warren in November 1754, two of the most prominent families in provincial Massachusetts were joined. The two families had taken similar routes to fortune and prestige; were the historical record less ample, both family histories would appear to be parodies of nineteenth-century success stories. John Otis I had emigrated to Bear Cove (later Hingham) in his fiftieth year in 1630. Richard Warren had arrived on the Mayflower ten years earlier. Both quickly acquired wealth and station, the result partly of being first in time and place, partly of their ability to recognize the economic and political possibilities of the new world. By the third generation, John Otis III (d. 1727) had become the most prominent citizen in Barnstable, having tripled the family assets (as his father had before him) and having served as judge of the Probate Court, chief justice of Barnstable County’s Court of Common Pleas, captain of a militia company, and Barnstable’s first representative to the Massachusetts General Assembly. In the same generation, Captain James Warren, also wealthy and respected, had had a similar career, serving as high sheriff of Plymouth County, captain of the militia, and Plymouth’s representative to the General Assembly.
Mercy Otis and James Warren could thus look back upon distinguished ancestors and forward to lives of affluence and respectability befitting people of their station. Viewed from one perspective, they did lead the conventional lives of the provincial elite. They settled on the Warren family estate at Eel River (established by the founder, Richard Warren) and soon acquired the Winslow mansion in Plymouth town. James conducted the family commercial enterprise, engaging in coastal and overseas trade, and entered politics as his forebears had. He became sheriff of Plymouth County and justice of the peace in 1756, offices that suited a rising man of thirty; he later served as a colonel in the militia. Other positions of power and prestige would follow as a matter of course. The Warrens reared five sons with parental devotion and concern.
Viewed from another, more important, perspective, however, the events of the American Revolution made conventional life impossible. While James Warren helped found the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence in 1772, Mercy was writing the plays that launched her political and literary career. When James went to Watertown to serve as president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (succeeding cousin Joseph Warren, who fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill), Mercy began firing the literary salvos that would lead to her collection of poetry, her pamphlet of 1788, and the History.
Warren may have had a history in mind as early as 1775, for Abigail Adams wrote to her in “hope the Historick page will increase to a volume.” At the end of 1787, John Adams wrote from London thanking Warren for a copy of “The Sack of Rome” and cautioning her not to get her hopes up for an English edition of anything she might write. “Your Annals, or History, I hope you will continue, for there are few Persons possessed of more Facts, or who can record them in a more agreeable manner.” But: “nothing American sells here”—not Ramsay’s or Gordon’s histories, or Barlow’s poems.
There is reason to believe that by 1791 Warren had completed the manuscript up to the Treaty of Paris and that she considered Chapter XXXI, which deals with the period from 1783 to the Constitution, as a “supplementary chapter. “It is my purpose Sir,” she wrote to Elbridge Gerry in a “Secret and Confidential” letter of 1791, “at the Conclusion of a certain Historical and biographical Work to make a few [strictures] on the origin[,] the nature & the pitiable consequences of the new government.” She asked Gerry detailed questions about the numerous people he had known in the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention and concluded: “You may think sir the business I am upon is a bold undertaking; it was begun for the amusement of myself[,] continued with a view of conveying to my children the causes of a struggle & . . . information of the conduct & character of the principal actors at the beginning of the revolution[,] and I wish to finish it in a manner that may be useful to them & interesting to their friends. . . . ” The design of the “supplement” was to carry the story forward through the turbulent formation of the new federal government: “to give a general view of the first fifteen years after the peace.”
The timing of the History is of some importance, for Warren may have delayed publication until 1805 because she thought it unlikely to gain approval as a result of its supposed antifederalist and Jeffersonian biases. It is clear from her letters to Gerry that she knew the History would raise political hackles. Moreover, La Rochefoucauld, who visited the Warrens in the late 1790s, said that Mercy and James had, “with great prudence, resolved not to send [the History] to the press while they live, but to leave for publication after their death; the truth may then, they say, be safely declared.” And Judith Sargent Murray said as late as 1805 that “very many” people who otherwise admired Warren were not subscribing to the History because of its “political principles.”
Warren, however, had never balked before. While her political apprehensions probably played some role in delaying the History, they will not explain why the intrepid Warren, who had published “Observations on the New Constitution” in 1788, should have turned shy three years later. In addition to the likelihood of political opposition (which the History did not escape in any case), the delay in publication must be ascribed to Warren’s aesthetic and moral concerns. The story she had set out to tell had not yet ended. She simply could not publish a history ending in 1783, when “the contrast” between the virtuous generation of the Revolution and the “degenerate, servile race of beings” which was succeeding it was so obvious to her. Such a history would not only be factually incomplete; it would also lack the moral unities of historical literature and represent a lost opportunity for Warren to drive home the political and ethical lessons of the American experience.
Nor should the realities of daily life be overlooked. Warren was sixty-three years old in 1791 and isolated in Plymouth, far from Boston publishers. In the same year she lost her favorite son, Winslow, on whom she had lavished great affection (and apprehension) for years. Until Rev. James Freeman, who had experience in handling publications, began serving as her agent, she had little opportunity and less emotional incentive to see her work to publication.
Freeman’s moral support and help with business transactions no doubt helped ease the mind of a distant author. In February 1803, Freeman encouraged Warren to publish the work as soon as possible and not to worry about possible political opposition to it. In October he informed Warren of the terms on which Manning and Loring would publish the History. As the work neared completion in press, Freeman offered to look for subscribers among the membership of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He also suggested half a dozen possible mottoes for the book, drawn from Seneca, Lucretius, Terence, and Manilius, though he cautioned Warren: “The best passages of the ancient authors have been anticipated by former historians.” As usual, Warren followed her own inclinations and used the quotations from Saint Paul and Shakespeare that appear on her title page.
Although Freeman predicted that the History would be widely appreciated, it has been neglected since Warren’s own day. In the decades following the Revolution, a large number of magazines, some devoted specifically to literature, appeared in virtually all of the major cities of America. While John Marshall’s Life of George Washington, Abiel Holmes’s Annals of America, and other historical works were announced, reviewed, and even excerpted in some of these periodicals, Warren’s was announced twice and reviewed only once. The reviewer for The Panoplist criticized Warren’s style, but it is difficult not to conclude that this criticism masked a less worthy agenda. He noted that, though authors should have a free hand in drawing characters, Warren sometimes exercised that freedom “in some instances which a gentleman would not, perhaps, have thought prudent.” The reviewer also observed that all members of society “have our ‘appropriate duties’ . . . even aged women’ have a sphere of usefulness. . . .” But if the History was long neglected because of Warren’s politics or because she was a woman or because it prompted some powerful people (including her old friend John Adams) to personal outrage, it has properly become the subject of study in recent years.
The History has attracted the attention of modern readers neither, principally, because it is the most complete account we have of the Revolution, nor because it satisfies a modern urge for narrative history. If anything, we know more about the Revolution than Warren could have hoped to know, and her style will seem quaint to some and florid to others. Instead, its appeal today lies in its simultaneous presentation of history and author, an appeal which is enhanced because the History is “interspersed with biographical, political and moral observations.” Modern scholars have begun to take seriously Thoreau’s notion that all literature, no matter how “documentary,” is written in the first person—from some standpoint that is both here and now. As a result, we do not simply read through Warren’s History to the historical world to which it points. We read Warren in her History, constantly aware of the narrative voice that presents the world beyond the words. In doing so, we gain a purchase on the political, ethical, and philosophical assumptions that lie behind the language. Historical narrative thus becomes less a window than a mirror—a mirror that reflects its author’s values and expectations, and, if we read carefully, our own as well.
Lester H. Cohen is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.