The Reading Room
Mind Your Manners: Mercy Otis Warren on the Character of the American People
Why should we care about Mercy Otis Warren’s political writings today? Just because she’s a woman? No, but then again, maybe yes.
Even if we keep sex and gender out of it, Warren was impressive in her own right. At an early age, she studied the classics—history, literature, political theory, and philosophy—with her brother, James Otis. During the War of Independence and the debates over the Constitution, she drew upon this rich education while writing political poems, plays, and tracts for general consumption. Perhaps most impressively, in her three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, she imparts the wisdom she gained through study and experience by commenting on human nature in general and the character of the American people in particular.
But should we keep sex out of it? No legitimate historical account of her life could. As a woman, when her brother and fellow-pupil went off to study at Harvard, Mercy Otis was relegated, she explained, “to the narrow circle of domestic cares.” (Although as the daughter of Mr. Otis and the wife of Mr. Warren, her hearth was at the center of many of Massachusetts's most important political affairs). She published nearly all of her writings under a pseudonym. Only her later writings, her History and a collection of poems and plays, were published under her own name.
By publishing in her own name, however, Warren drew sharp criticism from even those who had once been her admirers. Although at first encouraging her to write an account of the war, John Adams changed his tune after reading her descriptions of his own principles and public service. “History is not the Province of the Ladies,” he then told Elbridge Gerry.
In response to Adams, we could almost imagine her singing Dolly Parton’s famous refrain, “My mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman.” Mrs. Warren, however, refused to respond to many of Adams’s very detailed challenges and critiques, for, she explained, Adams had failed to address her in a manner due to a wife or a lady.
While the weaknesses of Warren’s work may not have been caused by her sex, its strength rests in her attention to the all-important influence of domestic manners and private virtue—precisely what Tocqueville tells us is the mark of the American woman.
In Warren’s account, after the Providence of God, the character of the American people seems to have been the single greatest cause of victory over England. That character was born and raised in the narrow circle of domestic cares.
Consider her description of the American camps:
The ladies of the principal American officers repaired to the camp. Harmony and hospitality, united with that simplicity which had hitherto been characteristic of the domestic taste, style, and manners of the most respectable Americans, reigned among them for several months, without the smallest interruptions.
The manners and virtues of General Washington and his troops (as well as the presence of the opposing vices among the Hessians and the British) were responsible for bringing many loyalists back to the “American standard.” They also served to earn the respect of the English.
After commenting on the severe and merciless treatment of the captured “brave and unfortunate” American soldiers, Warren writes:
This was far from being the spirit of Americans; their victories were generally accompanied with so much moderation, that even their enemies acknowledged their generosity. General Burgoyne and others had often done this; and lord Cornwallis now expressed both pleasure and surprise, at the civility, kindness, and attention, shewn by the victor to the vanquished foe.
Warren shares these accounts not simply to congratulate the heroes of the Founding era but to encourage the American people to return to their characteristic virtue. She sees that, while virtue is important in war, it is all the more necessary in the life of a republic—for a republic requires much more than “passive obedience” on the part of its citizens.
Again, Warren turns her attention to the private virtue of the American people. Though private virtue is not the same as public virtue, private virtue is its source. How could a citizen sacrifice his own interests for the sake of his country or the public good (res publica) if he has not first developed those habits which impel him to curb his own “interest or appetite?”
To conclude, I would like to borrow the words of one of Warren’s contemporary critics, who condemns her History as “the product of a mind that had not yet yielded to the assertion that all political attentions lay outside of the road of female life.”
For this, for teaching that the narrowest circle has the widest impact on the political sphere, we ought to be grateful to Mercy Otis Warren, one of our Founding Mothers.