“In the name of the people, the fountain of all just authority, relying on the protection of Divine Providence, they mutually pledged themselves to maintain these rights, with their lives, fortunes, and honor.”
The American Revolution ultimately resulted in the founding of a new nation and the complete reorganization of the global political power structure as the United States became an important hub of trade and commerce. Mercy Otis Warren was one of the premier female intellectuals in America during this revolutionary era. The wife of a prominent revolutionary leader, she was in close contact with the members of the Second Continental Congress and was privy to the inner workings of the revolutionary movement from its inception. Warren was intelligent and possessed sufficient wit and clarity such that her work became immensely popular during the period, though she published under a pseudonym to hide the fact that she was a woman.
Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, published in 1805, is one of the most comprehensive historical accounts of the conflict. This excerpt from the closing section of her history presents some of the motivations that fueled the revolution and also addresses the trepidation the revolutionary founders felt. Utilizing classical historical references, biblical citations, and poetic flourish, Warren imparts the importance of these historical events to future generations, communicating the delicate care that will be needed to safeguard the nation from potential collapse.
The American Revolution was the culmination of decades of social and political evolution that gradually saw the American colonies moving further from their allegiance to British authority. The decade leading up to the war was marked by covert political organizations and a rising sense of unity within the colonies as a series of political and economic conflicts with Britain prompted the colonists to organize to protect their interests. Writers like Mercy Otis Warren played a major role in the developing revolution by helping to spread and popularize the sense of dissatisfaction with British authority.
As Britain was struggling to recover from the debt accrued during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), its Privy Council ruled to levy taxes against their American colonial properties—without providing the residents of the colonies with commensurate representation in the British government. As more and more colonists were angered by Britain’s attempts to restrict their trade and threaten their profits, the British hold over the colonies began to weaken. The revolutionary movement grew, culminating in the 1775 uprising, when colonial forces took control of each of the colonies, established the Second Continental Congress and formed a Continental Army to resist British Authority.
Until 1783, the American colonists, joined by soldiers from foreign armies, fought a grueling series of battles against British military forces. Victory was far from certain and many American colonists risked their property, prosperity, and their lives for the cause of independence. In the wake of the revolutionaries’ victory, the founding members of the newly formed government found that their work had only begun. It was now necessary to develop a governmental system strong enough to protect the fledgling nation against foreign influence while simultaneously preventing a powerful elite within the country from developing power similar to that exercised by the monarchies of Europe.
When Warren’s history of the American Revolution was published, in 1805, the nation had only recently built the foundations of the American political, judicial, and administrative systems, including the drafting of the Constitution of the United States. Warren represented a group of revolutionaries who believed passionately in the establishment of popular governance and strongly supported the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They praised these documents as among the most notable in the history of the human species and the evolution of global government. On the issue of the Constitution, Warren, her husband, and some of their closest friends were among the Anti-Federalist camp, believing that the Constitution provided too much power to the central government and had the potential to lead to governmental dominance of the populace. The first decade of the nineteenth century was therefore one in which those on both sides of this debate struggled to reach compromises that would create a strong government while simultaneously protecting the populace from potential governmental corruption.
Born in 1728 in Barnstable, Massachusetts, Mercy Otis Warren was part of a middle class family deeply involved in local and national politics. Though she had no formal education, Warren studied with the tutors her family hired to educate her brothers. She developed a deep interest in classical history and literature, learning to write as well as any man of her generation. In 1754, Warren married James Warren, of Plymouth, a prospering merchant and farmer who also served as Sheriff of Plymouth and a member of the Massachusetts General Court.
Warren’s husband was a passionate supporter of colonial independence and was closely involved in the early development of the independence movement. One of Warren’s closest friends during the period was future first lady Abigail Adams, and the two women maintained a lengthy correspondence covering issues from politics to child rearing. While raising her five children, Warren began writing a series of plays and poems, many focusing on political satire. Her husband and friends encouraged her to publish her writings. Warren released three satirical plays in the 1770s, providing comical attacks at British imperial policy, especially as it applied to Massachusetts trade.
Women were largely prevented from political involvement, but Warren gained political clout by publishing anonymously, a common practice at the time for those publishing political criticism or commentary. Many of Warren’s experiences during this time are recorded in her correspondence with Catharine Macaulay, a British historian whose criticisms of the British monarchy were popular among American revolutionaries.
During the 1770s, Warren was present for many of the key developments leading to the American Revolution. This position, and her skill as a writer, allowed Warren to craft her three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, a work that combined her own memoir with detailed descriptions of events leading to and following the American Revolution. The book, published just after the turn of the century, became one of the most important historical accounts of the era, providing an insightful glimpse into the motivations of the revolution. Both the Warren family and Warren’s relatives in the Otis family suffered personal and financial struggles during and after the war, and this experience helped Warren to illustrate the sacrifices and risks required of those who fought for independence.
In the years following the success of the American Revolution, the country was bound together under the Articles of Confederation. Widespread economic hardship eventually convinced many in the government that a stronger binding agreement was needed to protect the citizens. The Constitution of the United States was the result of this effort in the 1780s. James and Mercy Otis Warren were among those patriots who believed that the greater centralization of powers would threaten their freedom. The Warrens therefore campaigned against the Constitution. Though her husband eventually lost political credibility due to his opposition, Warren continued to publish anti-ratification literature in an attempt to convince citizens to vote against the expansion of the central government. Warren’s 1788 Observations on the New Constitution, published under the name, “a Columbian Patriot,” presents the various concerns of the Anti-Federalists who supported the Articles of Confederation as the only necessary binding agreement between the free territories. The sentiments expressed in Warren’s Anti-Federalist essays echo the ongoing debate over states’ rights versus centralized power.
By her own description, Warren began working on her history of the American Revolution with the goal of writing a memoir of her and her husband’s experiences before, during, and after the war. By the time she completed the project, Warren’s memoir had developed into one of the most detailed histories of the American Revolution written to that date, taking readers through most of the important historical events—from the Stamp Act of 1765 to the ratification of the Constitution in 1788–89. While the work has important historical merit, Warren was a dedicated Anti-Federalist, deeply opposed to the expansion of centralized powers represented by the Constitution. Warren weaves her Anti-Federalist philosophy into her history to such an extent that it may at times eclipse the goal of historical accuracy.
In this excerpt from Chapter XXX, the closing section of her history, Warren discusses the importance of the underlying spiritual and philosophical principles that fueled the revolutionary effort. These passages express the belief among American patriots that they were struggling not only against a ruling power, but were also attempting to defend and promote a new philosophy of governance and a new type of union grounded in classical tradition but freed from the inequities of the monarchy. Warren also poetically praises the sacrifices made by the revolutionaries by stating clearly that the revolution was a success only in so far as the people of the new nation were willing to risk their bodies, property, and prosperity to secure the potential for freedom and opportunity.
At several points in the excerpt, Warren makes reference to the idea of “Divine Providence,” God’s direct action on earth. Warren generally uses the phrase to refer to situations in which she believes that God has either intervened in the unfolding of events or has in some other way affected the outcome of events in support of the revolutionary cause. She refers to Divine Providence in reference to the Declaration of Independence, expressing the belief, commonly held at the time, that the revolution was a struggle of destiny, foreseen and watched over by God throughout the long transition to independence. Warren praises the “genius and heart” of those who drafted the Declaration of Independence, “in the belief, and under the awe, of the Divine Providence.” In another reference to the spiritual underpinnings of the revolution, Warren says that the people who undertook the revolution were now “relying on the protection of Divine Providence,” as they pledged their lives and property to the cause.
While Warren’s references to divine providence establish the underlying sense of predestined spiritual motivation that was at the heart of the revolutionary movement, Warren, like many of the political writers of her age, does not often explicitly mention Jesus or other identifiable Christian figures. The historical and philosophical documents of the era tend to refer to spirituality and religion in general terms, utilizing phrases like “Divine Providence” and “nature’s God.” These linguistic choices derive from the more general political and social principles of the revolution: the desire to create a community and a nation freed from religious persecution, where spiritual hegemony could no longer be used to create systems of unquestioned authority. Warren was a devout Christian, whose religious beliefs played a role in her political and social motivations. However, like many of her fellow revolutionaries, Warren wished to leave the philosophical territory of the revolution open to those of different faiths and different philosophies. For this reason, references to God and spiritual authority were often limited to more universal interpretations.
Writers did occasionally utilize specific references to Christian scripture and biblical passages to illustrate specific points. Warren uses a passage from Isaiah 41:19, for instance, to compare God’s role in planting the trees and plants of the world to the activities of the colonists in transforming the American “wilderness” into “fruitful fields.” Again, the reference to scripture reinforces the underlying spiritual beliefs of the revolutionaries, who felt strongly that the settlement of the New World was a path predestined by God’s will.
In the revolutionary era, the United States was sometimes called the “Great Experiment,” a phrase often attributed to George Washington’s inaugural address and from a letter he wrote to Macaulay in 1790. In writing about the revolution and especially, its consequences and the long process of nation building that followed, Warren makes frequent reference to the experimental nature of the effort and to the uncertainty that loomed over the new nation as it moved forward from the revolution. In Chapter XXX of her history, Warren states, “The inhabitants of the United States had much to experiment in the new rank they had taken, and the untrodden ground which they were now to explore, replete with difficulties not yet digested or apprehended by the most sagacious statesmen.” Here, Warren reiterates Washington’s sentiment that the nation had, with its rejection of the British authority and its rejection of the monarchy system, embarked upon a new and uncertain experiment in statehood.
By the time of Warren’s writing, the future of the nation was far from certain, but it seemed at least that the revolution had achieved its most basic aims: independence and the freedom to create a new type of government that would be more responsive to the people. While Warren praises the strength and honor of those who fought for what she felt was a worthy and noble cause, she is clear to point out that the experiment had not yet reached a conclusion. “Yet it is possible,” Warren cautions, “that [the people’s] virtue is not sufficiently stedfast, to avail themselves of those superior advantages.” In effect, Warren echoes the sentiment that the revolution left much to the nation, but that the return to the political, social, and personal pitfalls that plagued the British monarchy would provide an ever-present threat to the experiment. Warren is especially concerned that the leaders whose charisma drove the revolution might, because of their own skill in motivating the masses, become the type of leaders most feared by the revolutionaries. She explains that “civil liberty, political and private happiness, are frequently bartered away for the gratification of vanity, or the aggrandizement of a few individuals, who have art enough to fascinate the undistinguishing multitude.”
The experimental nature of the American governmental system was a point of both pride and trepidation for those who helped to establish the first government and the founding principles of the United States. Writings from this period frequently expound on this idea, using literal and metaphoric references to experimental design and procedure to illustrate the care and precision that would be necessary if the experiment of the new nation was to succeed. Warren’s writing displays a clear personal and civic pride in what had been accomplished and won by those who joined in the revolution, but she also seeks to caution her fellow Americans as to the threats that lay ahead, many of which derive from human nature itself. Warren writes of all “mankind” that their “foolish passions too generally predominate over their virtues.” She wishes her readers to understand that the threats to the liberty secured through the revolution include not only foreign powers and other nations, but also the selfish interests of those currently enjoying the liberties won through the struggle. The experiment therefore is not only to create a form of government that serves the people, but also to create a nation filled with individuals who are able to rise above their own natures to protect the nation from themselves.
Warren distinguishes the United States as a nation built on a set of principles, including the ideals of liberty and freedom. In her Anti-Federalist writing, Warren’s chief concern is that the central government would eventually gain sufficient power as to curtail the liberty of those living under its protection and governance. Americans living in the nation at the beginning of the nineteenth century had not yet envisaged the social, political, and economic complexity that would come to characterize the United States by the end of that century. Warren refers to the American colonists as “simple” and “virtuous,” implying that simplicity and virtuosity are among the characteristics that would best define the ideal society they were attempting to create. Warren’s focus on simplicity does not suggest that the populace should attempt to remain simple in terms of their sophistication or education, but rather that they should remain humble as the nation grew.
Many writers of the era drew a line of distinction between the relatively humble lifestyle of the American colonists and the lavish opulence of the European society they had left behind, especially of the European monarchy. Warren singles out the vices of greed and selfishness specifically, identifying these characteristics among those qualities of humanity that most threatened the revolutionaries’ new nation and the principles they were trying to promote in the creation of a new government. These qualities, she asserts, threaten to transform the nation into a “servile race of beings, corrupted by wealth, effeminated by luxury, impoverished by licentiousness, and become the automatons of intoxicated ambition.” Here, Warren’s personal philosophy is clear; the success of the nation depended on the free and willing choice of each individual to forgo some potential personal rewards for the good of his or her fellow Americans and for the good of the nation as a whole.
Warren believed that the British monarchy had been corrupted by wealth and privilege, as royal favor was bestowed for personal and private gain while the royal government did little to safeguard the interests of the populace. This was one of the central kernels in the desire to create a new nation based on a different set of governing principles. Warren’s words of warning are therefore aimed at reminding readers of the dangers inherent in this type of system, one in which those in power utilize their economic or political dominance to exploit those lacking such power. She cautions that Americans must “guard on every side,” that the liberty they won would not be “sported away by the folly of the people, or the intrigue or deception of their rulers.” She also cautions that America must not imitate, “either the fashionable vices or the political errors of those countries, where the inhabitants are become unfit for any character but that of master and slave.”
References to the obscenities of exorbitant wealth and the nature of “master and slave” relationships serve to illustrate Warren’s opinion that the nation’s ultimate fate was at this point in the hands of the people and that the people need to learn from history—the sacrifices of their forefathers and the example of other nations—how best to avoid the failings of the British system they fought to leave behind. “It is with nations as with individuals,” she states, “they must try their own projects, and frequently learn wisdom only by their own mistakes.” Warren’s political writing displays a hope that her words would help transmit some of the wisdom learned by those who lived through the revolution to those in subsequent generations, whose job it would be to maintain and protect the nation. To this end, Warren intersperses her writing with frequent messages of warning, aimed primarily at those for whom the revolution was a distant memory. Simultaneously, Warren reiterates the conditions that drove the revolutionaries away from Britain and away from royal authority in the colonies.
Warren’s writing was steeped in the classical tradition, and as such, she shows familiarity with the history of the ancient Greek civilization that first gave birth to the ideals of democratic governance. On several occasions, Warren makes reference to Grecian civilizations, such as when she says that the American territories won in the revolution rivaled the Lycian league and any other confederation of Grecian states in terms of territorial abundance. In another paragraph, Warren references an “ancient historian” who wrote of the “rise, the glory, and the fall of the republic of Athens.” In this case, Warren uses the Grecian example to draw comparisons between the founding of the American republic and the more ancient democratic experiment undertaken by the Greeks in Athens. The problems noted by this ancient historian, in Warren’s opinion, are the same as the difficulties that had been and will be faced in the growth of the American nation.
Warren’s references to Grecian history serve to illustrate a fundamental facet of the revolutionary philosophy, the belief that the American experiment was an endeavor similar in its scope and its potential ramifications to the ancient experimental developments of the Greeks. Having moved away from the monarchic system of Britain and the European states, American intellectuals such as Warren drew upon ancient examples, hoping to be illuminated by the vision and courage of the founders of the Grecian republic to guide their own efforts at nation building. The men and women who committed themselves to the revolutionary cause saw themselves, in many ways, as having more in common with their ancient Greek ancestors than with those who remained loyal and faithful to the monarchy. Just as the ancient Greeks hoped to create a system of government responsive to the needs of the people, the revolutionary Americans saw themselves recreating and refining, though centuries removed, the same experiment in liberty and popular government initiated at the very roots of democracy.
Warren had a unique political philosophy that colored all of her writings, from her poems and plays to her historical and political analyses. Historians have frequently cited Warren as one of the most influential writers of the era and a key figure in feminist history. While Warren’s writings rarely focus on feminist issues or women’s rights, a full understanding of her place in history can only be gained by understanding the political and social role that women played in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century American culture. Historians have examined Warren’s role from this perspective, recognizing the ways in which women found avenues to express their contributions to the American Revolution despite not being allowed to openly contribute to politics and government.
Warren was a woman of deep spiritual and political convictions, and these elements of her personality color all of her writings on history and political theory. She clearly believed, as many of her fellow revolutionaries had, that the path toward independence was part of a spiritual struggle preordained by God. This deeply personal, collective spiritual conviction gave strength and a sense of destiny to those who fought in the American Revolution.
Another major theme in Warren’s writing is the desire to express the sacrifice and difficulties faced by those who took part in the American Revolution. In doing so, she cautions future generations about the dangers involved in the revolutionary experiment undertaken in the founding of America. Warren’s style of writing is characteristic of revolutionary era prose, often colored by poetic metaphor and examples blending literary artistry with the more expository function of her writing. In her history of the American Revolution, Warren draws upon many different philosophical and literary sources, from biblical theology to ancient history, in an effort to communicate the spiritual, philosophical, and emotional essence of the revolution and to preserve the ideals of the revolutionary leaders for future generations.
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