Letters on Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“all Europe is interested in the fate of America”

Summary Overview

Mercy Otis Warren was a learned woman who lived through the momentous events of the American Revolution. She was privy to many of the inside secrets of the revolutionaries of the time, due to her social position in Massachusetts. Although she did not herself fight, as did many of the men of the time, she participated in the struggle for independence with her pen. Warren is best known for writing revolutionary history, satirical plays, and poems, but she also wrote copious letters to people on both sides of the Atlantic describing revolutionary events and discussing political opinions and ideas. She was somewhat of a rarity in this time period as a woman involved in such high politics. The letters chosen here for study were written at a tumultuous time in American history, when the colonists were just beginning to take up arms against Great Britain and trying at the same time to define what an independent America might look like.

Defining Moment

Mercy Otis Warren was in a very real sense, a “Founding Mother” of the United States of America. She lived through the momentous events of the American Revolution, and documented them in her three-volume work, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution (1805). She wrote in many different genres, but one of her most prolific types of writing was her correspondence. Through her letters she could share the experiences she was living through as well as her opinions about them to her circle of friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic. It is important to remember that she was not an objective bystander to these events. She wanted to ensure that the story of America’s trials and tribulations at the hands of the British were known to those in Britain, in order to justify the colonists’ actions against such injustices as the Boston Tea Party and the responses to the Intolerable Acts. She also wanted to influence the opinions of others in her social network closer to home, such as Hannah Lincoln, who did not share Warren’s opinions about the future of the colonies.

Warren’s family had a history of conflict with British officials, and so her ideas about liberty and freedom for the colonies came to her naturally. She was, however, no warmonger. In her letters she frequently expresses a desire for “reconciliation” with Britain. She was reluctant to turn against Britain, which, to her, would mean turning against her own countrymen and women. She knew that war would bring death on both sides, and more than likely it would take at least one of her own family; a son or possibly even her husband. War was not to be entered into lightly, especially civil war, which is what the American Revolution was. But when it happened, she found herself at the center of history being made, and she was not about to let it pass by without recording it for posterity. As a woman, she could not take up arms in defense of her home and her rights, but she found another equally effective weapon in her pen, and she put it to good use throughout this time period.

Author Biography

Mercy Otis Warren was born in Barnstable, Massachusetts, on September 14, 1728. She was the first-born daughter and third child to parents James and Mary Allyne Otis, who eventually had thirteen children. Warren could trace her ancestors back to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Her father, James, was a farmer, a merchant, and a lawyer. He also served as a county judge and, eventually, as a colonel of the revolutionary militia. One of her brothers, James, was known by the moniker “the Patriot,” and was best known for his vocal opposition to taxation without representation, a term which is often attributed to him. She was the recipient of an excellent, if informal, education, as she sat in on the tutoring sessions of her brothers James and Joseph, who were preparing to study at Harvard.

Mercy Otis married James Warren of Plymouth, Massachusetts, when she was twenty-six. He was a good match for the intellectual woman, as he was a Harvard graduate. A merchant and a farmer, he was eventually elected to the Massachusetts legislature. The couple had a farm on the Eel River, which they inherited from James Warren’s father, as well as a home in Plymouth. They had five sons between 1757 and 1766.

Warren’s husband and her brother James both encouraged her to write. In 1775, she became her husband’s private secretary and in this position became aware of secret intelligence about the Revolution. Her husband acted as the speaker of the Massachusetts Congress and as Paymaster General of the Continental Army. She had an eyewitness view of the events that unfolded in the war against the British. She was close to numerous revolutionary figures who often held meetings in the Warren home. She was also a prolific letter-writer and corresponded with many high-profile people on both sides of the Atlantic, including the British historian and writer, Catharine Macaulay. The Warrens were also close friends with Abigail and John Adams, and Warren corresponded with both separately. Unfortunately, the two couples fell out over ideology, as the Warrens were avowed Republicans who favored states’ rights, while the Adamses were fervent Federalists who advocated a strong central authority. When Warren published her three-volume historical account of the American Revolution in 1805, the rift only deepened. Warren died in 1814 at the age of eighty-six.

Document Analysis

Mercy Otis Warren used her pen as a weapon during the American Revolution. She wrote satirical plays, poems, letters, and ultimately, a history of the conflict. As an eyewitness to this important period in history, she provides an important historical account of events, but it is far from a subjective account. Warren chose a side during the tensions leading up to the war and the war itself, and used her writing to move her ideas on justice, freedom, and liberty forward as an avowed patriot.

Both her own family and that of her husband were active in the governing of Massachusetts, allowing her to be a part of many of the early preparations for war. In the three letters chosen for study, which were written very close to and during the outbreak of the Revolution, we can see the evolution of her arguments against British rule and her worries as war becomes a reality. Her purpose in writing was to help form opinions, fix certain principles in the minds of those she wrote to, and accurately record the events that were occurring. The first two letters were penned by Warren before armed hostilities broke out; she spends most of her time discussing the reasons the colonists’ threat of war. These letters also contained a moral argument for going to war against the colonies’ “parent,” meaning Britain.

The fact that she was a woman was also important. Although she was not a confrontational feminist in the same vein as her British contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, her female voice was an important one. She corresponded with many other women of her social station, both in colonial America and in Britain. This sharing of ideas by women via the “familiar letter” was sometimes referred to as “domestic patriotism.” It was yet another way to transmit patriotic ideals. But Warren also had a more public voice than some of her female correspondents and her intellect was recognized by leading male intellectuals of the day, including John Adams.

Warren’s letters were meant for both a private and a semi-private audience. When she wrote to a correspondent, she wrote mainly to the person to whom the letter was addressed, but at the time, with limited means of disseminating important information, her letters were also read aloud to small circles of friends and acquaintances. This made her letters, in many ways, propaganda for the colonial position and reports or newsletters for republican sympathizers both in Britain and in America. As she wrote to people on both sides of the Atlantic, her letters were an important means of communicating the ideals of the Revolution.

The three letters here were written in the important period between 1774 and 1775, when armed conflict between American colonists and the British first broke out. The first letter was addressed to Hannah Quincy Lincoln, a childhood friend of Warren who had grown up with her on Cape Cod and so was from the same politically elite circles. Lincoln’s nephew eventually married Warren’s niece, so the families remained close throughout the conflict, even though Warren’s ideas about the future of the colonies differed from those of her friend.

Warren’s letter to her old friend is polite, as always, but also contains a rebuke about Lincoln’s viewpoint on the colonial uprising. Warren spends much of the letter explaining to Lincoln exactly why it is that the American colonies can no longer remain under British rule. She begins by appealing to her as a woman. When she says “every domestic enjoyment depends on the decision of the mighty contest” she is trying to appeal to Lincoln’s sense of family and the importance of her domestic sphere. She does not want her to be an “unconcerned silent spectator” to these historic events, and indeed appeals to her role as mother to bring this point home.

Warren understands that no mother would want her offspring to die as a result of the lawlessness that was overtaking Massachusetts at the time, nor would she want her children to die fighting for freedom and liberty. However, Warren is clear that this would be a vastly superior fate to having to continue to live under the “chains of thralldom” that continued rule by Britain represents. In this she is demonstrating the theme of “Republican motherhood” that held that women, as mothers, had a profound effect on the nascent American nation and its values. As a true “Founding Mother” of the American Revolution, Warren felt that women, as the keepers and transmitters of the ideal of civic virtue, could wield their influence through the education of their children and sometimes even by correcting their husbands. In this way, there was no disruption of the traditional gender roles.

She then goes on to explain some of the grievances of the colonies against Britain, in order to provide more concrete details for her friend to consider. In this, she is in effect drafting her landmark revolutionary history that was to be published in 1805, and refers to the “faithful historian,” which no doubt references herself. She is also practicing a rhetorical position to defend the colonial uprising, as she knows her letter will find a wider audience than just Lincoln. As opposed to Lincoln, who seems to be upset by the colonists’ recent violent actions, Warren feels the colonists have been remarkably patient in the face of “repeated injuries.” Warren then demonstrates her knowledge of history as she cites examples of other countries’ experiences with civil wars and uprisings, in particular those of Berne in Switzerland and Britain’s own Civil War in the seventeenth century. She takes pains to point out to her friend that she feels what America is going through now is less dramatic and violent than those historical examples.

Warren then turns her argument to the natural laws of man. She first makes the point that it is much more difficult to get people to revolt than it is to subjugate them in the first place. She is willing to accept “almost a state of anarchy” for a time than “abject submission to corrupt and venal governors.” She is worried that her friend seems to oppose this “spirit of independence” and cannot see that humanity was originally created equal, although she admits that some form of oversight and governance selected “by mutual consent” is necessary. After affirming that, originally, all humans are equal, she then goes on to state that certain races are indeed inferior, and makes reference in particular to Africans and Asians, whom she calls “Asiatics.” This was a common viewpoint in this time period, as slavery existed in the colonial period. She concludes by trying to reassure Lincoln that even though there is lack of stability in America at present, she feels that the colonists are still basically moral, good people. Her only worry is that if the conflict continues, revenge may bring out the worst in people.

Warren’s next two letters are addressed to Catharine Macaulay, who was a fellow female historian and writer living in Britain. Her own education was more informal than Warren’s, but by spending hours in her father’s library, Macaulay developed a taste for Roman classical history, and by extension, republican ideals. Macaulay was in the midst of publishing an eight-volume history of Britain in the volatile seventeenth century from a Whig perspective, and as a result, became the darling of British republicans of the day. The two women, who had so much in common, began corresponding in 1773, and as events sped up, Macaulay became more interested and insistent in receiving news from her new friend. The first letter, dated December 29, 1774, was far less confrontational than the one Warren wrote to Lincoln, as her correspondent in Macaulay was far more sympathetic to the revolutionary spirit and its ideals.

Warren was well aware that Macaulay was still in the midst of writing her monumental eight-volume history, and mentions it in her introductory sentences. She refers to Macaulay’s “more important pursuits,” but then acknowledges that the subject matter of Macaulay’s history (being the Stuart kings, portrayed as tyrants and despots) would of course spark her interest in the events on the American side of the Atlantic. By saying this, she is insinuating that America is currently also governed by tyrants and despots. Warren then speaks historian to historian when she reflects on recent British policy in the Americas. She details the reasons that the colonists have taken action against the British, highlighting the closure of Boston harbor earlier in the year, which was one of the Intolerable Acts. She mentions the debt Britain had incurred by taking part in the Seven Years’ War, and the fact that the colonies had ever since been “Voluntarily pouring their treasures into the Lap of Britain.” It was this taxation to pay for the war without having any kind of political representation within the British Parliament that was particularly irksome to Warren. Warren situates the response of the British to the Boston Tea Party of 1783 as yet another injustice to the colonies. As she sees it, the colonies have every right to feel aggrieved, but are still uncomfortable in their opposition to Britain. Warren wrote this letter just before the first armed conflict of the American Revolution broke out at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. She was still hoping that there could be reconciliation between Britain and its colonies: “But may we not yet hope for more lenient measures!” She ensures that Macaulay knows that they are ready to fight if necessary, but portrays Britain as being the more aggressive (“ready to plunge her dagger into the bosom of her affectionate offspring.”) To further explain how the colonies are prepared to fight if necessary, she invokes her knowledge of classical Rome. Although she was not allowed to study the Greek and Latin languages as her brothers were, she nonetheless had a strong knowledge of classical Roman history, as she had read translations. Here she refers to the Decii and the Fabii, two notable families of Rome. She obviously knows enough of the language to use the correct Latin plural form of the names (Decius is the singular; Decii is the plural). The Decii were of the patrician class (aristocratic), while the Fabii were of the plebeian class (common, working class) and they once fought side-by-side for a common cause. By saying that each American colony has “her Decii and her Fabii,” Warren is using a classical Roman allusion to inform Macaulay that patriots from each colony and class are ready to come together to fight for rights that they considered their own. This is actually far from accurate, as there were both patriots and those loyal to Britain who were resident in the colonies. Her letters would be shared semi-publicly in Britain, and so this could also be considered pre-war propaganda.

By of the time Warren had written her next letter to Macaulay, dated August 25, 1775, the American Revolution had broken out. The tone of this letter is less philosophical, with fewer moral arguments. Instead, the letter focuses on the events of the war itself, and as such is more in the form of a report or newsletter. While she notes that the “sword was half drawn from the scabbard” in her last letter, she now admits to Macaulay that the sword is now fully drawn. Armed conflict between the two sides has broken out. By now there is no turning back, and it seems no reconciliation with Britain is possible.

Warren assumes that Macaulay has already heard of the major events, by means of newspapers or through other private correspondents. Therefore, she very generally alludes to the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, where the colonial militia fought back the British regular army under the command of General Thomas Gage. She then talks about the Siege of Boston, when the New England Army (later part of the larger Continental Army) surrounded Boston in order to contain British troops within the city. Many Bostonians left the city for “their Brethren in the Country,” as disease raged and they were faced with a lack of provisions throughout the siege. She finally mentions the “Conflagration of Charlestown ,” which refers to the burning of Charlestown during the Battle of Bunker Hill, located near Boston. The colonial militia fought valiantly but failed to hold the strategically important location. The British took heavy losses during this battle, which took place during the Siege of Boston on June 17, 1775. Warren cannot help but give a commentary on the aftermath of this battle in regard to the immoral actions (“wanton Barbarity”) of the British.

Warren then gives Macaulay a sense of the colonists’ preparations and capacities to fight. Again, Warren’s letter was meant to be shared with sympathizers in Britain, and so she may have added this part to show how serious and how organized the colonists actually were. Warren reports on the state and size of the Continental Army, of which she was intimately aware because her husband had been appointed Paymaster General. She then highlights General George Washington, the commander of that army, and describes him as being “in the first class of the Good & Brave.” Good, solid military leadership would be important if the colonies were to succeed. She makes note of the fact that the colonists themselves are paying for this army, and uses the term “United colonies of America,” to demonstrate the unity of spirit and purpose present in America. She then issues a veiled threat that if Britain were to send further troops to put down the colonial uprising, they would be met with three times the present number of colonial militia soldiers, who would all be ready to fight against Britain, who she characterized as “the Destroyer of peace, liberty & happiness.” Here, Warren puts the blame squarely on Britain for impacting the quality of life in the colonies and plunging them into armed conflict.

At the conclusion of the letter, Warren refers to the Olive Branch Petition, sent by the Continental Congress directly to King George III on July 5, 1775, which asked the king directly for some form of reconciliation between Britain and the colonies. George III rejected the petition without reading it, instead issuing a proclamation that the American colonies were now in open rebellion against the Crown. This reluctance on the part of the colonists to revolt is again made clear. She mentions that both sides of the conflict seem to be “defensive” and in effect would rather not fight. Instead, they would prefer some deity (“Benign Hand”) to intercede to stop the war. Here, she is referring to the fact that a civil war, when countrymen fight fellow countrymen on matters of principle, is often the worst kind of war. It is easy to see her compassion and her fervent desire for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Essential Themes

Warren’s letters contained themes that, at times, conflicted with one another; she wrote passionately about the moral argument for more colonial freedom and independence from Britain, but at the same time wanted to see these outcomes as a result of reconciliation and diplomacy and not as a result of war. As events began to unfold, however, she could see that there would be little chance of reconciling peacefully with Britain and the idea of severing all ties with the British became more and more a reality. She was a patriot and desired nothing but justice for the colonies, and used her writing as a way to support her beliefs. As a woman, she could not fight for the freedoms and rights she felt she deserved, but used her intellect to battle for them instead.

Warren’s three letters, written by a woman to a woman, give a unique perspective on the revolutionary era. As such, they are important primary documents. The letter to Hannah Quincy Lincoln provides an insight into the ideological conflict present between many of the colonists, where some were patriots and others loyal to Britain. As a woman speaking to another woman, Warren appeals to Lincoln as a wife and mother to help make her point.

The letters to Catharine Macaulay show how events in the colonies were of interest to people in Britain itself. These letters are also interesting, as they detailed correspondence between two female historians, one on each side of the Atlantic, who shared similar republican ideals. This is therefore a rare type of correspondence for the time period. Each woman ultimately wrote important histories, although Warren lived through the events she documented while Macaulay wrote about events from the preceding century.

Warren’s reports of events leading up to the American Revolution, and then the events of the war, were documented within these letters to her small circle of friends in the American colonies and in Great Britain. As her correspondence was also read aloud to a select audience and so became semi-public documents, she acted as an early version of a war reporter. At the time, these letters may have had a limited audience, but they did provide sympathizers in Britain with an eyewitness account of events. They also had another, more ambitious, use. They acted as drafts for her three-volume history of the Revolution, a work that provides the student of American history with a valuable account of these momentous events, written by someone who had experienced many of them firsthand.

  • Davies, Kate. Catharine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren: The Revolutionary Atlantic and the Politics of Gender. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • Davies, Kate. “Revolutionary Correspondence: Reading Catharine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren.” Women’s Writing: the Elizabethan to Victorian Period 13(2006): 73–97. Print.
  • Gillis, Jennifer Blizzen. Mercy Otis Warren: Author and Historian. Minneapolis: Compass, 2006. Print.
  • Richards, Jeffrey H. and Sharon M. Harris. Mercy Otis Warren: Selected Letters. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2009. Print.
  • Rubin Stuart, Nancy. The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation. Boston: Beacon, 2008. Print.
  • “Warren, Mercy Otis (Sept. 14, 1728 O.S.—Oct. 19, 1814).” Notable American Women: 1607–1950. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971. Print.
  • Zagarri, Rosemarie. “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother.” American Quarterly 44 (1992): 192–215. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Gelles, Edith B. “Bonds of Friendship: the Correspondence of Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 108 (1996): 35–71. Print.
  • Lockhart, Paul. The Whites of Their Eyes: Bunker Hill, the First American Army, and the Emergence of George Washington. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.
  • Oreovicz, Cheryl Z. “Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814).” Legacy 13(1996): 54–64.
  • Sarkela, Sandra J. “Freedom’s Call: The Persuasive Power of Mercy Otis Warren’s Dramatic Sketches, 1772–1775.” Early American Literature 44 (2009): 541–70. Print.
  • Warren, Mercy Otis. The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, Interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations. ed. and ann. Lester H. Cohen (2 vols.) Liberty, 1988.
  • Zagarri, Rosemarie. A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. Wheeling: Davidson, 1995. Print.

Categories: History