Meet Mercy Otis Warren, the Woman Whose Writings Helped Spark the American Revolution

Warren anonymously published patriotic plays, poems in the years before war for independence

June 22, 2017 5:00 am
This Woman Helped Incite the American Revolution With Her Writings
Portrait of American writer and poet Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), author of 'Rise, Progress and Termination of The American Revolution,' containing personal sketches and anecdotes about participants in the American Revolutionary War. (Kean Collection/Getty Images)

In an era ruled mostly by the words and actions of men, one woman played a major role in inciting America’s war for independence.

As Smithsonian notes, Mercy Otis Warren was eclipsed in the history books by her older brother—James Otis, Jr., the man who would’ve been a founding father had it not been for an unfortunate event, where he was beaten by a British customs officer. (The attack left him mentally unglued and eventually, unfit for future office.)

Unlike the majority of her contemporaries, Warren devoured the works of Shakespeare and Greek and Roman literature (among others), and after marrying at age 26, began anonymously publishing satirical plays—one of which, The Adulateur, criticized her brother’s aggressor. As Smithsonian‘s Erick Trickey notes, “three years before the [American] Revolution, Warren’s play warned that a day might come when ‘murders, blood and carnage/Shall crimson all these streets.’” The plays were published in Boston’s Massachusetts Spy newspaper.

Warren followed The Adulateur up with The Defeat, a sequel, which further incited Bostonian patriots to act.

Although Warren published anonymously, many of the leading patriots, including John Adams, knew she was the one behind the plays. He even asked her to write a poem in honor of the Boston Tea Party. She would follow that up with poems instructing colonial women to “boycott British goods.”

In a sense, her pen was indeed mightier than a sword.

Below, listen to author/journalist Cokie Roberts talking about Warren and her legacy.

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