Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History

by Suzanne Scoggins, Director of Women's History
March 5, 2011 · Comments Off  

Mercy Otis Warren, circa 1763, oil on canvas, by John Singleton Copley.

Mercy Otis Warren, circa 1763, oil on canvas, by John Singleton Copley.

If she were a man, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) would almost certainly be remembered as one of our nation’s most influential Founders. Called the “Conscience of the American Revolution” as well as the “Mother of the Bill of Rights,” she was an intellectual powerhouse whose sheer genius compelled respect. John Adams remarked that she possessed an intellect which “[God] bestows on few of the human race,” and that “of all the geniuses which have yet arisen in America, there has been none superior.” Thomas Jefferson said simply, “I have long possessed evidence of her high station in the ranks of genius.” Neither of these men believed in rights for women, of course; but this particular woman they couldn’t dismiss. She was just too smart.

Mercy Otis was born into the Massachusetts intelligentsia, and her whole family was wrapped up in revolutionary fervor. Her brother, James Otis, was the firebrand who came up with the “no taxation without representation” slogan. Her husband, James Warren, was one of the Sons of Liberty and later served as Paymaster General of the Continental Army. The Warren home was a meeting place for patriots throughout the Revolutionary era, and Mercy and James were close friends of John and Abigail Adams.

Mercy herself contributed to the cause with sharply-written plays and extremely persuasive pamphlets. As a woman, she took care to remain anonymous and allow the public to imagine a male author behind the pungent prose. Privately, though, she was well-known to the other intellectual leaders of the Revolution. She regularly advised and corresponded with John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and George Washington.

“The rights of the individual should be the primary object of all governments.”
                                                                                          —Mercy Otis Warren

Perhaps her most critical contribution came after the Revolution, when the young nation was considering the newly drafted Constitution. Mercy was staunchly opposed to ratification—because the Constitution, as written, contained no guarantee of individual rights. She penned the highly influential Observations on the New Constitution, which was circulated throughout the thirteen states. In it she argued that the Constitution should be amended to spell out specific guarantees, including freedom of speech and of the press, the right to trial by jury, and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. The subsequent Bill of Rights owed much to her suggestions.

Mercy capped her writing career in 1805 with the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, her eyewitness account of the War of Independence and its aftermath. President Thomas Jefferson ordered copies for himself and his entire Cabinet.

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