Mother of the Revolution featured in new book

Wesley Ennis

When holiday revelers celebrate the nation’s birth later this week, they’ll have a Massachusetts woman to thank.

Mercy Otis Warren, the unsung mother of the revolution, lived in Plymouth for most of her life. She not only authored some of the most important revolutionary propaganda of her day, she also helped ensure that individual liberties were preserved in the new nation’s Constitution.

Friend of presidents and patriots alike, Warren also published one of the most extensive histories of the American Revolution. Her three-volume, 1,200-page tome was three decades in the making.

Warren’s amazing life is the subject of a new biography by Nancy Rubin Stuart. "The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation" hits book stores, appropriately enough, on July 4.

“I hope it will remind people of a nearly forgotten founding mother who had a key role to play, an eyewitness role and a sacrificial role like many women of the revolution,” Stuart said.

Stuart spent four years researching and writing Warren’s biography. It is the Malden, Mass., native’s sixth book and fourth biography. All four biographies have explored the lives of women who made significant, though unappreciated contributions to society.

Mercy Otis Warren’s obscurity is largely a function of her times.

Born in 1728 in West Barnstable, Mercy Otis was indulged by her father as a child. While most girls were denied an education, Mercy was tutored alongside her Harvard-bound brother.

She married James Warren, Plymouth County’s high sheriff, and moved to his farm on the Eel River in 1754. Her husband was a key member of the Sons of Liberty and a close friend of John and Samuel Adams. The couple hosted revolutionary meetings at their farm on Clifford Road as well as the house they owned in town at the corner of North and Main streets.

When war came, Mercy turned her pen from writing nature poetry to anti-British pamphlets, the Internet of the day. She wrote "The Adulateur," a poem about the Boston Tea Party, at the request of John Adams. Her play, "The Deceit," eerily predicts the fall of British governor and cronies.

When someone later tried to take credit for her anonymously published play "The Group," then former President John Adams rode on horseback to the state archives and set the record straight. “Mercy Otis Warren wrote this,” Adams penned on the archived copy.

She wrote with great effect, but anonymously to ensure the safety of her family.

It wasn’t until a decade after the war, in 1786, that Warren finally put her name to her plays and poems. Her role in the formation of the Bill of Rights remained a secret for a century and a half.

Letters finally revealed Mercy Otis Warren as the author of a 19-page treatise that critiqued the proposed Constitution. She expressed concerns for the fate of the common man and the grand power given to the executive branch. She also worried about the lack of provision for free speech and trials by jury.

George Mason and James Madison are generally credited with drafting the Bill of Rights, but Warren’s treatise supplied the core. “That’s why her statue outside the Barnstable County Courthouse has her holding up the Bill of Rights,” Stuart said.

The people of Barnstable erected the statue in 2001. Mercy Otis Warren is also inducted in the Women’s Hall of Fame in upstate New York.

The Plymouth Antiquarian Society has a scrap of her wedding dress and Pilgrim Hall has an elaborate card table that once belonged to her. The two houses the Warrens once owned still stand as memorials of sorts as well.

The more lasting tribute may be the "Warren Family Letters and Papers 1763-1814" preserved by Pilgrim Hall. Stuart read the letters in researching her book and used the correspondence to bring the woman and her friends to life.

Stuart said academics once hoped to reveal Mercy Otis Warren as a feminist and, in some aspects of her life, she was well beyond her times. “But she was largely traditional. She forwarded women’s education but thought that women had a special role as child bearers and homemakers,” Stuart said.

In addition to reminding people of Warren’s role in American history, Stuart hopes Warren’s life will remind Americans of the core values that made the country great.

“We have resisted oppression and we are the voice of the common man for basic freedoms and the rights of privacy,” Stuart said. “She embodied bedrock American values.”

"The Muse of the Revolution" is published by Beacon Press. Stuart will unveil the book at the Barnstable Court House Friday morning. She will appear at Pilgrim Hall Aug. 2 at 2 p.m.