Victor Nuovo: Mercy Otis Warren’s America
Editor’s note: This is the 21st in a series of essays on the American political tradition.
Among the founders of this nation, one whose name is rarely mentioned except among scholars and specialists is Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814). Yet she was held in the highest regard by prominent founders. Jefferson thought her a genius, Adams considered her “the most accomplished lady in America.” A contemporary historian, deeply familiar with her work, described her as “one of the best writers in the English language of her generation, of either sex, on either side of the Atlantic” and compared her to the great English historian Edward Gibbon.
She was a prolific writer of plays, poems, political satires, and letters. Just after the Boston Tea Party, John Adams enlisted her literary talent in the struggle for independence. She began with a satire in a local newspaper entitled “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs” in which she depicted the scattering of tea in the sea as an offering to Neptune, that he sanctioned after seeking the counsel of Sea Nymphs — Neptune remembered the Ladies. Thereafter she became one of the foremost literary advocates of “the common cause.” The title of a recent biography describes her as “The Muse of the Revolution.”
But the comparison to Gibbon is perhaps more apt. Warren’s massive history of the American Revolution, published in 1805, invites comparison with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The editor of a recent collection of her correspondence observes that even when writing a familiar letter, “she rarely wrote just a note,” rather “she seemed to imagine history looking over her shoulder.” She was, like Gibbon, a philosophical historian of very high caliber. (It should be noted, however, that she disapproved of Gibbon’s work because of his low regard for Christianity, counting it as a major cause of Rome’s imperial decline; nevertheless she studied his book and was doubtless influenced by it.)
She wrote history as an unsentimental Deist and Christian moralist. She was also a political realist, who viewed the historical past as “a deposit of crimes,” “the record of everything disgraceful or honorary to mankind” whose leading causes are “ambition and avarice” that “actuate the restless mind.” “From these primary sources of corruption have arisen rapine and confusion, the depredation and ruin that have spread distress over the face of the earth from the days of Nimrod and Caesar” to the present.
One would expect from this that a mood of deep pessimism would pervade her writing. But Warren’s view of America could be bright and hopeful. She envisioned this country as a land of opportunity. Her vision was Jeffersonian. Like her forbears, she perceived the land as “a vast variety of soil and climate” capable of producing “everything necessary for convenience and pleasure,” a place where “everyman might be lord of his own acquisition.” She envisioned a nation of “yeoman farmers” who were economically self-sufficient, educated, and politically free. And because the land was vast and ever expanding, the population would increase also, by a growing birth rate but also immeasurably by immigration, “Here it might rationally be expected, that beside the national increase, the emigration to a land of such fair promise of the blessings of plenty, liberty, and peace, to which the multitudes would probably resort, there would be exhibited in a few years, a population almost beyond the calculation of figures.” I am reminded of the motto on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
But Warren was not so naïve as to believe that her vision could be easily realized. It depended for its realization on the virtue of its citizens, and she watched this diminish in public and private behavior, much as we do today. She perceived three dangers to our nation. First, a failure of national intelligence: the ideals of the revolution, so well expressed by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, were in danger of “dwindling into theory”; second, popular discontent, distrust and disillusionment with government, and a tendency towards anarchy; third, private ambition and the accumulation of wealth and power. One need only follow the news to become convinced that they remain present dangers, and that Warren’s historical insight was prescient and deep.
What did she mean by “ideals dwindling into theory”? Warren was no anti-intellectual; quite the contrary. One need only take note of her learning, evident in all she wrote, to be clear on that. The expression signifies a disembodiment of once vivid ideals and their change into mere speculative hypotheses, opinions of punditry, rather than calls for action. It also signifies an ignoring of facts based on keen observation and experimentation. In these respects, she writes as an activist and a scientific empiricist. What could be more modern?
She was cognizant of popular discontent. She sympathized with the plight of poor farmers, many of whom were veterans of the Revolutionary Army, and took their grievances to heart; her sense of justice made her become their public advocate.
On the other hand, she suspected all private ambition and had a strong dislike for the rich and famous; she despised elitism, but she was ever a lover of truth and philosophically sophistication.
Politically, she allied herself with the party of Jefferson, variously named Republican or Democratic, or Democrat Republican. She was an Anti-federalist and opposed ratification of the Constitution and the form of government it created. She especially worried about the power given to the chief executive; and in general, she wanted more power retained by the states. She faulted the unamended constitution for its lack of an explicit declaration of rights. She labeled supporters of the Constitution “Monarchists,” and singled out John Adams, her sometime friend and sponsor, as their leader. She was especially bothered by Adams’s statement that the British Constitution made Great Britain a Republic. This difference ended their friendship. But Abigail Adams remained her friend and fellow advocate of “the Ladies.
Postscript: Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805) is available online, along with her poems and other writings, and also in a modern inexpensive paperback reprint. It should be required reading in our schools. I also recommend “The Squabble of the Sea Nymphs,” which is available on line, although it is filled with classical allusions and one should at hand have a classical dictionary.
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