Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren
“Mrs. James Warren (Mercy Otis)” painted by John Singleton Copley. Painting is located at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

At first glance, tell me how you think this woman is depicted. She is clothed in an elegant satin and lace blue dress tending to delicate flowers. Gazing at the painter, she exemplifies an upper class woman, a motherly nurturer, and femininity at its finest. This image, similar to many other portraits of women in the 1700s, easily places this woman in a traditional gender role. However, the portrait painted by John Singleton Copley around 1763 is not just of any woman. This is Mercy Otis Warren; female warrior for patriotism, political poet and writer, and advocate during the American Revolution. Warren was a key figure of the American Founding generation and fought for the end to slavery and for a new government.

With this new powerful information, do you see Warren portrayed any differently? As a student, trained by art historians, I have always been taught to analyze an image. Instead of Warren’s quiet serene gaze, I see her mouth set firmly in a secret smile ready to defy traditional gender roles through her published writings during the American Revolution. The flowers beside Warren are also symbolic to her causes. Nastertiums, which are the flowers portrayed here, are symbols of patriotism. Flowers often symbolize birth, yet the fragility of life. Warren was the mother to five sons, but the year this painting was completed her sister, Mary, passed away.

The many layers of Mercy Otis Warren as a mother, wife, writer, and political voice enhance the stance she took against the issue of slavery. Warren often used slavery as a metaphor when discussing issues about the government.  “Mankind may amuse themselves with theoretic systems of the liberty, and trace its social and moral effects on sciences, virtue, industry and every improvement of which the human mind is capable, but we can only discern its true value by the practical and wretched effects of slavery,” she explained in her Observations on the New Constitution. Warren found slavery was perpetuated by the government and only a new government and true liberty would solve the issue. Warren also penned The Adulateur almost ten years earlier. This play satirically criticized governor Thomas Hutchinson’s activities in Boston and his loyalty to the crown. Interestingly enough, Mercy Otis Warren published The Adulateur anonymously and  Observations of a New Constitution, under the pseudonym, a Columbian Patriot.  The fact Warren published both without originally identifying herself as the author illustrates the inequality of gender dynamics at the time.

There were a few men that influenced Warren’s views on slavery. Her brother, James Otis, was an early abolitionist. In 1764 he wrote The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved where he stated “Does it follow that ’tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curled hair like wool instead of Christian hair, as tis called by those whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face?” The integrity of Otis is exemplified here where he defends the natural rights of African Americans. Mercy Otis Warren’s husband, James Warren, was also very active in the realm of politics. He encouraged his wife to write and participate in political discussions with friends in their home. These interactions inspired and supported Mercy Otis Warren’s views and introduced her to prominent figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams.

Mercy Otis Warren’s Observations of a New Constitution was significant in her role as an advocate against slavery and the early Constitution. Warren questioned slavery as a choice that was only perpetuating issues between the Colonies and Great Britain. She believed mankind was capable of improving their lives through liberty and virtue, but would never be completely fulfilled if people were still bound in slavery. Warren often used slavery as an example that wouldn’t been ended unless the government improved on its current state. In her writing Warren described the country as a “national character that sinks to a kind of apathy.”  She also felt the Constitution lacked freedom of speech and fair treatment for all and stated in her writing these rights should be included. One example is Warren’s statement ” there was no security in the current system for the right of conscience or the liberty of press.”  Scholars say her writings from Observations of a New Constitution were precepts to amendments in the Bill of Rights, such as Amendment I for freedom of speech and press.

Mercy Otis Warren
Bronze Statue of Mercy Otis Warren found at the Barnstable County Courthouse, Massachusetts.

Mercy Otis Warren’s statue now stands reverently at the Barnstable County Courthouse in Massachusetts. She stands firm, successfully presenting the Bill of Rights. This image represents her ability to forge ahead by stating what she believed. Her demands for changes in the government and an end to slavery were published in her writings such as Observations on the New Constitution.  Even though she may be forgotten as a contributor to the Bill of Rights, her beliefs in freedom for all races and genders shaped our government today. Mercy Otis Warren reminds us we all have potential to make our voices heard.


Sources: Common Bondage: Slavery as Metaphor in Revolutionary America, written by Peter A. Dorsey. Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, Published During Its Discussion by the People, 1787-1788, edited by Paul Leicester Ford. Mercy Otis Warren: The Politics of Language and the Aesthetics of Self, written by Lester H. Cohen.

Images: for the featured image. Image 2: “Mercy Otis Warren” by John Singleton Copley – ABC Gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons . Image 3: “Mercy Otis Warren bronze statue at Barnstable County Courthouse” by Kenenth C. Zirkel – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.



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