Mercy Otis Warren: Selected Letters

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Among those areas was the world of antiquity. Most subscribers naturally came from these categories, and were concentrated in the cities Kielbowicz, However, because of their low cost and frequent appearance newspapers were readily available in homes and in public spaces to many thousands who were not white, genteel or male.

Mercy Otis Warren

The staggering expansion of print culture was not confined merely to books and newspapers, however. More printed material in the form of pamphlets and broadsides, two main venues for manifesting classical wisdom, came into the view of growing numbers of readers. Such a growing corpus of translations vastly extended the potential number of participators in the classical discourse to Americans who could read English but were not proficient in Latin or Greek Winterer, , The backdrop to this sea of literary and literacy-related change was the substantial increase in private and public schooling after about , as schools of all kinds were being opened across the American provinces Monaghan, , The wives, siblings and daughters of patriots became more noticeable discoursers of the classics as the Revolution progressed, as they became more proficient classicists with their numbers steadily growing Winterer, , 12, Intelligent and well-bred women such as Mercy Otis Warren were positioned to join the chorus of patriots who mobilized the classics for their political goals.

Warren has begun to attract substantial amount of attention from scholars, who recognize the fascinating perspective that her life as revolutionary and writer may provide on her tumultuous times. Similar studies have further underscored the particular ways in which Warren could employ her gender identity to attain forms of political influence unavailable to men Davies, , Placed alongside actual news and transcriptions of political speeches and assembly resolutions, the dramatized republican manifestoes were particularly potent in achieving their political, rhetorical and literary goals.

Cato functioned as the quintessential neo-Roman drama, influencing a generation of American playwrights, including Warren, in setting the tone and themes proper for a Whig drama.

While there is an agreement about the rhetorical function and literary value of the dramas, little has been devoted to explore their literary lineage as neo-Roman dramas, perhaps because they were in no way orthodox neo-Roman plays. Rather, Warren made a daring move, importing Roman heroes into contemporary settings in order to act in revolutionary Boston. In doing so those dramas did not follow standard literary convention, updating Roman history for eighteenth-century audiences.

Her plays rather classicized contemporary, American history. Giving the lead roles of the revolution in America to a cluster of Roman republicans, Warren actually achieved the opposite effect from the standard neo-Roman play: rather than adorning Rome with a Boston-like appearance, Warren chose to Romanize Boston.

145 Rosemarie Zagarri, Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution

Rapatio first appeared in The Adulateur reflecting on the Stamp Act while sitting on the remains of his ransacked house and resolving to destroy Servia and its inhabitants in reprisal. Most readers could without difficulty identify deputy-governor Andrew Oliver under the cover of another character, Limpet. If today we can confidently recognize James Otis Jr.

Alternatively, they could read the plays without making a correlation between the Roman characters and specific Americans at all. Hence, while the Tories, especially the governor and his literary alter-ego, could be easily correlated to the real-life figures they represented, the Roman Patriot leadership remained unattached to specific contemporaries. Throughout the popular plays it were thus Romans that were commanding the American revolutionary movement. The apparent motive of The Defeat , a shorter and even more fragmentary piece than its coarse predecessor, was similar, as the two plays were evidently written while Warren held a similar political as well as literary frame of mind and could arguably be seen as comprising one larger intellectual whole.

The Defeat made use of many of the characters introduced earlier in The Adulateur , including Rapatio-Hutchinson. Warren also employed a similar, if not identical, array of the Roman-Bostonians initially introduced in The Adulateur. Warren meant the dramas to mobilize public opinion against Hutchinson and his circle of cronies, and in favor of the Patriot leadership.

Both pieces were thus tightly connected, sharing themes and personae dramatis. Both also highlighted the Roman character and virtue of Bostonian patriots and satirized and exposed the alleged threatening if comically incompetent corruption of British officials in Massachusetts.

Warren, Mercy Otis

The dramas pitted righteous, freedom loving Roman-Americans against evil, despotic and thoroughly corrupt Tories in a world in which good and evil, Whig and Tory, were unmistakably opposed. For example, in order to subdue the colony he governed, Rapatio ordered his henchmen to murder innocent civilians, an episode intended to remind readers of the Boston Massacre.

While at the end of The Adulateur Rapatio captures the high position he sought, in The Defeat he falls from power and is removed from his gubernatorial position.


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In fact, in a city that did not even host a theatre before Warren most likely had never seen a play performed on stage. Why then would Warren choose dramas to convey and promote her ideas? Not due to a lack of available literary outlets: she could easily have used pamphlets or shorter newspaper essays, the conventional forms to convey revolutionary ideas and sentiments that she would wield throughout her prolific literary career novels, which would first be published in America only in the late s, were not yet an option.

During the early s, however, political dramas emerged as a major literary tool in the war for colonial hearts and minds. The author did not mean, then, that the classical ancients in her dramas would merely ornament an American setting, but rather that they would participate in constructing revolutionary Boston as a city that was Roman as much as it was American. The plays repeatedly alluded, for example, to the original act of regicide, which Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus committed upon Julius Caesar.

The Adulateur , 20, We will never know whether, had the plays been enacted on stage, the actors would have worn Roman attire to complement their Roman nomenclature. This Roman presence in America expressed a remarkable attitude toward, and understanding of, history. She was not interested, as other contemporaries were, in exposing correlations between present and past events and individuals.

Rather, Warren asked her contemporaries to perceive their leaders as Romans and revolutionary America as Rome. Such understanding of history, in which two societies, separated by millennia, were united, had remarkable implications. With her Bostonians as Romans fighting on behalf of republican virtue against sinister, despotic and Caesarian forces, the playwright undermined the conventional understanding of time as what separated what was, is, and will be.


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  6. The battle Americans were encouraged to fight was a cosmic, millennia-old struggle between the forces of tyranny and freedom that began centuries before on the Italian peninsula. That influential history, which she wrote decades after the her revolutionary tracts and of which President Jefferson ordered copies for all Federal department heads, provides another striking example of the ways in which she constructed, now in retrospect, the relationship of the classical world and the Revolution Friedman and Shaffer, , She was the only woman among a group of gentlemen-historians who produced the early revolutionary histories; she was also the only staunch Jeffersonian-Republican among them, and hers was the only history that was published more than a decade after its completion.

    Mercy Otis Warren : selected letters

    Her later history of the Revolution still demonstrated many of the characteristic and peculiar attitudes toward history, particularly toward classical history, her writing manifested years before. Nevertheless, perhaps we should not be surprised that the distinct historical sensibilities that Warren first presented in her plays during the Revolution were somewhat altered in her grand-history, written more than fifteen years after her neo-Roman dramas, and published some thirty years later.

    Now narrating events that already belonged to the past, rather than writing in their midst and attempting to influence their outcome, Warren understood and projected the recent history of the Revolution as a chapter in classical history. In her attempt to construct the past—rather than to mold the present as she had sought to do in her writings from the s—Warren intertwined Roman history in her narration of the American Revolution. Once more, she made an attempt to merge the two historical epochs. This dichotomous, civic-humanistic view inevitably led Warren to interpret history as a succession of battles between evil, tyrannical forces and benign, virtuous ideals.

    She located the historical origins of her account of that momentous battle in the Roman revolution, when the republic was cataclysmically transformed into an empire. It was these principles that overturned that ancient republic. In fact Warren depicted the Revolution as an era during which Americans manifested virtue on a scale rarely witnessed in history. The patriots displayed devotion, self-denial, prudence, and industry to an astounding degree. If Britain attempted to corrupt America, America fought back with its admirable stock of virtuous citizens.

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    Indeed, it was a mainstay of Whig histories. Warren, we have seen, had depicted Britain as a debauched Rome and America as a reincarnation of republican Rome for decades before the publication of her History. Unfortunately for the ancient republic, although Catilina failed in his subverting attempts, his legacy paved the way for Julius Caesar who finally dealt the republic its deathblow.

    Like Catilina of old, Hutchinson was driven by the love of luxury and the lust for power. As in her revolutionary plays, Warren did not shy from complimenting her close circle of Bostonian patriots. Warren and Adams, who were most likely the Brutus and Cassius of her revolutionary plays, were described once more as American-classical protagonists. Even when she described men who were not wholly capable in her opinion to rise to ancient heights, Warren still employed figurative ancient comparisons. In the historical drama players were assigned recognized roles of past figures, according to which they followed their allotted parts.

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    The retired officers of the Continental Army, who formed the Society of the Cincinnati as the war ended in , provided a case in point. Warren merged the present and the past not only in her public writings, she also did so in the private sphere, underscoring the significance of her remarkable historical consciousness.

    It appears that Warren and other revolutionaries were committed in their private lives to Roman role-playing that allowed them to perceive themselves as active participants in the momentous historical events that they believed equaled those of antiquity. In fact, Warren seems to have routinely set what she saw and did within two different contexts: that of eighteenth-century America and that of the classics.

    Her self-fashioning as a Roman matron reveals, then, no interior self that is separable from its public performance. John Adams, her mentor and friend, offered her encouragement in contributing her talents to the patriot cause. Prior to and during the American Revolution, Warren anonymously published several satirical plays and poems reflecting upon political tensions and speaking out against British Tyranny. It was not until after the war in when independence was assured that her political works were published under her name in the collection, Poems, Dramatic, and Miscellaneous.

    After the war, she contributed to the historical record by writing and publishing a three-volume history of the American Revolution titled The History of the Rise, and Termination of the American Revolution in Furthermore, Mercy Otis Warren was also not one to shy away from criticizing her friends and leading figures of the Revolution.