By M. Aber
Mercy Otis Warren was a poet and playwright who spoke about the politics of the Revolution. She was an anomaly of her time. It was not common for women to become involved in politics, and her involvement was significant. Her husband James Warren was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1766, which led to the couple hosting dinners and parties to discuss shared opposition to British politics. James Warren was a classmate of Warren’s brother at Harvard. Although Warren never received a formal education, she was permitted to study alongside her brothers, which is how she developed her strong writing abilities and gained exposure to politics and the Patriot movement.
One of Warren’s more popular books, Poems, Dramatics, and Miscellaneous was published in 1790, making Warren one of the first women to publish a literary work in her own name. She dedicated the book to George Washington, with the intention of obtaining his endorsement to write a history of the American Revolution. This book was just one of many publications that Warren produced throughout and after the Revolutionary War, making a name for herself as an influential figure of the Patriot cause.
The excerpt below from Poems, Dramatics, and Miscellaneous is a poem written in 1774 for John Winthrop, a lawyer and one of the most instrumental figures in the establishment of the colony of Massachusetts. Winthrop asked Warren to write a poem that could help Winthrop understand the impact that the suspension of trade with Great Britain, and what necessities the women of the colonies may need. Warren states at the beginning of the poem: “To the Hon. J. Winthrop, Esq. Who, on the American Determination, in 1774, to suspend all Commerce with Britain, (except for the real Necessaries of life) requested a poetical List of the Articles the Ladies might comprise under that Head.” The suspension of trade with Great Britain was a major step in the escalation of conflict between the colonies and England. Because Warren’s poems and political involvement were unusual for women of the time, this source allows for a unique perspective on the war, as it is written by a woman to represent the interests of women throughout the revolution.
This poem illustrates Warren’s belief in the commitment of women to the revolutionary cause. She seemingly implies that Patriot women value their freedom from Britain over imported goods that Britain could provide. In the last stanza in the excerpt, Warren makes it clear that freedom is worth the price of going without luxuries. Ultimately, this poem illustrates Warren’s staunch stance that freedom comes at any cost, and true Patriots are ready and willing to pay that price.
To the Hon. J. Winthrop, Esq.
Who, on the american Determination in 1774, to suspend all Commerce with Britain, (except for the real necessaries of life) requested a poetical Life of the Articles the Ladies might comprise under that Head.
Freedom may weep, and tyranny prevail,
And stubborn patriots either frown, or rail ;
Let them of grave economy talk loud,
Prate [to talk foolishly or at tedious length about something] prudent measures to the lift’ning crowd ;
With all the rhetoric of ancient schools,
Despite the mode, and fashion’s modish fools ;
Or thew fair liberty, who us’d to smile,
The guardian goddess of Britannia’s isle,
In fable weeds, anticipate the blow,
Aim’d at Columbia by her royal foe ;
And mark the period when inglorious kings
Deal round the curses what a Churchill sings.
But what’s the anguish of whole towns in tears,
Or trembling cities groaning out their fears?
The state may totter on proud ruin’s brink,
The Sword be brandish’d, or the bark may sink ;
Yet shall Clarissa [A 1748 novel by Samule Richardson; details the life of a young girl, named Clarissa, who is at odds with her family] check her wanton pride,
And lay her femal ornaments aside ?
Quit all the shining pomp, the gay parade,
The costly trappings that adorn the maid?
What ! all the aid of foreign looms refuse!
As beds of tulips strip’d of richest hues,
Or the sweet bloom that’s nip’d by sudden frost,
Clarissa reigns no more a favorite toast. [This was a famous British novel, thus the increased tensions and disdain towards England could likely be attributed to why it is “no more a favorite toast.”]
For what is virtue, or the winning grace,
Of soft good humour, playing round the face;
A sharp debate ensu’d on wrong and right,
A little warm, ‘tis true, yet all unite,
At once to end the great politic strife,
And yield up all but real wants of life.
But does Helvidius, [An author from the late 300s who believed and wrote that Mary could not have been a continuous virgin.] vigilant and wise,
Call for a schedule, that may all comprise?
‘Tis to contracted that a Spartan safe,
Will sure applaud th’ economizing age.
But if ye doubt, an inventory clear,
Of all she needs, Lamira offers here;
Nor does she fear a rigid Cato’s frown,
When she lays by the rich embroider’d gown,
And modestly compounds for just enough–
Perhaps some dozens of more flighty stuff;
With lawns and lustrings–blond and mecklin laces,
Fringes and jewels, fans and tweezer cafes;
Gay cloaks and hats of every shape and size,
Scarfs, cardinals, and ribbons of all dyes ;
With ruffles stamp’d and tiprons of tambour,
Tippets and handkerchiefs, at least, three score;
With finest muffins that fair India boasts,
And the choice herbage from Chinesan coasts;
(But while the fragrant hylin leaf regales,
Who’ll wear the homespun produce of the vales?
For if ‘twould save the nation from the curse
Of standing troops; or, name a plague still worse,
Few can this choice delicious draught give up,
Though all Medea’s [A greek mythology figure who helped to obtain the golden fleece.] poisons fill the cup.)
Add feathers, furs, rich sattins, and ducapes,
And head the dresses in pyramidial shapes;
Side boards of plate, and porcelain profuse,
With fifty ditto’s that the ladies use;
If my poor treach’rous memory has miss’d
Ingenious T—-l shall complete the lift.
So week Lamira, and her wants so few,
Who can refuse ?—they’re but the sex’s due.
‘Tis true, we love the courtly mein and air,
The pride of dress, and all the debonair;
Yet Clara quits the more dress’d negligee,
And substitutes the careless polanee;
Until some fair one from Britannia’s court,
Some jaunty dress, or newer taste import;
This sweet temptation could not be withstood,
Though for the purchase’s paid her father’s blood;
Though loss of freedom were the costly price,
Or flaming comets sweep the angry skies.
- In the sixth stanza, Warren talks about goods from various Asian countries, specifically India, a British colony. What do you make of the fact that Warren is citing the importance of these goods to other colonies of England? What could she be trying to communicate?
- In the fifth stanza, Warren writes “When she lays by the rich embroider’d gown, /And modestly compounds for just enough.” Some have suggested that Warren is implying in these lines that Patriot women were capable of giving up extravagances in favor of cutting ties with England and promoting independence. Do you agree? Why or why not?
“Mercy Otis Warren.” American Battlefield Trust, www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/mercy-otis-warren.
Michals, Debra. “Mercy Otis Warren.” National Women’s History Museum, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mercy-otis-warren.
Tarantello, Patricia F. “Insisting on Femininity: Mercy Otis Warren, Susanna Rowson, and Literary Self-Promotion.” Women’s Studies, vol. 46, no. 3, 2017, pp. 181–199., doi:10.1080/00497878.2017.1287077.