The Woman Whose Words Inflamed the American Revolution | History

John Adams and some of the other leaders of the American Revolution knew Mercy Otis Warren’s secret. At a time when few women could, Warren contributed her own voice to the cause for freedom. Her piercing satires of British authorities, published in Boston newspapers starting in 1772, had prepared colonists for the final break with the mother country. Adams called her the “most accomplished woman in America” – though he, too, would later feel the sting of her pen. Other Founding Fathers also celebrated her writing when she began publishing under her own name in 1790. A poet, playwright and historian, she’s one of the first American women who wrote mostly for publication. 

The younger sister of James Otis, Boston’s leading advocate for colonists’ rights in the 1760s, Mercy was a bookish girl in a time when many girls never obtained basic literacy. Her father, James Sr., encouraged her curiosity. She demanded to join in when her brothers read aloud and   took the place of her second-oldest brother during lessons with their uncle, a local minister. While James was a student at Harvard, he’d come home and tell her about his studies, especially the political theories of John Locke. She read voraciously: Shakespeare and Milton, Greek and Roman literature, Moliere’s plays in translation, Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. At age 14, she met her future husband, James Warren, at her brother’s Harvard graduation. They married in 1754 at ages 26 and 28, respectively. While raising five children, she began writing private poems about family and nature.

In the 1760s, the Warrens’ Plymouth home became a meeting-place for like-minded patriots. Her husband joined her brother in the Massachusetts legislature—together, they opposed colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson. But James Otis’ career was cut short in 1769, when a British customs…

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