Memory  /  Biography

Mercy Otis Warren, America’s First Female Historian

At the prodding of John and Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren took on a massive project: writing a comprehensive history of the Revolutionary War.

Across the ocean, British women writers were now publishing their works in their own names. Among them was social reformer Elizabeth Montagu and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the feminist pamphlet “A Vindication of the Rights of Men.” In 1792, Mercy decided to use her byline for the first time in her collection, Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous 

By then her favorite son Winslow had died, her eyesight was failing, and the new Federalist policies of the government so distressed her that she lost interest in publishing her history. But at the turn of the 19th century, two events changed that. The first was the 1800 presidential election of Thomas Jefferson, who limited government spending and other federalist policies in favor of individual rights. The second was her oldest son James’s offer to serve as her secretary and prepare her history for publication.

“Though in its infantile state, the young republic of America exhibits the happiest prospect,” septuagenarian Mercy declared on the last page of History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution. On December 21, 1805, she and James signed an agreement with Boston publisher Ebenezer Larkin to publish 1,500 copies of the book in three volumes. She sent copies to friends, former President John Adams, and President Thomas Jefferson, the last of whom ordered several for his cabinet. But after an initial flurry of congratulations, the book received little attention.

Especially disquieting was silence from her former mentor, John Adams. It was not until July 11, 1807, that the former president wrote Mercy that “in the spirit of friendship, that you may have an opportunity in the same spirit to correct” certain mistakes. Chief among his objections were Mercy’s words that “his prejudices and his passions were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment.” Adams’s letter then continued to defend his deeds and accused Mercy of neglecting them. Stunned, she retorted that her history was “composed with impartiality, to state facts correctly and to draw characters with truth and candor.” After all, she added, quoting from John’s letter of March 1775, “the faithful historian delineates characters truly, let the censure fall where it will.”

A verbal duel commenced, one in which Mercy defended her book against her former mentor’s belief that she’d written a scathing analysis of his character. During that summer, Adams sent Mercy nine additional angry letters. Mercy replied with five letters of her own, assuring Adams that if she misrepresented him, she would correct them if there was a second edition. She then announced that she was ending their correspondence. “History is not the province of the ladies,” John later grumbled to his friend, Elbridge Gerry.