Thursday, March 29, 2012

Write on, Mercy!

March 28 - Today's post contributed by Gretchen Woelfle

Take one determined girl and add some education……
 Who is the perfect poster girl – who became the perfect poster woman – for this year’s Women’s History Month theme: Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment? She’s Mercy Otis Warren, heroine of my latest book, Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Otis Warren.

Mercy was a farmer/politician’s daughter, born on Cape Cod in 1728, who lived through the American Revolution and the birth of the United States, to 1814. During Mercy’s lifetime, women learned to read and write and not much else. Their real education was in housewifery.
But not Mercy. Her older brother, James (Jemmy) Otis, was being groomed for Harvard by the local minister, and Mercy insisted on studying with him. Her father, unlike most, agreed.  She read The Iliad  and The Odyssey (in English, not in Latin and Greek, as Jemmy did,) the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of John Dryden and Alexander Pope. But her favorite book was Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World.
Harvard wasn’t so progressive, so when Jemmy went off to Harvard, Mercy stayed home and read Jemmy’s Harvard books during his school vacations. Jemmy – James Otis – became a brilliant writer and orator who lit the spark that kindled Bsoton’s revolutionary fire.  He earned the nickname “The Patriot,” Not ‘a patriot,’ but The Patriot. He rose quickly in the colonial Massachusetts political world.
Meanwhile Mercy married James Warren and bore five sons. But she took time to write rather learned poetry, full of classical allusions. Mercy also kept up with the radical goings-on in Boston.  In fact, she held meetings in her parlor with leaders like John and Samuel Adams to discuss ways to deal with British oppression. Mercy didn’t just serve the cakes, she sat in the middle of it all, speaking her mind.
Then Jemmy Otis was brutally attacked by his Loyalist enemies. They injured him so severely that he never fully recovered and was declared legally insane.  Mercy was devastated. She wrote, “To see the mind of a man so superior thus darkened, and that man a most affectionate brother, is grief beyond expression.”
Mercy Otis Warren decided to continue her brother’s work.  She wasn’t trained in the law, but in literature. So she wrote political satires – plays mocking Loyalist leaders, and poetic satires that scorned men and women who ignored the patriotic boycott of British goods. “Real genius,” gushed John Adams.
Her work was printed in newspapers in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia – but anonymously. For one thing, she was a woman and people wouldn’t value her work. For another, these were dangerous times – look what had happened to Jemmy.
Mercy’s father and brother valued her intellect, but her biggest fan was her husband, James Warren. He wrote, “God has given you great abilities….For all these I esteem I love you in a degree that I can’t express. They are all now to be called into action for the good of Mankind, for the good of your friends, for the promotion of Virtue and Patriotism.”
In 1776 after independence was declared and the country plunged into war, James joined the army. What more could Mercy do?  She would write a history of the astonishing events she was living through.  Why not? She had a fine education, a clever way with words, and “a mind that had not yielded to the assertion, that all political attentions lay out of the road of female life.” 
She didn’t want to write about battles and armies.  She was interested in the people whose radical thoughts and bold actions rejected a king in favor of a republic.  People like her friends George Washington, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and dear Jemmy.
Mercy was nearly fifty when she began her history. Life often got in her way.  She suffered terrible headaches and eye infections.  One of her sons lost a leg in battle and she confessed, “the Muse has Grown too timid amidst the Noise of War.”  Yet she persevered.  One, two, then three of her sons died. But her passion for politics survived.

Thirty years on, in 1805, at age 77, Mercy published her three-volume 1300 page History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, Interspersed with Biographical, political and Moral Observations by Mrs. Mercy Warren. There was her name, for all to see.
Mercy Otis Warren’s poetry is hard to read today.  Its stiff formality and obscure classical style don’t suit our modern tastes. Her history, though scrupulously researched and documented, is highly subjective.  She had strong opinions about the good guys and the bad guys, and sometimes voiced them rather stridently.
But she did voice them.  She had been educated and empowered to break through social barriers that claimed women weren’t smart enough to write about history and politics.  Mercy Otis Warren was.  She had, her husband said “a mind possessed of masculine genius well-stocked with learning.” 
And she used it.
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Mercy Otis Warren, by John Singleton Copley

For more my process of writing Write On, Mercy see my blog, “Writing Short, Writing Long” at For a review from Kirkus, see
Editor's Note:  
Gretchen Woelfle is an award-winning children's author who's published picture books, short stories, essays, novels, biographies, and environmental books.  When she's not traveling around the world looking for stories, she lives in Los Angeles.  


  1. Hooray for Mercy, for persevering, and hooray for you, Gretchen, for bringing us her story!

  2. What a great addition to a study on the American Revolution. Her story reminds me of Mozart's sister. I would love to see a class compare the two stories.

  3. Thank you Gretchen Woelfle for writing this book & this very lively essay.
    I cheered when I found Mercy was 77 when she publisher her history.
    Every New England school & many with solid collections across the Land, should already have your title. But especially so, every public library in Mass. & Cape Cod.
    It especially pulls me in, local interest, as I've been in touch lately researching a Cape Cod topic. I will share the title with the librarians helping me.