A Woman's Dilemma
Rosemarie Zagarri is University Professor and Professor of History at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She is the author of The Politics of Size: Representation in the United States, 1776-1850 (1987) and Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (2007). She is also editor of David Humphreys'' Life of General Washington' with George Washington's 'Remarks' (1991).
A Woman's Dilemma
Politics as a Family Affair
Key terms and ideas
Enlightenment ideas about childrearing; Republican Motherhood; Thomas Hutchinson; James (Jemmy) Otis; Writs of Assistance case; Stamp Act; Stamp Act congress; Townshend Acts; boycott
In Mercy Otis Warren's time, politics was a man's affair. Both men and women believed that it was right and proper for men to govern. Women were officially shut out from the polling place, from the legislative chamber, even from public discussions of political issues. Women who interested themselves in such matters ran the risk of being labelled "manly" and would, it was thought, assume masculine characteristics. Only at their own peril did women cross the invisible boundary that demarcated appropriate behavior for their sex.
For Mercy, however, politics was the favorite family sport. She had cut her teeth hearing about her father's involvement in town, county, and colony-wide politics. Her brother James was a political animal as well. As an adult, he roared onto the Massachusetts political scene and became one of the leaders of the opposition to royal authority. Her husband eventually entered the political fray as well. Whether she wanted to be or not, Mercy was never far removed from the tempestuous political issues of the day.
These experiences provided Mercy with a political education. The 1760s would prove to be an especially turbulent time in Massachusetts politics. Over the course of the decade, Mercy watched as her family's political affairs became entangled first with royal officials in Massachusetts, then with England itself. Familial politics became imperial politics. Observing the political process at close quarters, she followed her friends and relatives as they developed a logic of resistance. Through her father and brother, she imbibed a personal antagonism toward one of the most important representatives of royal authority in the colony, Thomas Hutchinson. Through Jemmy and her husband, she witnessed firsthand the developing alienation between the colonies and Great Britain. Through John Adams, Samuel Adams, and others, she saw colonial leaders plot the means and strategies of protest, experienced with them the victory of success, felt with them the frustration of failure. Like them, she grew increasingly suspicious of Britain's motives and methods. In the 1760s, Mercy became a revolutionary by association.
Though luckier than many, the Warrens' early wedded years proceeded much like that of other young people in Massachusetts at the time. After their wedding, Mercy and James moved in with James's father at the family's Eel River farm near Plymouth. Like many other New England sons, James was dependent on his father for his status and means of livelihood. In many ways, the timing of his inheritance structured James's life: it probably delayed his marriage to Mercy by a few years, and it may have delayed the couple's decision to have children. After James's father died in 1757, a series of events occurred: James inherited the Eel River property, which Mercy renamed "Clifford"; the family purchased an additional house in the nearby town of Plymouth; and Mercy became pregnant with their first child. Over the years, Mercy would bear five sons, henceforth in rapid succession: James, on October 18, 1757; Winslow, on March 24, 1759; Charles, on April 14, 1762; Henry, on March 21, 1764; and George, on September 20, 1766.
The late 1750s and 1760s thus represented a time in which family concerns were paramount in Mercy's life. Like other women of her day, she no doubt approached childbirth with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. In eighteenth-century New England, nearly one in four babies died at birth or soon thereafter; one in every two hundred women did not survive the experience. Even after a successful delivery, the mother was still in danger. Many died of pue