Nancy Rubin Stuart

2005 Hearst Fellow
Non-fiction writer
New York, NY

nancyrubinstuart.com

Research at AAS

The Muse of the Revolution; The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation, published by Beacon Press in 2008.

I arrived on August 1, 2005 at the American Antiquarian Society on a Creative Artists and Writers Fellowship excited to learn more about the life of Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1815), the first female historian of the American Revolution. At that time very few books were devoted to Mrs. Warren but the month I spent at the AAS greatly enhanced my understanding of the historical background, social tensions and personalities that led her to become an influential playwright, poet and social critic of the Revolution and the early Federal period.

Previous research at the Massachusetts Historical Society and a typescript copy of Mrs. Warren’s letters preserved at the Pilgrim Hall Museum Library had helped me understand the outline of her life but my knowledge was greatly enhanced by reading the correspondence of her associates, documents, newspapers, handbills, weather reports and political cartoons which the staff at the American Antiquarian Society so generously helped me access.

 

Below are a few selections from the novel.

Initially, Mercy Otis warren was overwhelmed by the invitation which arrived in Plymouth on a chill, snowy day in late December 1773, written in the familiar hand of John Adams. The letter, addressed to Mercy’s husband James, merchant-farmer and high sheriff of Plymouth County included a special message for her: “Make my compliments to Mrs. Warren and tell her that I want a poetical genius—to describe a late frolic among the sea nymphs and goddesses. I wish to see a late glorious event, celebrated by a certain poetical pen, which has no equal...in this country.” John’s mention of that “late glorious event” was that moonless night of December 16. 1773, when a dozen citizens disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded three British ships and dumped ninety pounds of tea into Boston harbor. (1)



During the last months of 1774, Mercy had poured her angst over the appointment of mandamus councilors to the Massachusetts Assembly into a new satire. Anxious as usual about the quality of her work, she sent James drafts of her ‘new burlesque," The Group. “I don’t think it has sufficient merit for the public eye,” Mercy admitted. Perhaps it might even be “best to suppress it.” Even before completing the last act, Mercy knew The Group was an explosive work, because of her depiction of the new mandamus councilors are money-hungry “sycophants, hungry harpies and unprincipled danglers.” Still more audacious was The Group’s secondary theme, a pro-female message that lamented the personal hardships of war forced upon women married to greedy husbands...In a later scene, which was perhaps Mercy’s strongest indictment of the colonial disregard for women and families, Hateall instructed Simple and Crusty Crowbar to ignore the likely consequences of the coming war – a “weeping maid thrown helpless on the world/Her sire cut of... the sorrowing mother...her starving babes/her murder’d lord torn guiltless from her side.” (67-68)

Even after presiding over a dinner for generals Washington, Gates, and Lee and meeting Benjamin Franklin, the thrill of living at the political epicenter had exhausted Mercy. Echoing her earlier complain to Abigail, she wrote John that the Edmund Fowle House was a “crowded, inconvenient place where the muses cannot dwell, or the grace of elegance reside.” In spite of the surrounding din, Mercy promised to continue serving as John’s reporter out of her “feelings of real friendship.” Privately though, by the waning months of 1775, Mercy longed to write something original – a play, or perhaps even a history that would record the turbulent events around her. (94)

Nearly three decades later, a septuagenarian Mercy triumphantly penned on the last page of her History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, "Though in her infantile state, the young republic of America exhibits the happiest prospects." On December 21, 1804, she and James signed an agreement with Boston publisher, Ebenezer Larkin to print fifteen hundred copies of the book in a three-volume set of approximately four hundred pages each. Within a few months, Larkin, worrying over the History’s female authorship and lackluster advance sales, suggested he print only one thousand copies. Mercy objected and redoubled her efforts to compile a list of subscribers. Among the most prominent was President Jefferson, who recommended the History to his cabinet and expressed hope for “great satisfaction that Mrs. Warren’s attention” to the Revolution would prove “equally useful for our country and honorable to herself.”

 

About the Fellow

Nancy Rubin Stuart is an award-winning author whose eight nonfiction books focus upon women and social history. Her most recently published books include Defiant Brides; The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women Who Married Radical Men and The Muse of the Revolution; The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation. She is currently completing a book about Benjamin Franklin through the lens of his women for Beacon Press. A former journalist, Nancy’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, The New England Quarterly and national magazines.

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