Espionage and the Culper Ring

Continental Army camp mask

A mask letter, one means of secret communication used during the American Revolution, is shown by a historical interpreter at the Yorktown Victory Center’s re-created Continental Army encampment.

For viewers of television’s new Revolutionary War espionage series TURN, the adventures of Anna Strong, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and Benjamin Tallmadge are intriguing and entertaining.  The focus of TURN is the Culper spy ring that operated throughout most of the war. Who were the real people who inspired the characters?

In 1778 British commander General Howe made the decision to re-establish British headquarters in New York, where they remained until 1783. General George Washington had no organized intelligence network there, a major weakness in his disastrous campaigns in the area in 1776.   He assigned General Charles Scott to develop intelligence sources. Scott stuck to the traditional practice of sending soldiers out to scout enemy positions.  Continental Army Major Benjamin Tallmadge offered to develop a spy ring to gather intelligence against the British forces occupying New York City and Long Island. When several  men spying for Scott were captured and executed, Washington moved toward Tallmadge’s plan and put him in charge of intelligence. Tallmadge organized a ring of civilians, known to us as the Culper ring, that provided critical intelligence using methods we would recognize today – dead drops, code names, number substitution codes and invisible ink.

Tallmadge already had a good informant, Caleb Brewster, a childhood friend from Setauket, Long Island.  Brewster was a lieutenant in the Continental Army and owned a whaleboat that allowed him to travel between Connecticut and Long Island by water.  Abraham Woodhull, another friend from Setauket, was also recruited about this time.  Woodhull was unmarried and lived with his father, a local magistrate.  Tallmadge gave Woodhull the code name Samuel Culper and later Samuel Culper, Sr., a reference to Culpepper County, Virginia where Washington had surveyed as a young man.  Washington, Woodhull, Brewster, Tallmadge and others also were assigned numbers.  Woodhull’s number was 722.

In the initial phase of the ring’s operations Abraham made trips to New York City to visit his married sister, Mary Underhill, at her boardinghouse in the city.   Once there, he gathered whatever information he could, then traveled back to Setauket and conveyed the information to Brewster.  Brewster picked up the information at Setauket, rowed across Long Island Sound, and delivered the information to Tallmadge in Connecticut, who then carried the message to Washington.

Woodhull’s frequent trips into the city caught the attention of the British guards at local checkpoints. Within a few months Woodhull was stopped and searched.  Despite their best efforts the British did not discover the letter concealed in his saddle.  This close call and perhaps others led to a change in strategy.

Woodhull talked a distant relation, Robert Townsend, into joining the ring.  Townsend was given the code name Samuel Culper Jr.  Townsend was a tailor and silent partner in a coffee house in New York City who mingled daily with British officers. Townsend harbored a secret hatred of the British because of atrocities they committed against civilians. Woodhull now stayed home while Townsend gathered information in the course of his business in the city, then encoded it and sent it via courier to Setauket.  The courier buried it in a pre-arranged location on land owned by Woodhull, who collected and evaluated it.  This is where Anna Strong may have come into the story.  According to some sources Strong, another childhood friend, hung a black petticoat and one to six handkerchiefs from her clothesline.  This signaled Caleb Brewster, patrolling the sound nearby, that a message was ready and in which of six coves he should land his boat. Once Brewster had the message in hand, he carried it in his boat to Tallmadge in Connecticut, and the message was then carried by courier to General Washington.

Many of these communications survive today, and give us a wonderful window into the secrets the ring uncovered, and the methods and mindsets of Woodhull, Townsend, the couriers and others who undertook these dangerous duties from 1778 to 1780.  Woodhull, Townsend, Brewster, Tallmadge and Strong all survived the war, and lived to see the United States established as an independent nation.

The spying that the Culper ring undertook was risky business. Other spies and spy rings  aided the patriot cause in Phildelphia, Boston and Yorktown. The penalty for spying was death.  What motivated Tallmadge, Woodhull, Townsend and others to take the risk?  Were their actions heroic? Would you be willing to do what they did?

Recently published books on this topic include Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, 2007, and Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution (2013).

 

WHAT WAS THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION?

What do we mean by the American Revolution?  Do we mean the American war?  The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.

John Adams, 1818

Pamplet on Extracts from First Continental Congress, 1774

The First Continental Congress, held in Philadelphia in 1774, set the American colonies on a path of confrontation with the British government that led almost inevitably to the outbreak of war less than a year later. This printing of “Extracts From The Votes and Proceedings of the American Continental Congress, …” will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, planned for completion by late 2016.

What do we mean when we talk about the “American Revolution”?  If you asked most Americans today, they probably would  mention some of the better-known battles – Bunker Hill, Saratoga or Yorktown.  Some also would think of the Boston Tea Party or the suffering soldiers at Valley Forge.  Historians might include political and economic factors as well as military developments.

In his old age, John Adams had a different perspective on the subject.  Looking back from the vantage point of 1818, he believed the American Revolution took place in the “minds and hearts” of the people.  What did he mean?  Adams seems to be saying that the real American Revolution began sometime in the 1760s and was essentially over by the spring of 1775 when British troops fired on the farmer militiamen at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts – or by July 1776 at the latest.

What followed, according to Adams, was the war fought for independence – the military struggle to defend our newly established, evolving nation.  This struggle would not end until 1783 when Great Britain gave up its attempt to reclaim the American colonies and begrudgingly recognized the United States.  If the “minds and hearts” of enough Americans had not already reached the conclusion that they needed to take up arms to defend their rights, property and liberties, it is doubtful that the military phase would have succeeded.  This was the revolution that sustained the long, arduous war effort after 1776.

 

PROMISE OF THE NEW UNITED STATES SYMBOLIZED IN FERRY MARKER

As visitors come to the end of the exhibition galleries in the forthcoming American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, they will learn about life in the United States after the war.  Included will be a video presentation on the creation of the Constitution, graphics and artifacts that illustrate the continued migration – both voluntary and involuntary – from Europe and Africa to America, and images of the landscapes seen by travelers as they traveled west in the first half of the 19th century.

Gallery planners knew they wanted as the final artifact something that symbolized the promise of this new country and also evoked the sense of patriotism and optimism so many felt at this time.

The perfect item was located by Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation curators at the Philadelphia Antiques Show in 2013, one of the country’s premier antique events.  It was a sandstone lozenge 48 inches tall and 34 inches wide that had once been embedded in the stone wall of a ferry house in South Brownsville, Pa., on the banks of the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh.  South Brownsville was the location of a busy ferry crossing from the south bank to the west bank of the river, along the Cumberland Road (later called the National Road, now U.S. 40).  The ferry was run by Neil Gillespie from 1784 to 1794, and then operated by John Krepps, his son-in-law, and Krepps’ descendents until the 1840s.

The sandstone marker, removed from the ferry building about 1985 when it was torn down to make a parking lot for the South Brownsville volunteer fire company, encapsulates in its carved imagery the spirit of the new country.  An American eagle, the emblem of the new nation, dominates the stone, looking toward an olive branch (peace) in its right talon and holding arrows (war) in its left.  Over the eagle’s head is the word “Liberty,” and 17 stars surround both the eagle and “Liberty,” with an additional star at the very top of the stone.  The stone is dated 1813, which is most probably the date it was erected on the side of the ferry house, and the 18 stars may reflect the 18 states at that time (Louisiana was admitted as the 18th state in April 1812). Below the eagle’s talons are symbols of the nation’s agriculture – two sheaves of wheat flanking a plow – and the ferryboat that was the foundation of the Krepps’ business and also pointed the way to the West and to America’s future.  Its patriotic theme may have been inspired by the War of 1812, a war in which the new nation sought to further distance itself from the economic and military dominance of Great Britain.

This vision of the United States as a land of promise, of liberty, of the future is effectively conveyed through the stonecarver’s skill in incorporating images that those seeing the stone in 1813 would have understood immediately. For visitors to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, these images will reinforce the stories of settlement, liberty, war, compromise and the future that the permanent exhibit will tell.  It is precisely the artifact that evokes the patriotism and optimism of the new nation.

 

1730s PORTRAIT OF AFRICAN ONCE ENSLAVED IN NORTH AMERICAN COLONIES
ACQUIRED FOR EXHIBIT AT AMERICAN REVOLUTION MUSEUM AT YORKTOWN

Diallo, by William Hoare, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Acquired for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening in late 2016, the portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is on temporary exhibit at the Yorktown Victory Center June 14 through August 3, 2014.

A rare 1730s oil-on-canvas portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a high-status African who was enslaved for a time in North America, has been acquired for exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, replacing the Yorktown Victory Center by late 2016. It is one of two known paintings of Diallo made by English portraitist William Hoare, the earliest known portraits done from life of an African who had been enslaved in the British colonies that became the United States of America.

The portrait, on temporary exhibit at the Yorktown Victory Center June 14 through August 3, will be placed in a section of the new museum’s galleries that examines life in the 13 British colonies prior to the Revolutionary War.

Diallo, shown in the portrait attired in a turban and robe, wearing around his neck a red pouch probably containing texts from the Quran, was born in 1701 in Senegal to a prominent Fulbe family of Muslim clerics. During a trade mission on the Gambia River in 1731, he was captured and transported to the colony of Maryland, where he was enslaved on a tobacco plantation on Kent Island. Diallo drew the attention of lawyer Thomas Bluett, who ultimately arranged with the Royal African Company to secure his freedom and sailed with him to England in 1733.

From almost the moment he touched ground in London, Diallo won the respect of the leading lights of advanced learning in England and ultimately entered the annals of history as a figure embraced by the global abolitionist movement. Known as Job ben Solomon in England, Diallo returned in 1734 to Senegal, where he represented English interests in the region. He died there in 1773.

The recording of Diallo’s likeness by William Hoare, a leading English portraitist of the 18th century, is referenced in memoirs published by Thomas Bluett in 1734. During the sitting, Diallo insisted that he “be drawn in his own Country Dress” rather than in European clothing.

The portrait acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation is 14 by 12 inches, with the subject’s upper body against a landscape background within a painted oval. While the portrayal of the subject is quite similar to Hoare’s other Diallo portrait, which is owned by the Qatar Museums Authority and on loan to Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, the two paintings differ in size. Diallo is turned toward the left in one and to the right in the other, and the Qatar painting has a solid background.

In a private collection since the 19th century, the Diallo portrait was acquired for the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown with gifts to the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Inc., including a lead gift from Fred D. Thompson, Jr., a member of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Board of Trustees.

The story of Africans and African Americans during the Revolutionary period will be an important component of the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s 22,000-square-foot exhibition galleries, featuring period artifacts, re-created immersive environments, interactive exhibits and short films. Spanning the mid-1700s to the early national period, the galleries will present five major themes: “The British Empire and America,” “The Changing Relationship – Britain and North America,” “Revolution,” “The New Nation,” and “The American People.”

The American Revolution represented the beginning of the end for slavery in the United States. The Revolution certainly didn’t end slavery by itself, but it created an intellectual, moral and political climate in which slavery could not survive forever. The Ayuba Suleiman Diallo portrait provides a face for the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans and African Americans who constituted a major part of late-colonial America’s population, but who remain largely unknown.

Arming Revolutionary Virginia: Rappahannock Forge and the Virginia Munitions Industry

Rappahannock Forge sword

Rappahannock Forge horseman’s sword in the collection of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

When the Revolutionary War began, Virginia – like the rest of the American colonies – lacked the capacity to produce weapons of war on any scale.  There were many Virginia gunsmiths who made both rifled and smoothbore guns for hunting, but this work was done by individuals in small shops scattered through the colony.  Virginia needed to equip its troops with thousands of standardized military muskets and vast quantities of ammunition, as well as bayonets, swords and even cannon.

Virginia sought to meet its needs both by buying arms in Europe and encouraging arms production at home.  In this last endeavor Virginia had certain advantages over most of the other colonies, because Virginia already had a well-developed iron industry.  However, prior to Revolution Virginia’s iron furnaces mainly produced ingots of cast iron for export rather than finished goods.  The colony’s iron manufacturers had to experiment and learn new skills before they could turn pig iron into weapons of war.  Several of Virginia’s iron makers did this successfully, and colonial era ironmasters like Isaac Zane of the famous Marlboro Iron Works went from casting iron ingots for export to casting full-size cannon to fight for American independence on land and sea.

The Virginia ironmaster who responded most successfully to the demands of war was James Hunter of Hunter’s Iron Works in Stafford County.  Even in late-colonial times Hunter had been able to produce a wider range of finished goods at his works than other Virginia iron furnaces did.  By 1776 Hunter was able to show Virginia legislators that he could produce complete  military muskets with bayonets.  During the course of the war Virginia officials contracted with him not just for muskets but for a wide range of other military equipment, including “pistols, carbines, horsemen’s caps, camp kettles, spades shovels, etc.” His ironworks was transformed into an industrial complex, which came to be known as Rappahannock Forge.

Later in the war Hunter’s enterprise faced many difficulties and reverses, from British attacks on the forge to a persistent shortage of skilled workmen.  In late 1782 the Rappahannock Forge effectively ceased military production. One of its last major orders came in 1781, when famous American cavalry leader Col. William Washington  asked Hunter to produce 1,000 horseman’s swords.  The swords weren’t finished until November 1781, after the battle of Yorktown, but they probably saw some action with Nathanael Greene’s army in the deep south before the war ended.

Virginia’s wartime armaments industry did not survive the war. The iron furnaces and other production facilities that had geared up to manufacture munitions in 1776 either went back to civilian production after 1782 or went out of business entirely.  However, wartime production demands did teach Virginia businessmen and industrialists valuable lessons about organizing manufacturing enterprises on a large scale.  These lessons probably served them well as they faced the economic  challenges of postwar America.


“An Appeal to Heaven”

There are some slogans associated with the American Revolution that are powerfully evocative even today.  Phrases like “All men are created equal,” “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” and “Don’t tread on me” are part of our national heritage, and they are well known and easily understood by present-day Americans.  Some other slogans of the Revolution, however, don’t have the same resonance in the 21st century that they did in the 18th century.

One slogan that was popular early in the Revolutionary era was “An Appeal to Heaven.” Even though the famous “pine tree” flag that features this slogan is still widely recognized as a symbol of the Revolution, the meaning of the words “An Appeal to Heaven” isn’t obvious to most modern-day Americans.  To understand these words we must go back in time to the 17th century and to other, earlier political events that shaped the way British subjects thought about government and individual rights.

During the 17th century there was a series of conflicts in Britain between Parliament and the Crown, and this caused British scholars to think and write a great deal about the nature of government and the limits of royal power.  John Locke (1632-1704) was the most important of these political philosophers. In 1689-90 he published his “Second Treatise of Government,” which says:

…where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment.

This quote is part of Locke’s justification for the overthrow of Britain’s King James II, who was removed from power in 1688, an event known as the “Glorious Revolution.”  Locke’s “appeal to heaven” is not about prayer; it is about direct political action.  Locke argues that people have rights that cannot be infringed upon by the government and that rebellion is justified if it is to defend those rights.

As American colonists increasingly came into conflict with the British government during the 1760s and 1770s, Locke’s words became an inspiration to many patriots.  After all, if the Glorious Revolution was justified as a defense against tyranny, didn’t the American Revolution have the same justification?

The slogan “An Appeal to Heaven” is less dramatic than “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” but in its own way it is equally forceful and evocative.  It is a call to action couched in the words of a philosopher rather than a politician.

When the Wild West came to Boston

American rifleman, circa 1780

A circa 1780 depiction of an American rifleman, an example of some of the images created in England to satisfy British curiosity about American soldiers and the war in America. From the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

In the days and weeks following the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the British forces in Boston found themselves under siege.  The town was quickly surrounded by thousands of local militiamen who had come from numerous villages in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. As the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May, it struggled to find a way to create an effective army from this mass of inexperienced civilians.  The delegates also were aware that to mount a truly unified response to the British military it would be necessary to include soldiers from all of the colonies, especially from the south.

Accordingly, on June 14 Congress voted to raise ten companies of riflemen from western Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.  So impatient were they to join the fight, Captain Daniel Morgan’s Virginia riflemen traveled 600 miles in only three weeks to join George Washington and his fledgling army surrounding Boston.  In all, about 1,400 riflemen answered the call to volunteer – far more than the 840 men authorized by the Congress! The local New Englanders were astonished when these frontiersmen began arriving, wearing strange clothing and carrying even stranger weapons.  These “Shirtmen” – so called because of their long, fringed hunting shirts made of canvas – were armed with rifles instead of the more usual smoothbore fowlers or muskets carried by most farmers from the northeastern colonies.

The rifled gun was largely unknown in New England in 1775, and these western frontiersmen and their guns quickly became objects of curiosity to the local “Yankees.”  Both John Adams of Massachusetts and Silas Dean of Connecticut wrote to their wives trying to describe these rather wild, exotic men, their dress, and their long-barreled rifles.  Deane wrote that their dress was “hard to describe,” and he was impressed by the tomahawks they carried.  Some of these rifle units apparently put on shooting demonstrations and shows involving dressing up like Indians whenever they passed through sizeable towns.  It soon became apparent that despite its amazing accuracy, the rifle, which was basically a civilian hunting gun, was not as effective as the musket in battle.  Because they took a relatively long time to reload and were not fixed with a bayonet, rifles would prove to be of limited value as infantry weapons given the military tactics of the 18th century.

Nevertheless, the presence of these oddly garbed sharpshooters created much fear and anxiety among the British and German soldiers in Boston who soon learned not to expose themselves carelessly.  The officer corps became especially wary of snipers who were on the lookout for shiny gorgets or fancy uniforms.  According to the Virginia Gazette, by October 1775 British General Gage had instructed his officers to dress as “common soldiers” to avoid attracting sniper fire.  One American noted that the German troops had become so wary that nothing was to be seen from their lines but an occasional hat.  Although the riflemen initially amazed the men from New England with their expert marksmanship, they quickly became a disciplinary problem for George Washington because of their unruly behavior and overly independent attitude.  Not used to siege warfare and with few duties to occupy their time, the bored frontiersmen were the most troublesome units in the army, even starting a brief mutiny in September 1775.  One Loyalist noted that these men “were under no restraint. … and did almost intirely as they pleased in every respect whatever.”

Eventually the Continental Army learned how to make the greatest use of these unruly frontiersmen, who were effective in special operations like scouting and skirmishing.  Daniel Morgan’s rifle corps played a key role in the Saratoga Campaign of 1777.  Although they were slower to accept the need for rifle units, by the end of the Revolution every British battalion had a rifle company.

Learn about the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening in late 2016.

 

From Victory to Defeat –
Admiral Francois de Grasse and the Battle of the Saintes
April 12, 1782

Battle of the Saintes, 12th April 1782, William Elliott, 1784-87“Lord Rodney’s flagship ‘Formidable’ breaking through the French line at the battle of the Saintes, 12th April 1782,” painted between 1784 and 1787 by Lieutenant William Elliott of the Royal Navy, will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening in late 2016.

In early September 1781 French Admiral de Grasse won a decisive naval victory over a British fleet off the Virginia Capes – a victory that resulted in the surrender of an entire British army under General Cornwallis at Yorktown in October.  Despite George Washington’s efforts to persuade de Grasse to remain and support an attack on Charleston, S. C., his powerful French fleet departed Virginia for the West Indies in early November.  The wealthy sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean were vital to the economies of both France and Great Britain, and their security commanded a high priority.  At this time the war was going badly for Britain – Gibraltar and Minorca were under siege, Spain had retaken West Florida, and Jamaica appeared to be vulnerable.

In desperation, the king’s ministers looked to Admiral George Rodney to turn the tide.  In January 1782 Rodney left England with a force of 12 ships of the line with orders to link up with Admiral Samuel Hood, who was already stationed in the Caribbean.  By the time the two British naval forces joined up on February 25, the situation in the West Indies had deteriorated even further.  The French had recaptured the island of St. Eustatius, and de Grasse had also recently taken St. Kitts from the British.  After several indecisive skirmishes in March, de Grasse and his fleet sailed out from his base at Martinique in early April with the intention of joining a Spanish naval force from Cuba for an attack on Jamaica.

Rodney and Hood set off in pursuit, and the subsequent clash between the two forces on April 12 resulted in one of the greatest British naval victories of the war.  Named for some small islands off the northern end of Dominica, the Battle of the Saintes was notable for both controversy and innovation.  De Grasse commanded 35 ships of the line compared to the British, who had 36 ships of the line.  Both fleets also had associated frigates.  Most of the British ships, however, had been armed with carronades, a relatively new weapon.  These short, powerful cannon could deliver devastating broadsides at close ranges and gave the British an advantage in firepower.  Some of the British cannon had also been outfitted with flintlock firing mechanisms, which were more reliable than matchlocks.

After some inconclusive maneuvering in the morning, a shift in the wind direction opened up a gap in the French line of battle.  Rodney quickly took advantage of the resulting confusion by breaking through the opening with his ship, the Formidable.  At least five other British vessels followed Rodney, pouring cannon fire into the French as they crossed the “T” and scattering the French fleet into three groups.  By nightfall de Grasse’s fleet had been dispersed and Rodney’s victory had restored British naval supremacy in the West Indies.  Some French ships escaped, but at least five major ships of the line had either been captured or destroyed.  The Comte de Grasse was also taken prisoner when his flagship, the Ville de Paris, surrendered.  He remained a prisoner in England until peace was declared in 1783.  The Battle of the Saintes is most remembered for Rodney’s innovative and controversial naval tactic of “crossing the T” or “breaking the line.”


 

 

 

Document Box Commemorates Stamp Act Repeal

stamp act document box

A leather-covered document box with gilded text, "Stamp Act Rep'd, March 18, 1766," will be exhibited at the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

A leather-covered document box, embossed with the gilded text “Stamp Act Rep’d / March 18, 1766” will be exhibited at the future American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.  The box, probably made in England, was discovered by Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation curators who were searching for an artifact that would be emblematic of the British Parliament’s repeal in 1766 of the Stamp Act, a tax imposed on newspapers, pamphlets and cards imported into the American colonies and which also placed a tax on legal documents.

In England, the repeal of the tax had advocates among British merchants whose livelihoods suffered when the American colonies boycotted the importation of English goods.   In London, coaches carried merchants to Parliament to demonstrate their support of the repeal, and copies of the repeal were sent to waiting merchant ships bound for colonial American ports.   In the 13 American colonies during the months following the repeal, there were public celebrations, bells were rung, broadsides were posted, and statues of William Pitt, a powerful Parliament member who persuasively advocated for the repeal of the Stamp Act, and King George III were erected to commemorate the event. The letters “WP” on the document box lid may allude to Pitt.

While researching the “Stamp Act Repealed” document box, curatorial staff discovered a similar document box in the collection of Princeton University that shares a New Jersey provenance and the same embossed text – “Stamp Act Rep’d / March 18, 1766.”  Based on comparisons of images, it is apparent that the same tools were used to create the embossed text on both boxes.  The Princeton example retains its maker’s label, which identifies it as having been made for export in London by James Season.  The Princeton’s document box was owned by John Witherspoon (1723-1794), the sixth president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

While the original owner of the document box that is destined for exhibit at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is unknown, it seems safe to conclude that the Stamp Act repeal had enough significance for this individual to merit owning a souvenir commemorating the event.

 

Mercy Otis Warren, Historian of the Revolution

Mercy Otis Warren

Mercy Otis Warren, from The Illustrated American Biography, vol. 3, 1855.

In a time when politics and war were considered the province of men, Mercy Otis Warren provided powerful arguments for the Patriot cause, stoking the fires of revolution several years before Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

Born in 1728 in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, to James and Mary Otis, Mercy was one of 13 children. Though she received no formal education, Mercy sat in on her brother’s lessons as he prepared to attend Harvard College. From an early age, she developed a keen interest in politics that only grew stronger when she found herself at the center of the revolutionary movement. Not only was her brother, James Otis, an early opponent of the Stamp Act and Writs of Assistance, but her husband, James Warren, whom she married in 1754, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1765, served as its speaker and eventually became president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress on the eve of the Revolution.

Their parlor in Plymouth, Massachusetts, became a focal point of local politics where they hosted protest and strategy meetings with other revolutionaries including Sam Adams, John Hancock and John Adams. From this vantage point, Mercy picked up her pen to write satirically about the British and their Loyalist followers. Through poems, pamphlets and plays, she gave voice to Patriot complaints, detailed British atrocities in Boston, and staunchly advocated for independence. When newspapers up and down the seacoast carried her works, she became one of the most influential propagandists of her time.

Mercy formed a circle of friends with whom she corresponded regularly, including Abigail and John Adams, Martha Washington and Hannah Winthrop. Over time, she also corresponded with Sam Adams, John Hancock, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton and other early leaders. Knowing she occupied a unique position as confidante to many key players in the Revolution, she decided early in 1775, with enthusiastic support from John Adams, to write a history of the American Revolution. From then on, she actively coerced the men she’d be writing about to send her accounts of debates in Congress, copies of correspondence and any other information they could supply. Mercy continued writing plays, poems and pamphlets during and after the war. When her History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution was finally published in 1805, President Thomas Jefferson ordered advance copies for himself and for every member of his cabinet. Now a fierce anti-Federalist, Mercy used this opportunity to contrast the virtuous self-sacrifice of the revolutionaries with what she saw as a postwar lapse in revolutionary principles.

In her plays, Mercy Otis Warren placed women in the center of political turmoil. Though she didn’t advocate formal political rights for women, she did not believe they should divorce themselves from politics entirely. Through her characters, she suggested that a healthy republic required politically conscious women willing to make sacrifices for public good. And through her writings, Mercy proved such women could inspire their countrymen to action.

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