Mercy Warren: Conscience of the American Revolution

Book Review of The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution

by Richard Seltzer

I didn't just read this book, I typed it -- all 1317 pages.

This is a fresh view of historical events written by a woman who lived at that time, as opposed to works written long after, in which the selection of events and their presentation are flavored by what happened later -- history written backwards, focusing on what "caused" the events and the consequences that followed -- teleological history where the importance of an event depends on its relationship to a world view held much later.

I had read about Mercy Warren and had read her plays years ago. But I had never read her history of the American Revolution. The length was daunting, and the only available edition of it -- a photographic facsimile of the 1805 edition that I found in the Boston Public Library -- was unreadable.  The old style typography ("s's" looked like "f's") combined with the out-dated spelling and punctuation (sentences that ran on line after line after line) were very hard on the eyes. I could force myself to decipher a paragraph or so, but then my mind would wander. Typing it would force me to concentrate and pay attention to every word.

Here is a little-known first-hand account of the American Revolution, the events leading up to it, and the circumstances that followed it. This was an important work that could have reshaped and could still today impact our image of our nation's origins and destiny. I wanted to make it available to all, in readable understandable form. And thanks to the Internet, it wouldn't take years or money or the enthusiastic support of a well-established publishing company for me to do so. All I needed to do was type it -- modernizing the typography and punctuation, and editing for readability -- and I could make it freely available to everyone through my Web site, and also, just using my PC, I could make it (and related materials) available on CD ROM.

The author of this monumental work was a woman, writing at a time when it was unheard of for women to write history books. Yes, her style was a bit pompous, apparently mimicking the rhythms of Burke's speeches and Gibbon's history of Rome, as if that were the standard for serious history; and, like Alexander Pope, emphasizing her judicious conclusions about the nature of man and war and politics, rather than providing all the raw data and first-hand observations on which those conclusions were based. But her personal voice comes through, becoming louder and clearer toward the end of the war, and virtually screaming in the volume after that where she expresses her concern for the future fate of the young republic, daring to criticize Washington's dependence on his military cronies in his two administrations, and harshly (and probably rightly) accusing her life-long friend, John Adams, of having lost faith in democracy and favoring monarchism. She wrote those words in 1801, just after the end of his term as president. She wrote those words with the passion of fear -- the fear of possible civil war because the divide was becoming so great between those who believed in equality, in the principles so clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence, and those who had a nostalgic reverence and desire for the aristocratic style, titles, and pomp of European courts. She foresees, with dread, the Guilded-Age pseudo-royalty conspicuous consumption of the super-rich "400" in New York and in their summer resort at Newport nearly a hundred years later.

In her day, the primary political divide was between those who, like herself, believed in the Republic as a moral, even a religious necessity, and those who saw it as a temporary expedient. To Mercy, the American experiment in democracy of the people, for the people, and by the people was a beacon to the world, the shining example that could eventually lead all nations, all peoples to free themselves from the tyranny that kept the many in misery, poverty, and slavery. Men like Adams responded to the French Revolution with fear and loathing, and from that blood-fest concluded that democracy was flawed, that it was at best a temporary solution. Mercy cites with disdain and disappointment a book of his ("Defense of Their Constitutions") that "drew a doleful picture of the confusion and dissolution of all republics".  She makes no mention of the undeclared war which Adams had waged on the seas against republican France. She makes no mention of his Alien and Sedition Acts which revoked much of the Bill of Rights purportedly for public security (in a political atmosphere resembling that of the McCarthy era 150 years later). Rather, she focuses on what was to her more important and more insidious -- his love affair with monarchy. It was as if he had taken a mistress (monarchy/aristocracy) while still ostensibly sleeping with his wife (republicanism/democracy).

She admits that he was not alone in this betrayal:

"It is true the revolution in France had not ultimately tended to strengthen the principles of republicanism in America. The confusions introduced into that unhappy nation by their resistance to despotism and the consequent horrors that spread dismay over every portion of their territory have startled some in the United States, who do not distinguish between principles and events, and shaken the firmness of others, who have fallen off from their primary object and by degrees returned back to their former adherence to monarchy. Thus, through real or pretended fears of similar results, from the freedom of opinion disseminated through the United States, dissensions have originated relative to subjects not known in the Constitution of the American Republic. This admits no titles of honor or nobility, those powerful springs of human action; and from the rage of acquisition which has spread far and wide, it may be apprehended that the possession of wealth will in a short time be the only distinction in this young country. By this it may be feared that the spirit of avarice will be rendered justifiable in the opinion of some as the single road to superiority."
She is very reluctant to attack her old friend, but she feels that it is her moral duty to do so -- not just to set the record straight, but to alert the young Republic of the danger and to help nudge it in the right direction, so it will have a chance to survive, to grow, and to thrive in a world dominated by monarchs and dictators.
"The veracity of an historian requires that all those who have been distinguished, either by their abilities or their elevated rank, should be exhibited through every period of public life with impartiality and truth. But the heart of the annalist may sometimes be hurt by political deviations which the pen of the historian is obliged to record.

"Mr. Adams was undoubtedly a statesman of penetration and ability; but his prejudices and his passions were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment."

She blames his 4-5 year sojourn in England, as a diplomat, after the Revolution, for having led to this anti-democratic change in his convictions:
"...unfortunately for himself and his country, he became so enamored of the British Constitution and the government, manners, and laws of the nation, that a partiality for monarchy appeared, which was inconsistent with his former professions of republicanism....

"After Mr. Adams's return from England, he was implicated by a large portion of his countrymen as having relinquished the republican system and forgotten the principles of the American Revolution, which he had advocated for near 20 years."

Ironically, despite her faith in republicanism, when Mercy waxes religious and invokes the name of God, she uses paternalistic and monarchic images like "the kingdom of Christ." Perhaps that's merely because of the familiarity of such King James' diction. But perhaps, too, she has not yet worked out if and how the realm of God could in any way be republican.

Mercy wrote early drafts of this monumental work near the time of the events described, and completed it about four years before its appeared in 1805. She explains the delay as due to health problems, temporary bouts of blindness, and grief at the death of one of her sons.

She writes in the third person, trying to avoid personal bias, while advocating the republicanism she so ardently believes in.  She doesn't spare friends like John Adams, or acquaintances like John Hancock, or public idols like George Washington. She calls it as she sees it, shot by shot -- good and bad, not expecting people to be consistent and predictable. She treats her immediate family with that same impartiality:  her brother James Otis (early advocate of the rights of the colonies), her husband James Warren (speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives during the Revolution), and her son Winslow Warren (the would-be diplomat).

The early chapters provide interesting details on the steps leading up to the Revolution, particularly the events happening in Boston, near her home in Plymouth.

She also, in Chapter 6, tells the little known tale of the British emancipation of slaves in the south. In 1775, Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, freed the slaves in his colony and armed them, as a way to intimidate the colonial rebels.

"He [Dunmore] had the inhumanity early to intimate his designs if opposition ran high to declare freedom to the blacks, and, on any appearance of hostile resistance to the King's authority to arm them against their masters. Neither the House of Burgesses nor the people at large were disposed to recede from their determinations in consequence of his threats nor to submit to any authority that demanded implicit obedience on pain of devastation and ruin. Irritated by opposition, too rash for consideration, too haughty for condescension, and fond of distinguishing himself in support of the parliamentary system, Lord Dunmore dismantled the fort in Williamsburg, plundered the magazines, threatened to lay the city in ashes and depopulate the country: As far as he was able, he executed his nefarious purposes.

"When his lordship found the resolution of the House of Burgesses, the committees and conventions was nowhere to be shaken, he immediately proclaimed the emancipation of the blacks and put arms into their hands. He excited disturbances in the back settlements and encouraged the natives bordering on the southern colonies to rush from the wilderness and make inroads on the frontiers."

Much of the military action, including the occupation and then the evacuation of Boston by British troops, took place before the Declaration of Independence.

In Chapter 7, she paints an interesting picture of Washington's genius during these early days. He arrives in Boston in the summer of 1775, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, to take charge of the rag-tag army of rebels that had assembled. The Continental Congress had not yet decided what it wanted to do, whether they might still be reconciled with England should the right terms be offered. But they needed to organize some kind of defense. So before deciding on independence, they decided on a commander in chief of their army. Yes, the rebel force was small and untrained, facing British veterans and Hessian mercenaries. But worst of all, Washington, much to his surprise, discovers that he has almost no gunpowder, with just three rounds per soldier. He kept that deficiency a secret and with amazing cool deployed his troops building fortifications on the hills around British-occupied Boston and generally acting as if he had all the ammunition he might ever want. If the British had realized they were so ill-supplied, they could have wiped out the colonists with the greatest of ease.

How did he build up his supplies? The local farmers had little gunpowder to spare, the southern colonies eventually sent along a little. The locals did their best to tool up to produce gunpowder locally, but that took time. But what made a real difference was the Continental Congress empowering pirates ("privateers") to prey on British shipping and thereby capture whatever military supplies they could -- and that was a year before the Declaration of Independence.

Better known, but still often forgotten, the New York militia under General Montgomery unsuccessfully invaded Canada in the fall and winter of 1775 -- once again long before the Declaration of Independence. And, in conjunction with that invasion, Benedict Arnold led a thousand troops from the Continental Army near Boston overland, in a heroic and almost impossible march through previously unexplored, mountainous forest to meet up with Montgomery outside Quebec.

Mercy also paints an interesting portrait of General Burgoyne. He marched south from Canada into northern New York in 1777, with arrogance and confidence, having boasted that he could crush this little rebellion with just a handful of troops. Now with a large army of seasoned veterans in his command, he expected the rebels to cower and run at the mere rumor of his approach. As part of his plan of terror, he brought with him and set loose on the American settlements in his wake, large numbers of Indians, recruited with promises of plunder. Then out-maneuvered and soundly defeated at Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army to General Gates. Imagine this general and his troops, totally humiliated, marching as prisoners over primitive roads past amazed and staring crowds in all the little towns from Saratoga to Boston. And remembers the historical context -- soldiers were expected to and often did act with honor. The British officers were permitted to retain their hand arms, as a mark of respect. And the rebels only guarded this procession of thousands of prisoners with a small handful of troops. It would have been trivially easy for the prisoners to escape and wreak havoc. But they made no attempt to do so -- they had given their word. Burgoyne waited months in Boston with his troops, expecting that under the terms of the treaty they would all be shipped back to England, having given their word ("parole") that they would never again take up arms against America. But Congress was hesitant, trusting the honor of these soldiers, but not believing that the British government would follow through with its obligations under the treaty. Burgoyne himself was allowed to return to England, having given his parole; and while already in England, being considered still a "prisoner" subject to negotiations for prisoner exchange. His troops meanwhile were forced to march once again, this time from Boston to Virginia. And Burgoyne himself, still a "prisoner", was elected a Member of the House of Commons, and, now a convert to republicanism, repeatedly, eloquently pleaded the cause of American independence and peace.

While today's school textbook version of the American Revolution focuses on the activities of Washington in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Mercy, in addition to covering that, devoted considerable space to events in the south, where General Gates, the hero of Saratoga, assumed command of the rebel forces, until his humiliating defeat at Camden. Other major players included General Nathaniel Greene, who took over from Gates, and General Lincoln. With the devastation in Georgia and the Carolinas, with the Loyalists playing a major role, and with the British increasingly using a strategy of terror -- burning homes, destroying crops, and sometimes taking no prisioners (killing everyone) -- this often reads like the Civil War that raged there four-score years later.

As for the Battle of Yorktown, as described here, that wasn't really a battle at all. Cornwallis was maneuvered and pushed back with a series of skirmishes, and forced into an impossible geographic position by orders from General Clinton in New York. Then it became a contest of shovels. The British had just 400 shovels; the colonists far more. The colonists dug trenches parallel to the British earthwork defenses, moved up their cannon and bombarded. Then they dug channels leading closer and dug parallel again so they could move their guns up again. And so on, while the British, stuck on a narrow peninsula, blocked on the land by the combined American and French armies, and on the sea by the French fleet, were running out of food and ammunition. Despairing that his army would be totally destroyed before promised reinforcement arrived from Clinton in New York, Cornwallis surrendered. A few days later Clinton arrived by sea to find the Chesapeake firmly in the control of the French fleet and no British troops left on the ground. He had no choice but to turn back.

Why the delay? Once again, Washington finessed the British. He made Clinton believe that an attack on New York was imminent. Such an attack had been planned, troops had been massed; and Clinton's spies had intercepted messages from Washington to that effect. So Washington let him continue to believe that; leaving skeleton forces in nearby forts, with orders to playact as if they were preparing an attack, while, in fact, totally unknown to the British, Washington marched south all the way to Virginia. All the way up until a few days before Washington reached Yorktown, Clinton was frantically preparing his defenses and even sending messages by sea to Cornwallis ordering him to send some of his troops back to New York, when that was not only foolish, but impossible.

Another reason for the delay was the slow arrival of a fleet under Lord Digby with major reinforcements from England. Mercy explains:

"Lord Digby, however, arrived at New York on September 29. One of the princes of the blood (Prince Henry, the Duke of Clarence) had taken this opportunity to visit America, probably with a view of sovereignty over a part or the whole of the conquered colonies. This was still anticipated at the Court of St. James; and perhaps, in the opinion of the royal parents, an American establishment might be very convenient for one of their numerous progeny."
School textbooks usually end the war at Yorktown. But nearly a third of Mercy's narrative covers the war after Yorktown, together with the negotiations that led to France, Spain, and Holland helping the American cause; the battles fought in the Caribbean and elsewhere by our allies against the British. (Have you ever read of the Spanish siege of Gibraltar as part of the American Revolution?); related political wrangling in England; the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris; and the challenges and risks facing the fragile, fledgling republic.

Here we read the story of Henry Laurens, who was president of the Continental Congress at the time of passage of the Articles of Confederation. He was sent as plentipoteniary to negotiate a treaty of alliance with Holland (which had been, for many years, an ally of Britain). His ship was intercepted and overrun by the British. At the last moment he threw overboard a trunk containing the secret correspondence with sympathizers in Holland, his instructions and letters of introduction and authority. But a British sailor having seen him do so dove into the sea and caught hold of the trunk before it sank. Once the British realized who he was and what his mission was, they sent him to England, where he was imprisoned for several years in the Tower of London.

By coincidence, Lord Cornwallis was the hereditary constable/commander of the Tower of London. When Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Washington arranged that the terms of the surrender be dictated by Colonel Laurens, the son of Henry Laurens. So the commander of the Tower of London was forced to accept terms dictated by the son of a man held prisoner there.

Meanwhile, general devastation, destruction, and murder took place outside the realm of the well-known battles. New Bedford, Massachusetts, Fairfield, Connecticut, and countless other defenseless towns up and down the coast were attacked and destroyed by the British, in actions that generally go unmentioned in history books, remembered only on plaques in those little towns and sometimes by local tourist guides. Mercy makes it clear that this war impoverished and greatly disrupted the lives of nearly everyone, not just the soldiers. The drama didn't end when the last shot was fired. She emphasizes the economic side of the devastation, the hyperinflation with soldiers and suppliers paid in paper money that then became worthless; and the ruthless activities of speculators, buying up promissory notes for practically nothing from patriots and then demanding and getting payment from Congress. It isn't an entirely pretty picture. The brave, cold, hungry, sick soldiers mutiny more than once. Some are executed. Everyone doesn't live happily ever after. But the Republic survives, stumbles forward, and tries to find the true path to a destiny that could change the world forever.

Read the full text of Mercy Warrens book and plays at www.samizdat.com/warren

Mercy Warren home page