In the spring of 1776, Mercy Otis Warren received a letter from her good friend Abigail Adams complaining about her husband John.
Though she loved John, Abigail resented her subordinate position to him. She had included her now-famous reminder, “Remember the ladies,” in a letter to him. Perhaps she expected a sympathetic response. Instead, John Adams made fun of her.
Abigail shared her hurt with her friend Mercy Otis Warren.
Though 16 years younger than Mercy, she had much in common with her. Both witnessed and recorded the American Revolution. They both made passionate commitments to the cause. And both lived on the South Shore of Massachusetts: Abigail in Braintree, Mercy in Plymouth.
Mercy Otis Warren
Mercy Otis Warren was born Sept. 25, 1728 in Barnstable, Mass., where a statue of her now stands in front of the Barnstable County Courthouse. Her parents educated her with her Harvard-bound brother James Otis. When she married James Warren, her brother and her husband encouraged her to write poetry and essays satirizing the colonial government. That she then did.
Abigail Adams met Mercy Otis Warren in the spring of 1773, when she accompanied John to a court session in Plymouth. Like Abigail, the elegant and erudite Mercy had five children. Abigail and Mercy hit it off, and the Adamses and Warrens would meet often in the coming years.
At that first meeting, Abigail was 28 and Mercy was 44. Mercy then wrote to Abigail afterward, which flattered her and began a long friendship and correspondence.
In 1776, John Adams represented Massachusetts in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Abigail wrote to him on March 31, eager to hear about the new code of laws she presumed he worked on. She then urged him to remember the ladies.
I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
“That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute,” she wrote. But, she added, those of you who wish to be happy can give up the “harsh title of Master” for the “more tender and endearing one of Friend.”
‘I Cannot But Laugh’
In his reply on April 14, 1776, he mocked her plea for women’s rights:
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented.–This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.
Abigail didn’t think much of her husband’s reply. On April 27, 1776, Abigail vented her frustration about John to Mercy Otis Warren.
“He is very sausy to me,” she wrote. “I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress.”
She indignantly repeated his comments, then wrote,
I will tell him I have only been making trial of the Disintersstedness of his Virtue, and when weigh’d in the balance have found it wanting.
Her friend’s reply — if she did reply — disappeared.
Abigail waited 10 days after she wrote to Mercy Otis Warren to compose her reply to her husband:
I can not say that I think you very generous to all the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining and absolute power over Wives.
And then she reminded him that arbitrary power, like most other very hard things, can be broken.
…notwithstanding all your wise Laws and Maxims we have it in our power not only to free ourselves but to subdue our Masters, and without violence throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet –
This story about Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Adams was updated in 2022. Image of Mercy Otis Warren statue By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32733257.