“command the attention of the mother and the wife”

A few days late with this post in honor of Women’s History Month (March). It is important to note that many women were politically active during the formation of this nation. HANNAH FAYERWEATHER WINTHROP and MERCY OTIS WARREN were but two. Both women, though giving lip service to the notion that women should occupy themselves with the domestic sphere, believed that they ought to be involved in resisting the British and concerned with establishing a new and independent nation.

Hannah, a dedicated correspondent, was married to John Winthrop, a noted astronomer and professor of mathematics and natural history at Harvard. Mercy was raised in Barnstable on Cape Cod and lived in Plymouth with her husband James Warren who was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, became its speaker, and later was chosen President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Mercy wrote essays, poetry, and dramas attacking British authority. In 1805 she published The History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution.

In the following two letters Hannah and Mercy discuss recent events, including the Boston Tea Party, that they believe will lead to a break between the colonies and Britain. Mercy notes that she and Hannah are blessed with understanding husbands who support their involvement in political affairs. Hannah wrote to Mercy on the first of January 1774. Mercy replied later that month with a long letter in which she envisions a new nation based on equitable principles and respect for the natural rights of its citizens.

I wrote to my dear friend Mrs Warren Novr the 10th . . . but have not heard whether it was receivd. I have been with impatience wishing to know the cause of this interval of Silence. . . .

I have no news of a domestick kind to tell you, we go on in the same little peacefull Circle as usual Varied with alternate sickness & health, sometimes Amused, sometimes astonishd with Viewing Events which happen in the great World. . . . Yonder, the destruction of the detestable weed, made so by cruel exaction, engages our attention. The Virtuous & Noble resolution of America’s Sons in defiance of threatned desolation & misery from arbitary Despots. demands our highest regard may they yet be endowd with all that firmness necessary to Carry them thro all their difficulties till they come off Conquerors . . . .

We hope to see a good account of the Tea Cast away on the Cape. The Union of the Colonies, the firm & sedate resolution of the People is an Omen for good unto us. And be it known unto Britain, even American daughters are Politicians & Patriots and will aid the good work with their Female Efforts. . . .
I subscribe
Your affectionate
Hannah Winthrop

To Madam H Winthrop

When I took up my pen I determined to leave the field of politicks to those whose proper busines it is to speculate and to act at this important crisis; but the occurrences that have lately taken place are so alarming and the subject so interwoven with the enjoyments of social and domestic life as to command the attention of the mother and the wife who before the contest is decided may be called to weep over the manes of her beloved sons, slain by the same sword that deprived of life their intrepid and heroic Father. And Who in these modern days, has arrived at such a degree of Roman virtue as not to grudge the costly sacrifice? I tremble for the event of the present commotions;- there must be a noble struggle to recover the expiring liberties of our injured country; we must re-purchase them at the expence of blood, or tamely acquiesce, and embrace the hand that holds out the chain to us and our children. Much interested in the success of the conflict — I feel myself unequal to the combat yet hope the women will never get the better of that disinterested regard to universal happiness which ought to actuate the benevolent mind. Heaven give us strength to sustain the shock, if this country should be compelled to the last appeal – and forbid that anything in your conduct or my own should countenance the opinions of those who explode every generous principle, deny the existence of patriotism and ridicule all pretences to public virtue. How derogatory to the human character are these ideas! Yet we daily see too many instances of a sordid selfish spirit prompting men to act diametrically opposite to the welfare of society, even where there had been heretofore some pretences to integrity. Whether the Patriots of the present day will be able to effect their laudable designs in our time is very uncertain, yet I trust they will lay the foundation deep and that future generations will not be wanting to themselves, but will maintain and support the priviledges to which they are entitled both by nature and compact By the spirit, firmness, and the happy union in similar measures, which animates the extensive colonies . . . . It appears to me that every step the infatuated Britons have been taking, is but a means of hastning the grandeur and glory of America;- yet still the fears of a fatal interruption of private and social enjoyment often fill my mind with gloomy apprehensions. . . . I wish to see America boast in her turn of science and of Empire,- of Empire not established in the thraldom of nations but on a more equitable base, on such an exalted plan that while for mutual security, the authority of rulers is acknowledged, they may neither be prompted by avarice or ambition to infringe the natural rights of their fellow-men;- nor debase their own species by requiring abject and unworthy submissions, where there is little distinction but what arises from the imperfection of human nature which makes it necessary to submit to some subordination. Though such an happy state, such an equal government, may be considered by some as an Utopian dream; yet you and I can easily conceive of nations and states rising to the highest consequence under more liberal plans than are pointed out by the marble-hearted despots of ancient or modern times. But I expatiate no longer on the prospects of public distress nor dwell on the painful sensations of the human heart in this day of general perplexity, when the hero and the patriot are alternately exhilerated or depressed by the varying aspects of the political Hemisphere;- nor shall I make an apology for touching on a subject a little out of the line of female attention, as we are both happily united to such companions as think us capable of taking part in whatever affects themselves. As for that part of mankind who think every rational pursuit lies beyond the reach of a sex too generally devoted to folly, their censure or applause is equally indifferent to your sincere friend
M Warren

Hannah Winthrop’s letter can be found HERE. The whole of Mercy Otis Warren’s letter can be viewed HERE. Winthrop’s portrait in oil on canvas is by John Singleton Copley done in 1773. It is at the MetropolitanM Museum of Art in New York City. The bronze sculpture of Warren stands in front of the court house in Barnstable on Cape Cod.


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