Mercy Warren – America’s First Female Anti-Federalist

In the war of words over whether or not to ratify the U.S. Constitution, the two opposing sides — the Federalists, who supported ratification, and the Anti-Federalists, who did not — always used pen names when publishing articles arguing for or against ratification. They did this both because it was a common practice and to hide their true identities.  We know today that “Publius,” the author of the pro-ratification Federalist Papers, was really Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison.  We think “Brutus,” the most prolific Anti-Federalist author, was New York’s Robert Yates, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, but one who refused to sign the finished document.

For Mercy Otis Warren, born this week (Sept. 25) in 1728, hiding her identity with the pen name “A Columbian Patriot” was even more important because in the 1780s women simply did not join the public policy debate.  But Warren was a passionate patriot who had long spoken her mind through the printed word.  In the run up to the American Revolution she had published several polemics and had written several plays criticizing Royal authority in America and warning the colonists about the growing assault on their rights and liberties that the British were undertaking.

Warren was also an Anti-Federalist.  She disliked the Constitution almost as much as she disliked the British, and while many Anti-Federalists differed over whether to revise the proposed Constitution — and if so, how much — other Anti-Federalists, Warren among them, wanted to scrap the entire document and start over.  Outraged that her home state of Massachusetts had voted to ratify the Constitution without demanding wholesale changes beforehand, Warren wrote her most famous pamphlet, Observations on the Constitution, in which she listed 15 objections to the Constitution.   She hoped that Observations would at least convince the states still in the undecided camp, especially New York, to reject the Constitution outright, and more than 15,000 copies of her pamphlet were distributed throughout the state of New York.

It’s unknown what effect Warren’s pamphlet had on the eventual outcome in New York — by a very close vote New York ratified the Constitution and, like Massachusetts, included several amendments to the Constitution that it wanted the first Congress to consider once it was in session.  But Warren’s pamphlet was taken seriously enough that the aforementioned John Jay, one of New York’s leading Federalists, was moved to write a response.

Mercy Warren may not deserve the title “Founding Mother,” but she went where few women had gone before.   And in 1805, under her own name, she published History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution, one of the first histories of the revolution ever written, and certainly the first ever written by a woman.