Founding Mothers

Sharp quills did the bidding of the even sharper intellects of the Revolution’s founding mothers. Listen to the words of Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Adams, voiced by Abigail Schumann.

Learn more: Abigail Adams


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. In the third installment of our "Thoughts on Freedom" series, today we bring you the words of two of the Revolution's Founding Mothers: Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Adams.

Mercy Otis Warren is considered one of the seminal voices of early American politics, a rare female voice in a forum dominated by men. Here now is a letter she wrote to John Adams in 1776, read by Colonial Williamsburg's Abigail Schumann.

Abigail Schumann:

Plymouth, March 10, 1776

Dear Sir,

As your time is so much devoted to the service of the republic, you can have little leisure for letters of mere friendship or amusement. I have therefore been sometime balancing in my own mind, whether I should again interrupt your important moments. But on re-perusing yours of the eighth of January, I find a query unanswered. Your asking my opinion on so momentous a point as the form of government which ought to be preferred by a people about to shake off the fetters of monarchic and aristocratic tyranny- -may be designed to ridicule the sex for paying any attention to political matters. Yet I shall venture to give you a serious reply.

Notwithstanding the love of dress, dancing, and equipage- notwithstanding the fondness for finery, folly, and fashion is so strongly predominant in the female mind, I hope never to see a Monarchy established in America- however fashionable in Europe. Nor however it might coincide with the taste for elegance and pleasure in the one sex- or cooperate with the passions, the interest, or ambition of the other- shall I ever be an advocate for such a form,- not even "to make you rich."

I have long been an admirer of a republican government and was convinced, -even before I saw the advantages delineated in so clear and concise a manner by your pen, - that, if established in the genuine principles of equal liberty, it was a form productive of many excellent qualities and heroic virtues in human nature, which often lie dormant for want of opportunities for exertion. The 'heavenly spark' is smothered in the corruption of Courts, or its luster obscured in the pompous glares of royal pageantry.

It is the opinion of the celebrated Burgh, that almost all political establishments are the creatures of chance rather than of wisdom: that there are few instances of a people forming for themselves a constitution from the foundation. Therefore, there is scarcely an example of such a phenomenon as a perfect Commonwealth.

But, we will yet hope the present generation will leave one to posterity, - and that the American republic will come as near the point of perfection as the condition of humanity will admit. That listening to the dictates of common sense, the 'Amphyctionic body' will not be obliged to yield to the violence of party- or the blindness of private or provincial prejudices- and leave the work half finished. Shall the incomplete fabric hang tottering under its own weight, to be shored up and cemented with the blood of succeeding generations?

However, we may indulge the 'pleasing review' and look forward with delight on the well compacted government and happy establishments of the civil police of the United Colonies.

Yet, with you, Sir, I have my fears that American virtue -has not yet reached that 'sublime pitch' which is necessary to baffle the designs of the artful, - to counteract the weakness of the timid, or to resist the pecuniary temptations and ambitious wishes that will arise in the breast of many.

We shall soon have a test- and if the union of the Colonies and a steady opposition to the disgraceful idea of foreign shackles still subsist, -after negotiating with a set of men picked for the purpose of flattering, terrifying, and cajoling the colonists into compliances- which their principles, their interests, their honor, and even their strength forbids,- I shall have hopes that America has more than one politician who has abilities to make the character of the people, to extinguish vices and follies he finds, and to create the virtues he sees wanting.

Many among us are ready to flatter themselves that an accommodation with Britain is yet easy -and that we shall soon see the return of halcyon days. Others think that we have little to expect from Commissioners sent from a haughty, venal, luxurious Court, acting in the name of a despotic Prince: - they will never submit to such humiliating conditions as the justice and the safety of America now demands.

I agree, Sir, to the bargain you propose, and I think you cannot recede, when a lady has accepted your proposals. But, I must ingenuously tell you, the pleasure you promise yourself will be very inadequate to the advantages I expect to reap by the compliance. In return to my imperfect characters and observations, I expect to be made acquainted with the genius, the taste, the manners not only of the most distinguished characters in America, but of the nobility of Britain; and perhaps before the conflict is over, with some of the dignified personages who have held the regalia of crowns and scepters, and in the zenith of power are the dancing puppets of other European courts.

America must take her rank and send her Ambassadors abroad, and I expect you will be one of them. But the sphere of 'female life' is too narrow to afford much entertainment to the wise and learned- who are called to exhibit some of the most capital scenes in the drama and to tread the theatre where they will not only have a world of spectators- but at a time when they are sure posterity will scrutinize the steps of the Philadelphian actors,- and censure or applaud according to the imbelicity, or the vigor and magnanimity that marks their conduct.

The subjects I have touched are so diffuse that I have been imperceptibly led beyond the limits I designed. I only add the warmest wishes that friendship can dictate for the happiness of you and yours. You will soon gratify with a line and an assurance of pardon for the freedom and length of this, from your very humble servant,

M. Warren

Harmony Hunter: With her example of gentle persuasion, Mercy Otis Warren inspired more than one woman to political participation. Among them was Abigail Adams.

Evidence of John and Abigail Adams' great affection and respect for one another is preserved in their correspondence, and topics ranged from humble concerns of home to the great American experiment in democracy.

Here now in a 1776 letter to her husband John, Abigail Adams urges him to "remember the ladies."

Abigail Schumann:

Braintree, March 31, 1776

I wish you would ever write me a letter half as long as I write you, and tell me, if you may, where your fleet are gone? What sort of defense Virginia can make against our common enemy? Whether it is so situated as to make an able defense? Are not the gentry lords and the common people vassals? Are they not like the uncivilized natives Britain represents us to be? I hope their riflemen, who have shown themselves very savage (and even bloodthirsty), are not a specimen of the generality of the people. I am willing to allow the colony great merit for having produced a Washington, but they have been shamefully duped by a Dunmore.

I have, sometimes, been ready to think -that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong - in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creatures of theirs. Of this, I am certain- that it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principal -of 'doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.'

Do not you want to see Boston? I am fearful of the small pox or I should have been in before this time. I got Mr. Crane to go to our house and see what state it was in. I find it has been occupied by one of the doctors of a regiment- very dirty- but no other damage has been done to it. The few things which were left in it are all gone. Cranch has the key, which he never delivered up. I have wrote to him for it -and am determined to get it cleaned as soon as possible and shut it up. I look upon it a new acquisition of property. A property which one month ago, I did not value at a single shilling and could, with pleasure, have seen it in flames.

The town, in general, is left in a better state than we expected- more owing to a precipitate flight than any regard to the inhabitants. Though, some individuals discovered a sense of honor and justice, and have left the rent of the houses, in which they were, for the owners and the furniture unhurt, or if damaged, sufficient to make it good.

Others have committed abominable ravages. The mansion house of your president is safe and the furniture unhurt; whilst both the house and furniture of the solicitor general have fallen a prey to their own merciless party. Surely, the very fiends feel a reverential awe for virtue and patriotism, whilst they detest the parricide and traitor.

I feel very differently at the approach of spring to what I did a month ago. We knew not then whether we could plant or sow with safety; whether, when we had toiled, we could reap the fruits of our own industry; whether we could rest in our own cottages; or whether we should not be driven from the seacoasts to seek shelter in the wilderness. But, now, we feel as if we might sit under our own vine and eat the good of the land.

I feel a 'gaiety de coar' to which before I was a stranger. I think the sun looks brighter, the birds sing more melodiously, and nature puts on a more cheerful countenance. We feel a temporary peace and the poor fugitives are returning to their deserted habitations.

Though we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling lest the lot of Boston should be theirs. But they cannot be in similar circumstances, unless pusillanimity and cowardice should take possession of them. They have time and warning given them to see the evil and shun it.

I long to hear that you have declared an independency - and by the way- in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion- 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. But such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of 'master' for the more tender and endearing one of 'friend.' Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity; with impunity. Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your sex. Regard us then as beings placed by Providence under your protection- and in imitation of the Supreme Being, make use of that power only for our happiness.

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