My Friend Mercy

o0xBYXGLong ago, I did my undergrad studies at a college, Cal Poly SLO, where you had to produce what’s called a senior project in order to graduate.

At the time the senior project requirement felt like a doctoral dissertation; now that I’m looking ahead at an actual dissertation, the senior project feels like more of a glorified book report!

Anyhow, as an undergraduate history major, I had a lot of options for what I could study for my senior project. After all, history is a pretty broad discipline! But since I was taking a bunch of women’s studies courses at the time, and because I had long had an interest in colonial American history, I decided to ask one of my professors for a topic that would encompass those two topics.

Rob Dixon, meet Mercy Otis Warren.

At the risk of dragging you back to your 5th grade history class, Mercy Otis Warren was an American patriot during the Revolutionary War. Using her sarcastic wit, keen intelligence and her writing skills, she published a number of plays and pamphlets lampooning the British. Then, after the war, she turned her focus to telling the story of the new nation, ultimately becoming the first woman to write a history of the American Revolution.

Through it all, Warren’s concern was for the rights of the individual. She was a classic (and ardent) anti-Federalist. In fact, she refused to publish her history until Jefferson’s presidency, since they were ideological soulmates.

For my senior project, I wrote a paper on Mercy Otis Warren’s views on politics and gender, and the intersection thereof. And I had the chance to read it through the other day. Here’s my thesis:

“Liberty pervades Warren’s writings. It is no accident that Warren’s concern for the status of women in her society shows in those writings. Her advocacy of their accomplishments and her sympathetic portrayal of their struggles is concordant with her concern for the individual amid the constraints of a tyrannical oppressor. As she championed the cause of the individual in the face of a potentially controlling government, so she desired to celebrate the role of the woman in the midst of a male-dominated society. Mercy Otis Warren’s acclaim for the role of women in the Revolutionary era was consistent with her unfailing belief in liberty, as illustrated by her strong anti-federalist views.”

What do you think? Sound like me?

A couple of closing reflections…

First, it’s a bit surreal to read something you wrote 20 years ago. On one hand, my writing voice still sounds the same, at least to me. On the other hand, I don’t think I would’ve passed that paper, knowing what I know now. Or at least I would’ve had a lot of ideas for revisions!

Next, it’s a cool thing to read something you wrote 20 years ago and see how it lines up with your current passions. I guess you could say that I was challenging Tertullian even as a college senior.

Third, it’s always good to identify historical mentors, and Mercy Otis Warren has been that for me. In particular, I love Warren’s use of the pen as a weapon for social change, as well as her prophetic advocacy for what she believed in. Those are two things I aspire to as well.

I’ll close this post with the same words I closed my senior project:

“In sum, in actively proclaiming both her firm anti-federalist conviction in the inalienable rights of the individual and her conviction regarding the equality of the sexes, Mercy Otis Warren explained her ultimate belief in liberty. Her conviction was disciplined, consistent and pervading. Nothing should inhibit liberty: liberty for her children, liberty for a young nation, or liberty for women.”

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