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July 10, 1788

October 11, 2021 - 5 minute read


Mercy Otis Warren Portrait

Composed by Alexander Hamilton under the pseudonym Publius, the first essay of the Federalist appeared in New York in the Independent Journal on October 27, 1787, less than six weeks after the Constitutional Convention adjourned in Philadelphia. Once the war of words began in New York city, home to seven of the State’s twelve newspapers, advocates on both sides of the debate were circulating newspaper commentaries, including the Federalist essays, to their allies in other States.

New York’s Anti-Constitution Federal Republican Committee was especially energetic in its communications with “Antis,” at one point encouraging collaboration with Virginia and New Hampshire in order to prevent ratification of the Constitution or at least to secure amendments before ratification. Its unsuccessful campaign extended to Maryland and the Carolinas. Even after official adoption of the Constitution, secured with New Hampshire’s ratification on June 21, Antis in New York refused to concede and persisted in their opposition until the New York convention adjourned on July 28. In the end, the relentless attacks on the Constitution by its critics would have an ameliorating effect on the new government when it would convene for the first time in New York City in March 1789.

Among the Constitution’s severest critics was the anonymous author of Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Constitutions. First published in February 1788 under the byline A Columbian Patriot, the nineteen-page pamphlet assailed the proposed plan of government as “dangerously adapted to the purposes of an immediate aristocratic tyranny…that must soon terminate in the most uncontrolled despotism.” Its creators were “endeavoring by all the arts of insinuation and influence to betray the people of the United States into an acceptance of a most complicated system of government.”

Describing the Constitution as a “many headed monster” and charging that its ratification would be equivalent to placing “shackles on our own necks,” the Columbian Patriot listed and discussed at length specific objections to its adoption. First was the provision to hold biennial rather than annual elections for Congress which the author considered as “the basis of responsibility.” Moreover, one representative for every thirty thousand inhabitants was “a very inadequate representation” and the power of Congress to interfere with the time, places, and manner of electing Representatives was reprehensible. Added to these objections were the lack of rotation in office; ill-defined limits of the judiciary power; a “dangerous blend” of the executive and legislative powers “couched in such ambiguous terms – in such vague and indefinite expression;” “abolition of trial by jury in civil cases;” provision for a standing army; and more.

The most egregious objection to the Constitution by the Columbian Patriot was the absence of a bill of rights. “Man is born free and possessed of certain unalienable rights,” the author declared, and “government is instituted for the protection, safety and happiness of the people.” Although the origin of all power resides in “the people…there is no provision by a bill of rights to guard against the dangerous encroachments of power in too many instances to be named…The rights of individuals ought to be the primary object of all government and cannot be too securely guarded by the most explicit declarations in their favor.”

For decades, it was assumed that the Columbian Patriot was Elbridge Gerry, one of three delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who had refused to sign the Constitution. It would be another 140 years before the true author of Observations was finally identified as Mercy Otis Warren by her great, great, grandson Charles Warren.

Mercy Otis Warren's book History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution

Mercy Otis Warren was a poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and political satirist at a time when women simply did not enter the field of politics and public discourse. Born in 1728, the third of thirteen children, she absorbed a fascination with public affairs and patriotism from her father James Otis, a lawyer and member of the Massachusetts legislature, and her brother, also named James, a fiery orator elected to the legislature in 1766. Five years earlier he had defended American liberty in court, proclaiming that “taxation without liberty is tyranny.” Mercy’s husband, James Warren, was also a patriot and joined with her father and brother to encourage his wife’s writings and patriotic zeal, even as she and James raised five sons.

Having immersed herself in books and her brother’s lessons from Harvard and participating in political meetings held in the Otis home, Mercy began writing poetry and dramas denouncing the British and poking fun at its key officials, including colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson. Her satires and poignant plays helped to stoke the flames of rebellion against Great Britain while her advocacy of boycotting British tea and other products fueled the manufacture of “homespun…even to their handkerchiefs and gloves” and stimulated abstaining from tea and brewing domestic tea. Claiming to leave politics to “those whose proper business it is,” Mercy Otis Warren nevertheless insisted that “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 mother and wife.”

A friend and correspondent with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Patrick Henry, as well as Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, and Catherine Macaulay (republican sympathizer and the first woman British historian), Warren saw her works published anonymously until 1790 with the publication in her own name of Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous. Her masterwork - the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, the first such work by an American woman, was published in 1805. Mercy Otis Warren died at the age of eighty-six in 1814.

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