A Call to Arms2021-05-28T15:33:49-04:00

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A Call to Arms

Mercy Otis Warren wrote and published the tragic play The Adulateur in 1772 to call out the alleged crimes of the British government during the Boston Massacre.

The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston

Paul Revere (1735-1818), The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt, 1770. Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC01868.

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Summary

Oh! my poor country! when I see thee wounded,
Bleeding to death—it pains me to the soul.
Seeing my country attacked hurts me to my soul.
Long have I wept in secret—nay, could weep
‘Till tears were changed to blood—When will it be,
I’ve cried in private, and could keep crying until my eyes bleed.
When high-souled honor beats within our bosoms,
And calls to action—when thy sons like heroes,
When will the people’s hearts be moved by honor and calls to action?
Shall dare assert thy rights, and with their swords, When will the people fight like heroes for their country’s right?
Like men, like freemen, force a way to conquest
Or on thy ruins gloriously expire.—
When will the people achieve victory over oppression or die a glorious death while trying?

Excerpt from Mercy Otis Warren, The adulateur. A tragedy as it is now acted in Upper Servia (Boston: Printed and sold at the new printing office near Concert-Hall, 1773). Courtesy of the Ann Arbor, MI: Text Creation Partnership, 2004-2008.

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Background

Mercy Otis Warren was born in Barnstable, Massachusetts, in 1728. As a child, she was trained in all of the skills necessary for a colonial housewife. Her father also encouraged her to read and study classic Latin, Greek, and English works of literature. She grew up to be a talented writer with a passion for politics.

In 1754, Mercy married James Warren, a merchant and farmer who had a long career in the Massachusetts legislature. Her brother, James Otis, was a well-known political troublemaker in the eyes of the British government. Between the two, Mercy was kept up to date on all the latest events of the American rebellion, and she knew most of the political leaders of the American Revolution, including George Washington, John and Abigail Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

In 1769, her brother James was brutally beaten by English government officials. After this, Mercy took a more active role in the political activism around her. She published her first political play, The Adulateur, in 1772, and went on to produce a large body of work that supported and documented the events of the American Revolution.

About the Document

This excerpt is from The Adulateur, Mercy Otis Warren’s play that was published in sections in the Boston newspaper Massachusetts Spy in March and April of 1772. Warren published it anonymously, so that no one reading it knew it was by a woman.

The play criticizes the way Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson handled the Boston Massacre. To avoid directly accusing the colonial government of crimes, Warren sets her play in the fictional country of Upper Servia. In Upper Servia all of the government officials have names like Rapatio (aggressively greedy), Dupe (deceive), Gripeall (complainer), and Meager (lacking). This whole cast of villains conspires to oppress their people and get away with murder. It is only the upstanding Patriots who see through their plots.

Warren’s play is a tragedy, so Rapatio successfully fools the people into believing his lies. But in the final scene, excerpted here, a character expresses his hope that someday the people will rise up to overthrow the corrupt government. It seems clear that three years before the fighting of the American Revolution began, Mercy Otis Warren wanted the Patriots to fight for their rights.

Vocabulary

  • merchant: A person whose business is buying and selling goods.
  • tragedy: A play that deals with tragic events and has an unhappy ending.

Pronunciation

  • adulateur: ah-dull-AH-tur

Discussion Questions

  • What does this scene reveal about Patriot attitudes toward the British government in 1772?
  • How do you think Patriots felt reading this scene? How about Loyalists?
  • What makes this scene effective propaganda?
  • Why did Mercy Otis Warren publish her play anonymously?
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Suggested Activities

  • Teach this document in any lesson about the Boston Massacre.
  • Teach this document in any lesson about the propaganda of the American Revolution.
  • Combine this document with the political cartoons for a lesson on women and political propaganda.
  • Compare this except with Paul Revere’s famous illustration of the Boston Massacre [pictured above]. What makes these pieces propaganda? Which is more effective?
  • Ask your students to write a personal response to this scene. Do they find it inspiring or silly? Do they see any problems with the way Brutus and Marcus characterize government? How do they feel about violent revolution being the only way forward?
  • Teach this play together with any of the following for a lesson on the many ways women expressed their political opinions during the American Revolution, and how their actions were received: Spinning Wheels, Spinning Bees, The Edenton Tea Party, Political Caricatures, Abolition and Revolution, and Sentiments of an American Woman.
  • The entire text of The Adulateur is available here. Read through other scenes to see how Warren characterizes the government, or stage the whole play as a class.
  • Read The Adulateur together with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to look for clues about Warren’s inspirations for her play.
  • For a lesson on women’s literature of the American Revolution, teach this play along with Phillis Wheatley’s “On the Death of General Wooster” and Molly Gutridge’s “A New Touch on the Times”.
  • Political satire is still a popular way for the public to criticize their government. After you’ve studied The Adulateur, ask the students to pick a current political event and write their own short sketch satirizing it.
  • Teach this document along with any of the following for a lesson about the many ways women actively participated in both sides of the American Revolution: Spinning Wheels, Spinning Bees, Sentiments of an American Woman, Life Story: Margaret Corbin, Life Story: Lorenda Holmes, Life Story: Margaret “Peggy” Shippen Arnold, and Life Story: Nanyehi Nancy Ward.

Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE; POWER AND POLITICS

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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