Somebody Has Some ‘Splainin’ to Do – Mercy Otis Warren vs. Miss Mercy Scollay in The Royal American Magazine

in about Mercy Scollay

by Samuel A. Forman

In my biography of Joseph Warren, I suggest that his fiancée Miss Mercy Scollay may have been the author of an intriguing and ingenious poem that appeared anonymously in June 1774. Articles Which Female Vanity has Comprised as Necessaries was featured in Isaiah Thomas’ Royal American Magazine just as the Solemn League and Covenant boycotts of British imports were off to a rocky start. On further consideration, I believe Mercy Otis Warren to have been the poem’s author. [Note that Joseph Warren and Mercy Otis Warren were not close family relations.]

Joseph Warren was a key Patriot involved with the formulation and dissemination of the Solemn League. He assumed a prominent role at a critical mid-June juncture, just as his political mentor Samuel Adams was away from Boston. The editor of the magazine, presumably Isaiah Thomas himself, sets up the 114 line poem:

“Sir, I was lately in a Company, where the conversation turned to the non-consumption agreement, and the vast importance of resolving not to purchase any thing but the necessities of life; in order to defeat the present plan of despotism, so insidiously concerted and violently pursued. One of the company desir’d a Lady to give him a list of the necessaries of life for a fine Lady, and she soon after sent him an elegant copy of verses; which falling into my hands I enclose to you, from a persuasion that they will prove an agreeable entertainment to your readers.

[poem’s title] To a Gentleman who requested a List of those Articles which female Vanity has comprised under the Head of Necessaries”

If we are to take this introduction literally, a Patriot insider at a social gathering sets forth a friendly challenge to a woman present, to produce a list of clothing articles the ladies reasonably require. The implication would be that patriotic women would keep the list tiny or find American alternatives to boycotted imports. The anonymous lady’s answer, reveling as it does in feminine flounces, finery, and a proper attraction between the sexes, appears to have a flirtatious component and to have been written by a very literate and politically informed Daughter of Liberty. My tentative attribution of the poem to Miss Mercy Scollay is based on the following circumstances and attributes:

  • Joseph Warren was the Patriot most closely associated with disseminating the Solemn League and Covenant, a product of the Boston Committee of Correspondence. He may have been its author.
  • An eligible widower at the time whom “the ladies judged handsome,”[1] Warren was the only single and unattached member of the Boston Sons of Liberty inner circle in June of 1774.
  • The anonymous author, exhibiting deep knowledge of women’s finery and accessories, was likely a woman, possibly a seamstress, and by internal references within the poem, mature and intellectual.
  • The editor’s setup quoted above seems to identify an actual social event that would have occurred in Boston in June 1774, at which the gentleman challenged the author in person.

These aspects might have been just the things that led one of Mrs. Mercy Otis Warren’s closest friends and correspondents, Mrs. Hannah Fayerweather Winthrop , to have identified in a letter Miss Mercy Scollay as the author of the poem, and Joseph Warren as the one posing the challenge, just weeks after the publication. Mrs. Winthrop was the spouse of Harvard Professor John Winthrop of Cambridge, writing to her friend in Barnstable on Cape Cod:

“I have lately received great pleasure from an ingenious satire on that Female Foible Love of dress in the Royal American Magazine. I have heard the author guess’d to be Miss Mercy Scollay and the Gentleman who requested it, Dr. Warren. I am not enough acquainted with that Ladys Poetic Talents to judge whether they are equal to that elegant production.”[2]

In Mercy Otis Warren’s letters to Mrs. Winthrop in this timeframe, she neither mentions the poem, acknowledges her friend’s question, nor writes anything about her own recently completed writings or ones in process.[3]

So, given reasonable suppositions based on information published in 1774; Mrs Hannah Winthrop’s contemporaneous suspicion that Miss Mercy Scollay was the author of the striking poem; and Mercy Otis Warren not disputing this; it is a reasonable conclusion that Miss Mercy Scollay is indeed a strong candidate to have been the anonymous poet of The Royal American Magazine. End of story? Not quite.

In 1790 a volume containing eighteen poems by Mercy Otis Warren appeared, the only such book appearing in her lifetime containing her literary and poetic works under her byline. Isaiah Thomas and E.T. Andrews were the listed publishers.[4] The same poem appears beginning on page 208 under a different name and description, “To the Hon. J. Winthrp, Esq.” The subtitle too is different than in 1774 and is more explicit:

“Who, on the Determination, in 1774, to suspend all Commerce with Britain, (except for the real necessaries of life) requested a poetical List of the Articles the Ladies might comprise under the Head.”

Benjamin Franklin V writes of this poem in a collection of Mercy Otis Warren’s works[5] “The witty ‘To the Hon. J. Winthrop, Esq.’ is Warren’s best political poem. It illustrates her ironic and satiric voice, her ability to make strong political comments obliquely. When America ceased trading with England in 1774, John Winthrop, whose wife Hannah was one of Warren’s best friends, asked Warren to provide a list of women’s necessities that should continue to be imported from Britain. Warren responded with a poem damning women who are more concerned with comfort than freedom. She directs her wrath at Clarissa, an American who must have her finery:…”

But we know that this same Hannah Winthrop wrote to Mercy Otis Warren on September 27, 1774, speculating that Mercy Scollay was the author of this poem on female vanity. Why would Hannah even ask? If Hannah’s husband John Winthrop had indeed requested the poem, as described in the 1790 book and Mercy Otis Warren scholars accept at face value,[6] Hannah of all people would have already known that her friend was the author.

Something about this situation is not kosher.

Mercy Otis Warren was at her home in Plymouth in June of 1774 and all that summer. She did not take credit for the Royal American Magazine poem in letters to Hannah in 1774.

Either the 1774 or the 1790 published description of the circumstances of the poem’s composition are wrong, or I have misinterpreted one or the other. Both, if you take the 1774 challenge to have been made in person, cannot possibly be true. Isaiah Thomas published the former poem’s description in June of 1774, a Thomas successor the latter in the 1790 book of Mrs. Warren’s poetry.

If one takes the 1774 description as fiction, or is ignorant of its existence, then the 1790 description would confirm Mercy Otis Warren’s authorship in a volume presumably authorized by her.

If one takes the 1774 introduction as indicative of a challenge made in person between male and female Boston Patriots at a social event, and confers greater weight to what was written just as the poem appeared rather than 16 years afterward, then the later 1790 description and attributions are suspect. Mercy Otis Warren’s unresponsiveness to Hannah Winthrop’s 1774 query and her physical distance from Boston, could be interpreted as ruling out Mercy Otis Warren from writing the poem. Circumstantially, Miss Mercy Scollay would remain the strongest candidate for authorship.

By the time of her book’s appearance, Mercy Otis Warren did not have to explain anything to several important actors in this mini-drama. John Winthrop had died in 1779, his spouse Hannah Winthrop had just joined him in the grave in 1790, and Joseph Warren (if he had triggered the writing of the poem as Hannah suspected in 1774) had been famously killed during the Battle of Bunker Hill fifteen years before.

Is it at all plausible that Mercy Otis Warren did not actually write this poem, but that she or her publisher snatched credit for it from the anonymous hand 16 years after it was penned? Such would be anathema for Mercy Otis Warren scholars, who devote more attention to her literary works nowadays than anyone did in the 18th century. I now believe Mercy Otis Warren indeed wrote this poem, but I harbor a shadow of doubt.

Had Mrs. Warren ever played fast and loose with authorship? There is such a situation, known to literary historians, where she did so reluctantly. Her 1772 Adulateur first appeared in serialized form in Isaiah Thomas’ Massachusetts Spy. A pamphlet version, also published by Isaiah Thomas, soon followed. It contained a lot of additional material and added scenes. Trouble was that Mercy Otis Warren did not write the longer version, as she hotly pointed out in her personal correspondence at the time. Isaiah Thomas never revealed who did write it. Mercy Otis Warren went on to accept the long version, warmly received in Patriot circles, as her own. Other plays The Blockheads and The Motley Assembly were never explicitly acknowledged by Mercy Otis Warren and their authorship is disputed sometimes.

Publisher Isaiah Thomas was capable of shenanigans in attributing his anonymous authors to particular works. He was a key actor in overseeing additions to The Adulateur without prior permission or explanations to author Mercy Otis Warren. The descriptions in the 1774 and 1790 publications of the poem on female vanity are inconsistent by my reading, and both presses are associated with him.

I have done my ‘splainin’ here, describing a change in opinion regarding the authorship of On Female Vanity from Miss Mercy Scollay to Mercy Otis Warren (albeit with reservations).

I believe that Mercy Otis Warren and Isaiah Thomas, or their modern acolytes of the academy, still have some ‘splainin’ to do. Why didn’t Mercy Otis Warren admit authorship of the poem to Hannah Winthrop, when it was the latter’s husband who generated the challenge resulting in its creation?  Why did she wait until both were dead to take credit? Was Isaiah Thomas, as he had done with the Adulateur, playing editorial tricks with attribution of items he or his publishing associate brought to press? Is there any place in all of this for Miss Mercy Scollay, aside from a reasonable observer in 1774 thinking she was the author?

There have been some intriguing older[7],[8] and modern works[9],[10] on Mercy Otis Warren, as well as additional articles in scholarly journals. None to my knowledge have shed light on this episode.

[1]  Gordon, William. The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America: Including an Account of the Late War; and of the Thirteen Colonies from Their Origin to That Period. 4 vols. London: Charles Dilly and James Buckland, 1788, Vol. II, pp. 49-50.

[2]  Warren-Adams Letters, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. I, p. 33. This is the last paragraph extracted from a four page letter.

[3]  Richards, Jeffrey H., and Sharon M. Harris, eds. Mercy Otis Warren – Selected Letters. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2009. Richards and Harris state that Hannah Winthrop was one of Mercy Otis Warren’s closest correspondents, married to John Winthrop, the Harvard science professor.  Letter to Hannah Fayerweather Tolman Winthrop, [dated before June 30 by internal reference to Thomas Hutchinson, who had not yet left Boston] 1774, pp. 27-29. This letter contains no reference to the Royal American Magazine poem.  In another letter to Hannah Fayerweather Tolman Winthrop, Plymouth August 1774, pp. 31-33, this one is full of righteous indignation at the Intolerable Acts, Mrs. Warren does not mention the Royal American Magazine poem.

[4]  Warren, Mrs. M[ercy Otis]. Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous. Boston: I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews, 1790

[5]  Warren, Mercy Otis. The Plays and Poems of Mercy Otis Warren – Facsimile Reproductions Compiled and with an Introduction by Benjamin Franklin V. Delmar, New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1980

[6]  Hayes, Edmund M., and Mercy Otis Warren. “The Private Poems of Mercy Otis Warren.” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 2 (1981): 199-224.

[7]  Hutcheson, Maud Macdonald. “Mercy Warren, 1728-1814.” The William and Mary Quarterly 10, no. 3 (1953): 378-402.

[8]  Anthony, Katherine Susan. First Lady of the Revolution: The Life of Mercy Otis Warren New York: Doubleday, 1958

[9]  Zagarri, Rosemary. A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution American Biographical History Series: Harlan Davidson, 1995.

[10] Stuart, Nancy Rubin. The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

Previous post:

Next post: