J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Mercy Warren and the “Primary Object of All Government”

On Sunday, 7 August, author Nancy Rubin Stuart will speak at Adams National Historical Park on her biography The Muse of the Revolution: The Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren and the Founding of a Nation.

Last year, Stuart took note of a bumper sticker attributing this statement to Mercy Warren: “The rights of the individual should be the primary object of all governments.” That’s a misquotation from a longer sentence in a pamphlet Warren published in 1788, arguing that the proposed U.S. Constitution needed a Bill of Rights (and had other problems as well):
We are told by a gentleman [James Bowdoin] of too much virtue and real probity to suspect he has a design to deceive—“that the whole constitution is a declaration of rights,”—but mankind must think for themselves, and to many very judicious and discerning characters, the whole constitution with very few exceptions appears a perversion of the rights of particular states, and of private citizens. But the gentleman goes on to tell us, “that the primary object is the general government, and that the rights of individuals are only incidentally mentioned, and that there was a clear impropriety in being very particular about them.” But, asking pardon for dissenting from such respectable authority, who has been led into several mistakes, more from his prediliction in favour of certain modes of government, than from a want of understanding or veracity. 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. This has been the opinion of the Hampdens, the Pyms, and many other illustrious names, that have stood forth in defence of English liberties; and even the Italian master in politicks, the subtle and renouned Machiavel acknowledges, that no republic ever yet stood on a stable foundation without satisfying the common people.
Warren published her pamphlet Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions under the pseudonym “a Columbian Patriot.” In the late 1800s, scholars credited it to Elbridge Gerry, another Massachusetts Anti-Federalist. Now it’s attributed to Warren, but misquoted. Google counts over 600 webpages with the version up above, only sixty with the correct phrasing.

Stuart apparently feels that even the properly worded clause boils down Warren’s political philosophy too much:
The voice of the people, she observed, was not necessarily immune to error. For “Public opinion,” Mercy warned in her History, “when grounded on false principles and dictated by the breath of ambitious individuals, {which} sometimes creates a tyranny, felt by the minority more severely, than that usually inflicted by the hand of the sceptered monarch.”

To remedy that and maintain a sound government, she hoped that “The principles of the revolution ought ever to be the pole-star of the statesman, respected by the rising generation.” Above all, “The people may again be reminded that the elective franchise is in their own hands; that it ought not to be abused, either for personal gratifications, or the indulgence of partisan acrimony.”
For more on Warren and the evolution of her political writings, Stuart’s talk will begin at 2:00 P.M. on 7 August in the Adams Carriage House at 135 Adams Street in Quincy. Call 617-770-1175 for additional information.

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