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Mercy Otis Warren on the New Republic
Digital History ID 218

Author:   Mercy Otis Warren


The United States was, apart from the Netherlands, the first modern nation to achieve independence as a result of a revolution against colonial rule. Although many colonies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries followed the United States' example, few were as successful in subsequent economic and political development. Even the United States, however, struggled to establish itself in its first decade under the Constitution.

One problem was to consolidate support among the American people. In 1790, two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, continued to support the Articles of Confederation. Citizens of Vermont threatened to join Canada.

The new nation also faced severe economic and foreign policy problems. A huge debt remained from the Revolution, and paper money issued during the war was virtually worthless. In addition, there were serious foreign threats to the nation's independence. Britain continued to occupy forts in the Old Northwest, and Spain refused to recognize the nation's southern and western boundaries.

Finally, it was uncertain what place if any there would be in the new nation for a formal political opposition. In 1789, there was little acceptance of the idea of a legitimate political opposition organized into a formal party. During the 1790s and early 1800s, many groups, including western frontier settlers and prominent New Englanders, threatened to secede from the Union. Commitment to civil liberties and freedom of the press were limited. A question that haunted the new nation was whether it was possible for a stable, republican government to survive.

In this letter, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), sister of the prominent Massachuetts patriot James Otis and herself an important early American historian and writer, assesses the new government's prospects.


It is time we have a government established & Washington at its head. But we are too poor for Monarchy, too wise for despotism, too dissipated selfish & extravagant for Republicanism. It ill becomes an infant government when the foreign & domestic [arrangements] are large & the [finances] small to begin its [government] in all the splendor of Royalty. Should trade be blocked, manufacturing checked, the spirit of agriculture dispersed, & the people almost deprived of the means of subsistence to [meet]...the payment of exorbitant salaries--in order to support the dignity of officers & keep up the ostentatious pomp for which the ambitious have sighed from the moment of the ratification of the articles of confederation. The computations may appear small to an ancient monarchy and powerful nation, but the estimated amount began already to cost [so much] that they [the people] are up in arms....

But I leave America to wait the success of her bold experience, and [reflect] a moment with you at the [progressing] revolution in France. Would it not be surprising if that nation should [show] a greater advantage from the spirit of liberty diffused through the continent than the Americans may be able to boast after all their struggle and sacrifice to become a free people. But more of this subject in my next. I dare not yet [be] pessimistic--I only interpret the past and contemplate the probabilities of futility, for so various are the practices, the interests & the principles among us that no human calculation can decide [th]e fate of America.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Mercy Otis Warren to Catharine Macaulay

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