Mercy Otis Warren: Constitution Would “Terminate in the Most Uncontrolled Despotism”

By: TJ Martinell


Mercy Otis Warren came down firmly opposed to ratification of the Constitution, and her anonymously written pamphlet titled “Observations on the new Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions” was highly influential during the ratification debates.

Warren has been referred to as America’s first female historian. She approached the Constitution from the perspective of “The Spirit of 1776.” As noted by the Constitution Center, she “explained in vivid, poetic prose why the proposed system of government posed much the same threat to American liberty as the British government once had.”

Her chief worry was that the Constitution would abandon the principles of the American Revolution and facilitate consolidation of the states under a powerful national government.  In other words, it would lead to unlimited centralized power – similar to the system the colonists had fought to leave.

“The ratification of a Constitution, which, by the undefined meaning of some parts, and the ambiguities of expression in others, is dangerously adapted to the purposes of an immediate aristocratic tyranny; that from the difficulty, if not impracticability of its operation, must soon terminate in the most uncontrolued despotism.

Because of this, Warren warned that the proposed Constitution “threaten(s) to sweep away the rights for which the brave sons of America have fought with an heroism scarcely paralleled even in the ancient republics.

Warren wrote the pamphlet under the pseudonym “A Columbian Patriot.” It wasn’t until a century later that she was revealed as the author.

The pamphlet’s influence went far beyond her home state of Massachusetts. Antifederalists distributed some 1,700 copies of the pamphlet to counter the Federalists

Warren argued that the territory making up the United States was too vast to be administered by a single government.

“The difficulty, if not impracticability, of exercising the equal and equitable powers of government by a single legislature over an extent of territory that reaches from the Mississippi to the western lakes, and from them to the At|lantic ocean, is an insuperable objection to the adoption of the new system.”

And she lamented that not one state legislature “had the most distant idea when they first appointed members for a convention, entirely commercial, or when they afterwards authorised them to consider on some amendments of the federal union, that they would, without any warrant from their constituents, presume on so bold and daring a stride, as ultimately to destroy the state governments, and offer a consolidated system, irrever|sible but on conditions that the smallest degree of penetra|tion must discover to be impracticable.” [Emphasis added]

Warren’s intense opposition is partly expressed in her view that “self defense…obliges everyone to remonstrate the strides of ambition, and a wanton lust of domination, and to resist the first approaches of tyranny.”

She echoed many of the concerns of fellow antifederalists and included some specific objections to the structure of the Constitution, warning that it failed to adequately limit the power of the general government – and threatened individual liberties.

Federalists claimed that the checks and balances included in the Constitution allowed the executive, legislature, and judicial branches to hold each other accountable and prevent too much consolidated power.

Nevertheless, Warren felt there was not enough separation between them. “The executive and the legislative are so dangerously blended as to give just cause of alarm, and everything relative thereto, is couched in such ambiguous terms – in such vague and indefinite expressions, as is a sufficient ground without any other objection, for the reprobation of a system, that the authors dare not hazard to a clear investigation.”

Anyone familiar with antifederalist writing will find common rhetoric in her attacks on the notion of a standing army.

“Standing armies have been the nursery of vice, and the bane of liberty, from the Roman legions, to the establishment of the artful Ximenes, and from the ruin of the Cortes of Spain, to the planting the British Cohorts in the capitals of America.—By the edicts of authority vested in the sovereign power by the proposed constitution, the militia of the country, the bulwark of defense, and the security of national liberty, is no longer under the control of civil authority; but at the rescript of the monarch, or the aristocracy, they may either be employed to extort the enormous sums that will be necessary to support the civil list—to maintain the regalia of power—and the splendor of the most useless part of the community, or they may be sent into foreign countries for the fulfilment of treaties, stipulated by the president and two thirds of the senate.” [Emphasis added]

Once more, she shared anti-federalist skepticism when it came to the congressional power of taxation, calling it “the monopoly of Congress.”

Warren also prophetically anticipated that once states accepted the new federal government under the Constitution, there was no getting out of it.

“They (proponents) wish to see the Confederated States bound together by the most indissoluble union, but without renouncing their several sovereignties and independence, and becoming tributaries to a consolidated fabric of aristocratic tyranny.”

It’s important to note that at the time, the Bill of Rights had yet to be included in the U.S. Constitution, which had proved a very contentious point among anti-federalists in Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, and elsewhere. Federalists had offered an olive branch in the form of proposed amendments, but the Constitution was to be ratified without them.

Hence, Warren lambasted the Constitution for having “no security in the profered system, either for the rights of conscience, or the liberty of the press:— Despotism usually, while it is gaining ground; will suffer men to think, say, or write what they please; but when once established, if it is thought necessary to subserve the purposes of arbitrary power, the most unjust restrictions may take place in the first instance, and an imprimatur on the press in the next, may silence the complaints, and forbid the most decent remonstrances of an injured and oppressed people.

She also didn’t accept the claim that once the Constitution was accepted, the Bill of Rights would be tacked on. “The very suggestion, that we ought to trust to the precarious hope of amendments and redress, after we have voluntarily fixed the shackles on our own necks, should have awakened to a double degree of caution.

Ultimately, Warren’s objections all came back to the fear of consolidation and a belief that the system proposed by the Constitution would unravel the hard-fought victory won in the Revolution.

“The glorious fabric of liberty successfully reared with so much labor an assiduity totters to the foundation, and may be blown away as the bubble of fancy by the rude breath of military combinations, and politicians of yesterday.”

Her conclusion is as bittersweet as it is far-sighted in its perspective.

“If after all, on a dispassionate and fair discussion, the people generally give their voice for a voluntary dereliction of their privileges, let every individual, who chooses the active scenes of life, strive to support the peace and unanimity of his country, though every other blessing may expire; and while the statesman is plodding for power, and the courtier practicing the arts of dissimulation without check; while the rapacious are growing rich by oppression, and fortune throwing her gifts into the lap of fools, let the sublimer characters, the philosophic lovers of freedom, who have wept over her exit, retire to the calm shades of contemplation; there they may look down with pity on the inconsistency of human nature, the revolutions of states, the rise of kingdoms, and the fall of empires.” [Emphasis added]