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Letter from James Bowdoin to Mercy Otis Warren, 23 March 1776

Letter from James Bowdoin to Mercy Otis Warren, 23 March 1776

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    [ This description is from the project: Object of the Month ]

    In this letter to Mercy Otis Warren dated 23 March 1776, James Bowdoin discusses independence as "absolutely necessary to the well-being of the Colonies."

    Declaring Independence

    Abigail Adams is rightly famous for writing to her husband John on 31 March 1776, longing to hear that the Continental Congress, in which John represented Massachusetts, had "declared an independency," and "in the New Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make" to "Remember the Ladies". Abigail’s sentiments were not unique; in the spring of 1776 in Massachusetts talk of independence was in the air. Eight days before Abigail wrote to John, James Bowdoin had written to Mercy Otis Warren about the necessity of declaring independence and referring "objectors" to such a declaration to "that excellent Pamphlet intitled ‘Common Sense.’"

    In his letter James Bowdoin described a declaration of independence as a preliminary step in securing "mutual independance" from the mother country. Much of his letter is devoted to speculating about whom peace commissioners appointed by Great Britain to negotiate with the colonies might be and when they would arrive in America. He did not see a declaration merely as a negotiating tactic, but as essential to force the ministerial government to understand that they were treating with equals, especially after the recent "disgraceful precipitate flight of their troops from Boston"—the town had been evacuated on 17 March 1776.

    "TIS TIME TO PART"

    While in his letter, James Bowdoin appears to recommend Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to Mercy Otis Warren, in an earlier letter (28 February 1776) he acknowledged the loan of a copy of the pamphlet from her. Correspondence in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Warren-Adams Papers among and between James and Mercy Otis Warren; James and Elizabeth Erving Bowdoin; John and Abigail Adams; and Samuel Adams and Hannah Winthrop shows how news—and copies—of Common Sense came to Massachusetts in the early months of 1776 and how Paine’s message, as Thomas Paine bibliographer Richard Gimbel wrote, "swept the country like a prairie fire." It was time, Paine wrote, to separate from England: "TIS TIME TO PART."

    "The report of my D’rs arrival is a mistake."

    James Bowdoin’s letter to Mercy Otis Warren ends with a postscript: while he hoped that her husband James was "perfectly recovered" from an illness, he had sad personal news—reports that his daughter Elizabeth had returned from Great Britain were false. In 1767 Elizabeth had married John Temple, a Boston-born member of the Board of Customs for America. Romance briefly had triumphed over politics in colonial Boston, but Temple’s marriage to the daughter of a leader in the patriot movement probably contributed to his removal from office in 1770. Elizabeth and John Temple settled in England and would not return to America until 1778 when John embarked upon a doomed peace mission to the United States. They returned to America again in 1781, and yet again in 1785 when John was appointed the first consul general to the new nation.

    James Bowdoin

    James Bowdoin (1726-1790)—often called "James Bowdoin II" to distinguish him from his father and his son of the same name--graduated from Harvard College in 1745. Through a large inheritance from his father, a wealthy merchant, and marriage to Elizabeth Erving, the daughter of another Boston merchant, Bowdoin had the means to devote his life to scientific investigation and public service. His interests in electricity and astronomy brought him into contact with Benjamin Franklin and they became life-long correspondents and friends. In 1780, Bowdoin became a founder and the first president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

    In public life, Bowdoin was elected first to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and then to the Governor’s Council, but over time he fell out of favor with the royal government and became active in the patriot movement. In 1770, Boston chose him to serve on the committee to prepare a report on the Boston Massacre published as A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston. In the years before the Revolution, Bowdoin was moderator of the Boston town meeting and the head of the town’s Committee of Safety.

    In 1775, when the Siege of Boston began, Bowdoin moved to the country town of Middleborough where illness kept him from an active role in the early stages of the Revolution. He was convalescing there when he wrote to Mercy Otis Warren in March 1776, but he soon returned to a public role and was elected president of the Massachusetts Council, making him in effect the head of the colony’s revolutionary government. He served on the committee to write the Massachusetts Constitution (1779-1780) and was governor under the new state government at the time of Shays’s Rebellion (1786-1787). Retiring to private life, Bowdoin lived on to participate in the ratification of the federal Constitution and welcome newly-elected President George Washington to Boston in 1789. Bowdoin died the following year. Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (then part of Massachusetts), founded in 1794, is named for him.

    Mercy Otis Warren

    James Bowdoin’s correspondent, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814), was a wonder of her age: a poet, satirist (a playwright when the public theater still was illegal in colonial Massachusetts), political commentator, social critic, and historian—all when women were restricted or prevented from participating in any of these roles. The sister of one patriot leader (James Otis) and wife of another (James Warren), Mercy Otis played her own significant part in Massachusetts revolutionary politics through her writings and network of correspondents.

    For further reading

    Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Milk Punch Recipe, 11 October 1763.

    Benjamin Franklin and James Bowdoin corresponded about other weighty matters besides their shared interest in scientific experiments and observations including electricity and the distance to the sun. In a letter to Bowdoin, written before Franklin left Boston after a visit to the place of his birth, he promised Bowdoin that he would forward scientific works from Philadelphia and left him a celebrated recipe for milk punch, described previously as an object of the month.

    Kershaw, Gordon E. James Bowdoin II: Patriot and Man of the Enlightenment. New York: Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991.

    Warren, Mercy Otis. Mercy Otis Warren: Selected Letters. Ed. by Jeffrey H. Richards and Sharon M. Harris. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

    Warren-Adams Papers, 1767-1814.

    The letter from James Bowdoin to Mercy Otis Warren, 23 March 1776, and related correspondence is located in this collection. 

    The collection was published in part as: Warren-Adams Letters: Being Chiefly a Correspondence among John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Warren. 2 vols. Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1917-1925 (vols. 72 and 73 of the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections).

    Winthrop Family Papers, 1537-1990.

    Much of James Bowdoin’s personal correspondence is located in the Bowdoin and Temple Papers, 1580-1900, that forms part of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection of Winthrop Family Papers.

    Selections from the Bowdoin and Temple Papers were published as: The Bowdoin and Temple Papers. 2 vols. Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society, 1897-1907 (vols. 59 and 66 of the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections).

    Zagarri, Rosemarie. A Woman’s Dilemma: Mercy Otis Warren and the American Revolution. Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1995.

    Gimbel, Richard. Thomas Paine: A Bibliographical Check List of Common Sense with an Account of Its Publication.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.

    Manuel, Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel. James Bowdoin and the Patriot Philosophers.  Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2004 (vol. 247 of Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society).

    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.