In her pioneering book, History of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) asks why people are so willing to obey the government and answers that it is supineness, fear of resisting, and the long habit of obedience.

Like many authors Warren asks a key question: why do people so readily obey the government? She seems to think it is, perhaps, partly inherent in human nature (“supiness”). She does however admit of some economic reasons for obedience such as old habits of thought which are hard to shake off, and fear of retribution or punishment by the state.

But she admits that resistance does sometime occur (like the American Revolution) and it is again as a result of something in human nature which “ever revolts at the idea of servitude.” The following are Warren’s full thoughts on the subject, excerpts from History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution vol. 1 [1805]


However injudicious the appointments to American departments might be, the darling [39] point of an American revenue was an object too consequential to be relinquished, either by the court at St. James’s, the plantation governors, or their mercenary adherents dispersed through the continent. Besides these, there were several classes in America, who were at first exceedingly opposed to measures that militated with the designs of administration;—some impressed by long connexion, were intimidated by her power, and attached by affection to Britain.

Others, the true disciples of passive obedience, had real scruples of conscience with regard to any resistance to the powers that be; these, whether actuated by affection or fear, by principle or interest, formed a close combination with the colonial governors, custom-house officers, and all in subordinate departments, who hung on the court for subsistence.

By the tenor of the writings of some of these, and the insolent behaviour of others, they became equally obnoxious in the eyes of the people, with the officers of the crown, and the danglers for place; who, disappointed of their prey by the repeal of the stamp-act, and restless for some new project that might enable them to rise into importance, on the spoils of America, were continually whispering malicious insinuations into the ears of the financiers and ministers of colonial departments.

They represented the mercantile body in America as a set of smugglers, forever breaking over the laws of trade and of society; the [40] people in general as factious, turbulent, and aiming at independence; the legislatures in the several provinces, as marked with the same spirit, and government every where in so lax a state, that the civil authority was insufficient to prevent the fatal effects of popular discontent. 

It is indeed true, that resentment had in several instances arisen to outrage, and that the most unwarrantable excesses had been committed on some occasions, which gave grounds for unfavorable representations. Yet it must be acknowledged, that the voice of the people seldom breathes universal murmur, but when the insolence or the oppression of their rulers extorts the bitter complaint.

On the contrary, there is a certain supineness which generally overspreads the multitude, and disposes mankind to submit quietly to any form of government, rather than to be at the expense and hazard of resistance. They become attached to ancient modes by habits of obedience, though the reins of authority are sometimes held by the most rigorous hand. Thus we have seen in all ages the many become the slaves of the few; preferring the wretched tranquillity of inglorious ease, they patiently yield to despotic masters, until awakened by multiplied wrongs to the feelings of human nature; which when once aroused to a consciousness of the native freedom and equal rights of man, ever revolts at the idea of servitude.

The Muse of the Revolution

The Muse of the Revolution

[41] Perhaps the story of political revolution never exhibited a more general enthusiasm in the cause of liberty, than that which for several years pervaded all ranks in America, and brought forward events little expected by the most sanguine spirits in the beginning of the controversy. A contest now pushed with so much vigour, that the intelligent yeomanry of the country, as well as those educated in the higher walks, became convinced that nothing less than a systematical plan of slavery was designed against them.

They viewed the chains as already forged to manacle the unborn millions; and though every one seemed to dread any new interruption of public tranquillity, the impetuosity of some led them into excesses which could not be restrained by those of more cool and discreet deportment. To the most moderate and judicious it soon became apparent, that unless a timely and bold resistance prevented, the colonists must in a few years sink into the same wretched thraldom, that marks the miserable Asiatic.

Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) was one of the most formidable female intellectuals in 18th century America. She wrote plays, poetry, letters, a pamphlet warning of the dangers of the new Constitution, and one of the most important contemporary histories of the American Revolution. In her history we see the continual struggle between liberty, virtue, and reason on the one hand, against the blind pursuit of power, luxury, and passion on the other.

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