Mercy Otis Warren

These lovely socks, fourth in the Bluestocking series, were knit in the week and a half we spent at our friends’ cabin in early July. They were the perfect cabin knit: fair isle, portable, and self-contained. I enjoyed the striped heel and the complex, organic fair isle pattern.

I’m thankful I got a chance to learn a little bit about Mercy Otis Warren. She was different to the other Bluestockings studied so far, being an American, and she had a strong voice in the revolutionary period. Apparently, without her, America might not have the Bill of Rights!

What I find most interesting about her was that she took a view on the equality of humanity which was radical for her day in many ways. I was brought up short when I read, in Kate Davies’ email essay to club members about her, that she actually opposed the westward expansion of settlers and the displacing of indigenous Americans. As a person of settler ancestry who serves indigenous people, it was simultaneously a relief to know that there were those among my forbears who did not support the displacement of native people, and a renewed sense of the tragedy of what happened. It didn’t have to happen that way.

For the design of these socks, Kate used for inspiration one of Mrs. Warren’s favorite biblical phrases, the one about being “under their own vine and fig tree.” Apparently it was one of George Washington’s favorite phrases as well, being interpreted as a motto for the independent farmer, free from imperial oppression.

The ironic thing about that phrase is that it’s part of a lie. In the Bible, it’s first heard as a description of Solomon’s golden age. “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25, NIV). But years later, under king Hezekiah, Judah was under threat from the king of Assyria. The Rabshekah, a mouthpiece for the Assyrian king, comes and issues threats in a loud voice from a high wall in Jerusalem. “Do not listen to Hezekiah. This is what the king of Assyria says: Make peace with me and come out to me. Then each of you will eat fruit from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you to a land like your own—a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey. Choose life and not death!” (2 Kings 18:31-32, NIV). Assyria wants to dishearten the people, and for Judah to surrender peaceably, and promises they may live on their land, until the king of Assyria comes to move them to some even better land. This was a deception; it was Assyria’s policy to displace the people of a conquered land and scatter them among its other conquered lands, so their culture would fracture and they would not pose a unified threat. They had already done this to the northern kingdom of Israel. To make this choice would have indeed been to choose death! But in this case, God miraculously destroyed the Assyrian army, without Judah even having to fight. Isaiah 36 quotes the same story.

It’s only in Micah 4 that this phrase about vine and fig tree is made into a promise from God. It’s an eschatological (end of the world) promise, and not just for Israel, but for everyone. “Everyone will sit under their own vine / and under their own fig tree, / and no one will make them afraid, / for the Lord Almighty has spoken.” This promise goes hand in hand with the promise of the end of war. Every nation will have their own land in which to peacefully do his own good work.

So I have complex feelings about this verse. It’s pretty uncomfortable that it became a motto for the settler Americans, who were resisting British oppression while systematically displacing the indigenous people who lived there, and building their new country on slave labour. Colonist Americans had more in common with the Assyrians than Israel. And they did not accept the baldly egalitarian meaning of Micah 4, that every nation might be under their own vine and fig tree, indigenous and African peoples included.

Settler Canadians have their own similar stories; Inuit remember the displacement of whole towns, forced settlement, false promises, and the cultural genocide of residential schools, which also happened in the US. It’s a lot to make right. So, settlers, quite frankly, I don’t want to hear about your vine and fig tree, you know what I mean?

But Mercy Otis Warren understood. She understood the value of all peoples, and their rights, that the vine and fig tree is a promise for everyone. I am sorry that her voice, and others like her, did not win the day in shaping the character of the early United States. But I’m glad to know that she was there. Thanks, Kate, for bringing her to our attention.


4 thoughts on “Mercy Otis Warren

  1. really enjoyed reading this – particularly your careful analysis of the biblical context of those verses which so many American settlers associated with their own situation – exclusively, just as you say. The promise of the vine and fig tree should indeed be everybody’s! Thanks, Rebecca

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  2. Here via Kate’s blog, just wanted to say how much I appreciated this post, informed so richly by your own heritage story and situation. It is wonderful, isn’t it, how a simple object like a knitted sock can carry so much meaning? I find the verse you quote particularly moving in this week when thousands of exhausted, displaced Afghan refugees are arriving in new lands around the world.

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    1. Thanks for reading and for your kind words. Yes the situation for Afghans is heart-rending. I hope many of them can find welcome and healing in a new home, and that miracles would happen in their old one.

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