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Men of the Revolution: 1. Dr. Joseph Warren

May 2024
3min read

Warren took the lead in creating the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Refusing to leave Boston like the other radical leaders, he died in the fighting on Breed's Hill in 1775

John Singleton Copley painted Dr. Joseph Warren circa 1765. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
John Singleton Copley painted Dr. Joseph Warren circa 1765. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Personal charm and affability are traits not commonly associated with revolutionaries, and rarely has an agent of social upheaval been held in such universal esteem by his contemporaries as was Dr. Joseph Warren. He seems to have been a man nearly everyone liked, and his qualities come down to us in those dignified adjectives of the eighteenth century—gentle, noble, generous. So it is difficult to know if it was because of these characteristics or in spite of them that he was one of a handful of provincials most feared by British officialdom.

Not without reason, Lord Rawdon called Warren “the greatest incendiary in all America”; with the possible exception of Warren’s colleague and intimate, Samuel Adams, the Boston physician did more than any other American to maneuver the dispute between Britain and her colonies into a revolution. For some years he believed that change could be accomplished within the system (he felt obliged to do “every thing in my power to serve the united interest of Great Britain and her colonies”), but by 1774 he had concluded that little hope lay in that direction, so intransigent were George in and his ministers. His goals and his determination had hardened: as he wrote to John Adams, “… the mistress we court is Liberty , and it is better to die than not to obtain her.

When John Singleton Copley painted his portrait in 1775, Warren was a fine-looking man of medium height, with large, wide-set eyes, full mouth, rather long, straight nose, and blond hair; although he was only thirty-four, there is in the fullness of the face and in his posture a hint that he was beginning to add a little weight. To look at the portrait is to accept the opinion of Warren’s contemporaries: that he was kind, friendly, entirely frank and open in all he said and did, scrupulously fair and humane in dealings with friend and enemy alike — a man universally trusted and admired. Born on a Roxbury farm in 1741, Joseph Warren made his way through Harvard, studied medicine with Dr. James Lloyd in Boston, and while still in his twenties was regarded as one of the town’s leading physicians. He was also known as a leader of the radical opposition, who was shaping public opinion in Boston against the Crown’s policies.

With Sam Adams, Warren initiated the Committees of Correspondence, which, as Governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote, brought Massachusetts from “a state of peace, order, and general contentment … into a state of contention, disorder, and general dissatisfaction.” He gave speeches, wrote articles, attended countless caucuses and meetings, petitioned and attacked the authorities, and was a dominant figure in the Boston Massacre trial and the Tea Party. A driving force in the Committee of Safety, he took the lead in creating the colony’s Provincial Congress, presided over it in 1775, and did his utmost to create a government that would “give every man the greatest liberty to do what he pleases consistent with restraining him from doing any injury to another.” If any one man could be held responsible for triggering the events that led to war, it would have to be affable, charming Joseph Warren. In the Suffolk Resolves, which he drafted in September, 1774, he set forth a principle of defensive war that was subsequently adopted by the Continental Congress, thus committing the other colonies to support Massachusetts, come what might.

In dispatching Paul Revere on his midnight errand, Warren instructed him not simply to warn the citizenry that the British were out and on the march, but to arouse the militia — a call almost certain to lead to bloodshed. And after the affair at Lexington and Concord, it was Joseph Warren who determined that the ragtag army that had assembled in response to the alarm and had harassed the redcoats from Concord to Boston, should not disband and return to their homes but would remain, a huge armed camp, bottling up the British in a state of siege. In May, when Samuel and John Adams and John Hancock left for Philadelphia and their duties in the Continental Congress, Warren stayed behind to shape Massachusetts policy. By that time Massachusetts was the rebellion, and Joseph Warren’s domination of its affairs was involving the other colonies in an ever-widening struggle.

The dramatic death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill on June 17, 1775 was painted by John Trumbull in 1786. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The dramatic death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill on June 17, 1775 was painted by John Trumbull in 1786. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Always the man of action, Warren had been the last radical leader to leave Boston, in the early hours of April 19; and after narrowly avoiding capture he was in the thick of the fight later in the day, when a musket ball tore through a lock of his hair. On June 17, 1775, after attending a council of war, Warren, with one of his medical students, made his way from Cambridge across Charlestown Neck, past Bunker Hill and out onto Breed’s Hill, where the provincial troops had erected a crude fort the previous night. He was offered command of the men (he had been appointed a major general a few days earlier) but declined, saying he came as a volunteer.

A few hours later, in the desperate battle that marked a point of no return for Britain and her colonies, Joseph Warren was dead, a British musket ball in his head. Somewhere, in the last wild melee of the day, he fell. “He died in his best cloaths,” a British officer wrote, “every body remembers his fine silk-fringed waistcoat.” Another Englishman, Captain Laurie, found his body and “stuffed the scoundrell with another Rebel into one hole and there he and his seditious principles may remain.” Not until a year later were the remains recovered; Warren’s brothers and some friends — among them Paul Revere — rowed over to Charlestown, and Revere identified the corpse by the two artificial teeth that he had installed for his old friend.

It was a bitter blow for the cause, as Abigail Adams realized. “Not all the havoc and devastation they have made,” she wrote, “has wounded me like the death of Warren. We want him in the Senate; we want him in his profession; we want him in the field.”

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