Joseph Warren: The Founding Father Whom Few Remember

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Christian Di Spigna has done a great service to citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: he has written a superb biography of Joseph Warren – the great Boston-based revolutionary leader, who was killed during the Battle of Bunker Hill. He titles the biography: Founding Martyr – The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero.

 Many have never heard of Dr. Joseph Warren – even many of us in Boston. This is because he was killed on the field of battle early in the struggle against Great Britain – well before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. He lost his life fighting for America even before George Washington arrived in Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army. Had he survived the war, as John Adams, his cousin Sam Adams, and John Hancock did, he would be one of the most famous “Founding Fathers.” But, alas, his early death at the age of 34 relegated him to one of the forgotten heroes of the American War of Independence.

In the seminal years leading up to Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, however, his leadership role in Boston revolutionary circles was equal if not superior to Sam Adams and John Hancock. In fact, it was Warren’s well-developed espionage system which learned of Gage’s plan to raid Lexington and Concord, and it was Dr. Warren who sent riders into the countryside to alert Adams and Hancock. Paul Revere gets the credit nowadays for his “midnight ride,” but Dr. Warren made the decision to send him.

Born in 1741 in Roxbury, Warren was the oldest of four sons of Joseph and Mary Stevens Warren. His father was a prosperous farmer who raised his children in a three-story brick house surrounded by many acres of pastures, orchards, and salt marshes. Warren was nevertheless expected to do farm chores as well as put long hours of work in the fields and orchards. Warren’s father was a product of the middle class, and he insisted that his four sons receive the best possible education. Warren’s father was also a devout Christian who earnestly studied the scriptures and taught his children to love and venerate the Bible. His strong faith was passed on to his son, Joseph Warren, who possessed a knowledge of the scriptures that was reported to be unsurpassed.

At the age of ten, Warren was sent to Roxbury Latin School. Founded in 1645 by Reverend John Eliot, Roxbury Latin has been for most of its existence a preparatory school for boys seeking admission to Harvard College. Warren studied diligently and graduated from Roxbury Latin in 1755 at the age of 14. That summer he presented himself to the faculty of Harvard to take the entrance examinations, which tested his ability to write and translate Greek and Latin authors as well as his knowledge of the rules of grammar. Being satisfied that Warren was of “good moral character,” Warren was admitted to Harvard College as one of the youngest of a freshman class of 45 students.

Interestingly, Harvard College in 1755 was not at all egalitarian. Students were ranked according to their socio-economic standing, and Warren was ranked towards the bottom at 31st out of 45 students – largely due to his coming from a farming background. Those at the top of the class received the best accommodations and food and were hazed less than those with lower rankings.  The day started with morning prayers in Holden Chapel and ended with prayers at sunset. In between were classes and lectures by the ten faculty members.

While picking apples in his orchard, Warren’s father lost his footing and fell to his death in 1755 — mere months after his son entered Harvard. Thus, Warren became the patriarch of the family at the age of fourteen, and this surely had much to do with his leadership skills later in life. He graduated from Harvard at the age of 18 in 1759.

After teaching at Roxbury Latin for a year, he decided to study medicine. He apprenticed himself to Dr. James Lloyd, one of Boston’s best doctors. In addition to being a pioneering physician, Lloyd came from a merchant Anglican family, and his clientele included some of the wealthiest and most powerful members in the Bay Colony. During the period of his apprenticeship, Warren also became involved in Freemasonry and joined the Lodge of St. Andrew, whose members also included John Hancock and Paul Revere. Thus, at a very early age, Warren, both through his practice of medicine and social organizations, became well known throughout Boston – among both the working and upper classes. This would ultimately serve him well later in the revolutionary years.

During the great smallpox outbreak in 1765-1766, Warren performed heroically, inoculating hundreds and perhaps thousands. His medical practice flourished with patients from all classes. In 1765, the infamous Stamp Act was passed, which set the stage for the growing revolutionary fervor in Boston against Great Britain and ultimately led to the events of Lexington and Concord ten years later.

During the 1760s, Warren lived a life replete with contradictions. He married Elizabeth Hooten, who came from a wealthy Anglican family, which helped him move easily in Tory upper class circles in Boston. Through his Harvard background, his family connections, and his highly successful medical practice, he came in contact with many of Boston’s most influential families. He was tall and handsome, and he cut a fine figure in society. The portrait which John Singleton Copley painted of him shows a physician clothed in silk finery with silver knee buckles and a white wig, all signifying his elevated social status. In July 1770, he and his wife purchased an estate with several buildings on a considerable number of acres in West Boston for 800 pounds. Yet Warren was a remarkable combination of working-class farmer and gentleman scholar, which allowed him to move with ease in all strata of Boston society. By the time of the Boston Massacre on the snowy evening of March 5, 1770, Warren had already landed in the top leadership of the radical Whigs together with Sam Adams, James Otis Jr., John Adams, and John Hancock. He wrote frequently for Boston newspapers both under his own name and under various noms de plume as well as carrying on voluminous correspondence with leaders in other colonies.

The struggle between the radical Whigs on the one hand and the British authorities and Tories on the other intensified in the early 1770s, leading to the Boston Tea Party. By this time Warren was   at the center of every major decision and initiative of those in favor of independence. Although it is unlikely that Warren took part in dumping chests of tea into Boston Harbor, he was one of the main orchestrators of the event – along with Sam Adams, Thomas Young, and Josiah Quincy. By 1774, Warren was calling for a Continental Congress to unite the colonies. This took place in September in Philadelphia. Four delegates from Massachusetts went, leaving Joseph Warren to watch over the radical Whig cause in Boston.

While their colleagues were in Philadelphia, Massachusetts patriots held a convention in Milton and chose Warren to be the chairman. Most historians believe that Warren was the main writer of the Suffolk Resolves that instructed the colonists to reject the acts of the British Parliament and to prepare to defend themselves against British retribution. It was an insurrectionary document. It called for towns in the Bay Colony to raise militias. In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress approved the Suffolk Resolves unanimously.

In March 1775, Warren was chosen to give the annual Boston Massacre Oration before several thousand patriots at Old South Meeting House. Robing himself in a Ciceronian toga, Warren with great courage delivered an impassioned 45-minute address, staring down the many British soldiers dispersed among the listeners. British authorities at this point considered Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Joseph Warren as enemies of the king.

Warren was involved at this point in the Freemasons, Sons of Liberty, the North End Caucus, the Boston Committee of Correspondence, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. No other Whig leader was involved in so many organizations, and this made him the de facto leader of the revolution. As head of the Committee of Safety, he built an every-growing network of spies that kept him informed of British plans and operations.  On April 18, 1775, reports came pouring in about British General Thomas Gage’s planned operation in Lexington and Concord. Late that night Warren summoned Paul Revere to his home and ordered him to set off immediately for Lexington where Adams and Hancock were staying.  Warren also sent William Dawes off over the land route via the Boston Neck.

Warren then rode his horse to the Black Horse Tavern in Menotomy (modern-day Arlington) where he followed General William Heath into battle against the retreating British. He both treated the wounded and participated in heated skirmishes against the Redcoats. Later that month he was elected President of the Second Massachusetts Provincial Congress and he negotiated with General Gage to allow Patriots to leave Boston (without their weapons), while Loyalists would be allowed into Boston, which was now under siege.

In June 1775, Warren received information from trusted sources that the British intended to leave the town of Boston and attack American forces arrayed outside the town. Patriot leaders sent troops from the American headquarters on Cambridge Common to Charlestown in the middle of the night of June 16. The Americans fortified Breeds Hill in Charlestown, leading British infantry to attack the next afternoon.

When Warren learned that British regulars had arrived at Charlestown, he immediately went to join the militias for the impending battle, ignoring the counsel of comrades who implored him to avoid combat because of his importance to the cause. Although he had been commissioned a major general in the Massachusetts militia a few days before, he declined command of the troops on Breed’s Hill, leaving that to General Israel Putnam and Colonel William Prescott. When he joined the battle, he was still dressed in a white satin waistcoat and a wig. Armed with pistols, swords, and a musket, he also carried his cherished Bible. The colonial militias repulsed two charges by the Redcoats, but on the third attempt, they ran out of ammunition and were overrun.  Fighting until the last, Warren remained to cover his retreating men and was struck fatally; a bullet went through his left eye. After the battle, Warren’s body was repeatedly bayoneted and disfigured by the distraught and seething Redcoats. There is a famous painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston depicting Warren’s death, but it masks the brutal way in which his foes treated his body.

Superbly educated, highly intelligent, gifted in his medical practice, with splendid social skills, Warren was a man for all seasons. A devout Christian, he spent his life looking after the health and welfare of his patients. Raised on a farm by frugal parents, he enjoyed his life in the highest social circles in Boston. Passionately committed to independence from Great Britain, he was devoted to his emerging country and ready to fight for it and die for it. At a very young age, he was a man with clear vision and a man of action. His breadth of character, organizational abilities and management skills led his fellow patriots to make him their unsung leader. He was a great patriot and hero of the rebellion against the British in our Commonwealth. Christian De Spigna has done us all a great service by ensuring that we include Dr. Joseph Warren in the pantheon of Founding Fathers of our country.


Robert H. Bradley is Chairman of Bradley, Foster & Sargent Inc., a $3.7 billion wealth management firm that has offices in Hartford, Connecticut and Wellesley, Massachusetts. Read other articles by him here.