Enlightenment from People and Events of the Past

Joseph Warren (1741-1775)

Doctor and Leader of the Radical Forces in Massachusetts at the Beginning of the American Revolution.

Today almost completely forgotten, Joseph Warren was a towering figure at the beginning of the Revolution. A well-known Boston physician who trained many of the next generation of Massachusetts doctors, many of whom later served in the Continental Army, he ranked with Samuel and John Adams and James Otis as one of the most important men in Massachusetts politics at the beginning of the Revolutionary era.

With Samuel Adams, he formed a political party that held sway in Massachusetts for twenty years. Although he did not hold any public office until 1775, he helped force the recall of the royal governor, Francis Bernard, in 1769; fought to wrest control of local offices and policies from pro-British appointees; developed policies that gained the repeal of taxes imposed by Parliament; and led the forces that finally drove British troops out of Boston. The most powerful patriot leader in Massachusetts, with the exception of Adams, and the foremost physician in the area, he proved to be a formidable adversary in a fight, a compelling orator, and a propagandist who by instinct went for the jugular.

Warren was the close friend and mentor of Paul Revere and the unsuspected motive force behind Boston’s unruly mobs in events such as the Boston Tea Party. As a member of the Boston Committee of Correspondence, chairman of the provincial Committee of Safety, and member of every important committee of the Provincial Congress, Warren became the prime maker and effecter of policy throughout Massachusetts upon Samuel Adams’ election to the Continental Congress in 1774.

As the primary author of the Suffolk Resolves in September 1774, Warren urged armed resistance to Parliament’s intolerable policies at a time when few of the patriot leaders except Patrick Henry in irginia recognized this as the last recourse that remained to the colonies. Adopted unanimously, the Resolves stated that a king who violates the rights of his people forfeits their allegiance, declared the Intolerable Acts null and void and ordered all officers appointed under it to immediately resign their offices, directed tax collectors to refuse to turn over revenues to royal governor General Thomas Gage, advised towns to choose their own militia officers, and threatened Gage with retaliation if he arrested anyone for political reasons.

A copy of the Resolves, placing Massachusetts in an attitude of rebellion, was forwarded to the Continental Congress, which quickly approved them and pledged that all the colonies would come to Massachusetts’s aid if it became necessary for the colonists to take up arms against Britain. The Resolves also drew the unfavorable attention of the British establishment. Along with Adams and Hancock, Warren’s name appeared at the head of the list of subversives the British ministry authorized Gage to arrest at his discretion and ship off to England for trial.

After the meeting of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress at Concord in October 1774, Warren was elected chairman of the Committee of Safety and charged with the duty of organizing the militia and collecting military stores. On the night of April 18, 1775, when it became obvious that the British troops were on the move, he dispatched William Dawes and Paul Revere to warn the patriots along the road to Concord that the Regulars were coming out. The next day, along with General William Heath, he directed the militia units who fought the Regulars every step of the way back from Concord to Boston.

During the next six weeks, as chairman of the Committee of Safety, Warren took control of the military preparations of the rebel militia units that were besieging Boston. Elected president of the Provincial Congress, he became chief executive officer of Massachusetts as well in open defiance of royal authority. On June 14 he was chosen as Massachusetts’ second major general. When a spy brought the news that the British were planning an assault on Dorchester Heights on the mainland, Warren was instrumental in the decision to fortify Bunker’s Hill on Charlestown peninsula on the night of June 16 to block the British action.

Warren was meeting with the Committee of Safety in Cambridge when the news arrived that the British troops were landing on Charlestown peninsula to attack the small redoubt the rebel force had built on Breed’s Hill above the village of Charlestown. In spite of a violent headache, Warren rode without hesitation to join the battle. Colonel William Prescott, who commanded the rebel force, offered to turn command over to him, but Warren graciously objected that he had come as a volunteer and would be honored to serve under an officer of Prescott’s quality.

Warren fought in the redoubt as a private and was one of the last defenders to vacate the fortress during the final British assault. As the British surrounded the retreating militia, a musket-ball struck Warren in the temple, killing him instantly. Massachusetts’ patriots mourned the death of Joseph Warren as an incalculable loss to their cause. Some scholars believe that, had he lived, he would have rivaled Washington as a military and political leader.



Joseph Warren





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