In his first Inaugural Address in January 1981, President Ronald Reagan brought to public attention these words of Dr. Joseph Warren, a great but largely forgotten American patriot of the Revolutionary era: “On the eve of our struggle for independence, a man who might have been one of the greatest among the founding fathers…said to his fellow Americans,”
Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question upon which rests the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.
Reagan did not overestimate the contributions or the potential of this remarkable hero. Thankfully, in the 41 years since that inaugural address, knowledge of Warren’s legacy has grown, but it still deserves a wider hearing.
Born in 1741 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Warren enrolled at Harvard College (now Harvard University) at the astonishing age of 14. Upon graduation, he began his medical practice in Boston and quickly earned a reputation as one of the finest physicians in New England. He was quite likely on a path to becoming the best in all the colonies when events took a turn that both transformed his life and ended it prematurely.
On March 5, 1770, several hundred unruly colonists confronted nine British soldiers, bombarding them with rocks and epithets. Composed and hesitant, the soldiers at first held back. Then, without orders from their superior, they fired into the crowd, killing five. The event went down in history as the Boston Massacre.
Dr. Joseph Warren was immediately called to tend to the wounded. John Adams (who would become our second President) defended the soldiers in court and won their acquittal on grounds that they were provoked and fired in self-defense.
Warren saw the shooting as a harbinger of things to come. Troubled by the increasing arrogance of King George III and the British Parliament’s meddling in colonial affairs, he was galvanized into action. He would live only five more years.
The Dr. Joseph Warren Foundation is dedicated to Warren’s memory. This paragraph from its website reveals the good doctor’s activism in those final five years:
Considered a “Founding Grandfather” Warren rose to become a well-connected propagandist, polemicist, author, orator, professor, and ultimately a major general as well as a physician, mentor, and spymaster. He served as President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, chairman of the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, leader of the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the North End Caucus, and Grand Master of Ancient Scottish Rite Masons in North America. Warren delivered two fiery Boston Massacre orations, helped to plan the Boston Tea Party, and authored the Suffolk Resolves—a declaration of rights and grievances against Great Britain. While his compatriots were attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Warren fought in every battle and skirmish from Lexington and Concord to Bunker Hill.
In 1774, Warren wrote a poem titled “Free America.” It was published in newspapers all over the colonies and even set to a traditional tune from the mother country called “The British Grenadiers.” It appeared in this scene from Mel Gibson’s 2000 epic film, The Patriot:
As the British retreated from Lexington and Concord in late April 1775, Warren was one of those who engaged them on the road to Boston. An 1839 biography of Warren by Alexander Everett noted his “usual fearlessness by exposing his person very freely to the fire of the enemy.” Indeed, a bullet from a British musket ripped off a shock of Warren’s curly hair just above an ear.
Everett recounts a conversation three months later between Warren and Elbridge Gerry. It was the night before the fateful Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. Gerry urged extreme caution, to which Warren replied, “I am aware of the danger but I should die with shame if I were to remain at home in safety while my friends and fellow citizens are shedding their blood and hazarding their lives in the cause.”
Warren was indeed in the middle of that battle, and so was the famous Revolutionary Era artist John Trumbull. Warren, by this time a General in the newly formed Continental Army, took a bullet to the head and died instantly. The tragedy was immortalized later in Trumbull’s famous painting, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Only six days before, he had turned 34.
What you’ve just read does not constitute Warren’s full story. Any account of his short and heroic life would be incomplete without some attention to a speech he delivered in March 1772. Delivered to commemorate the second anniversary of the Boston Massacre, Warren ignited powerful passions for liberty and independence.
Historian Christian Di Spigna, chairman of the Dr. Joseph Warren Foundation, authored in 2018 what is most certainly the finest biography of Warren, Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero. I consider it one of the best biographies of anybody; it’s that riveting. Di Spigna sets up the occasion of Warren’s speech with these words:
On the March 5 anniversary, a blizzard buried Boston under almost a foot and a half of snow. But more than four thousand people—more than a quarter of the town’s population—defied the blustery weather and gathered in the Old South Meeting House to hear Warren speak. At half past noon, the meetinghouse was so crowded that “it was with much difficulty the orator reached the pulpit.”
Ascending the black-shrouded podium, Dr. Warren looked out over the familiar audience and began. A natural at the pulpit, with a passion for Scripture, he had missed his calling as a preacher. He now aimed to reignite the flames of passion in his patriot brethren and stir them to action in the name of liberty.
With great fervor, Warren invoked the “mighty revolutions” of the past, citing historical precedents from ancient Rome, declaring that the “public happiness depends on a virtuous and unshaken attachment to a free constitution.”
On this July 4, I invite readers to read the entirety of Dr. Warren’s speech. It rivals Patrick Henry’s more famous “Give me liberty or give me death” address in its ardor and erudition. You will learn, among other things, why founders such as Warren believed that “a free constitution” was something to be achieved, cherished and then defended at all costs. In these days when so many American “progressives” are expressing a poisonous contempt for America’s Constitution, Warren’s words serve as a much-needed antidote.
I also urge readers to become reacquainted with the ideas, personalities and events that sparked the American Revolution—a truly seminal moment in the long, historic struggle to liberate men and women from tyranny’s shackles. Toward that end, I provide a list of relevant readings below, with my best wishes for a safe and glorious Independence Day!
For Additional Information, See:
Why the Fourth of July Belongs to Thomas Jefferson by Lawrence W. Reed
Yes, America’s Birthday Deserves to be Celebrated by Lawrence W. Reed
The True Meaning of Patriotism by Lawrence W. Reed
America’s Republic: How the Great Experiment Came About by Lawrence W. Reed
Liberty Still Has a Fighting Chance (a speech on Tocqueville) by Lawrence W. Reed
Mercy Otis Warren: Conscience of Great Causes by Lawrence W. Reed
Joseph Warren’s 1772 Boston Massacre Oration (full text)
Life of Joseph Warren by Alexander H. Everett (1839)
The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, painting by John Trumbull
This article, Dr. Joseph Warren: The Founding Father Who Fought for Liberty at Bunker Hill, and Paid With His Life, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission. Please support their mission.