Doctor. Major General. President of the Provincial Congress. Author of political tracts. A true patriot. Forgotten.
All these words, plus many more, are titles that depict the life of Dr. Joseph Warren. However, the last term is most synonymous with the Massachusetts doctor who fell in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War. That last word, forgotten, is exactly what author and historian Christian Di Spigna is hoping to expunge with his new biography, Founding Martyr.
Di Spigna, an early American history expert and Colonial Williamsburg volunteer, focuses his account of Dr. Warren on not the events immediately surrounding his death at Bunker Hill and subsequent martyrdom but “to fill in the more obscure parts of Warren’s life” which will lead to understanding more of the “key period in the formation of his character, his special networks, and ultimately his medical and political careers” (pg. 7).
Throughout a fast moving narrative, Di Spigna does an admirable job of reconstructing Warren’s life, including his rise from a middling Roxbury farming family to his time at Harvard to becoming the epicenter of resistance to British rule in Boston, serving on Committees of Safety, co-founding the Boston Committee of Correspondence, while still plying his medical trade, even treating victims of some of the violence that erupted in Boston during the fractious decade of the 1770s. Warren was also the one who sent the initial messengers; William Dawes and then Paul Revere on their fateful missions on the night of April 18, 1775.
His untimely and sudden death at Bunker Hill robbed the patriot cause of a true luminary. Yet, how important was Warren? For starters, he was the sole individual left to manage affairs around Boston while John and Sam Adams and John Hancock were at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Although Warren never set foot in Philadelphia as a representative of Massachusetts, the First Continental Congress had unanimously adopted his Suffolk Resolves in September 1774, so he was well known to delegates assembled there (pg. 193). The Suffolk Resolves was a declaration made by patriot leaders in Suffolk County, Massachusetts that listed their rejection of the Massachusetts Government Act and called for a general boycott of British goods until the repeal of the Intolerable Acts. Warren penned this resolve that was recognized by the great English statesman, Edmund Burke as one of the major developments that led to the Declaration of Independence and the separation between the colonies and Great Britain. Di Spigna captures the importance of Warren and the aftermath in the last sections of his book.
Furthermore, the grief that Warren’s passing sparked attest to his importance to the cause in 1775, described as “the greatest loss sustained…a main spoke in the wheel of Politicks at this critical juncture” (pg. 194) or from the pen of Abigail Adams, “I have just heard that our dear friend Dr. Warren is no more but fell gloriously fighting for his country…Great is our loss” (pg. 195).
But, the most fitting epitaph might have been penned by Jonathan Williams Austin to John Adams on July 7, 1775 about Warren’s death and its blow to the patriot cause.
“He is now gone, and closes an illustrious life.”
Conjecture and “what-ifs” are two games historians like to play. One can certainly ponder that with whether Dr. Warren and if he would have lived, what role he would have continued to play in the American Revolution. He understood the military aspects and had a knack for politics, along with being an astute medical mind. The possible positions he could have attained would have been numerous. The positions he attained though, prior to his death, lead to the simple point that Di Spigna closes his narrative with:
“Although Warren’s fate was sealed on the battlefield…the values and principles he championed endure, while his story remains a tale of inspiration” (pg. 224).
Thus, with most of his papers burnt, (at his behest worried they could be an intelligence coup by the British), with his premature death in the American Revolution, with the emergence of the other Founding Fathers, Dr. Warren faded from the memory. Yet with biographies such as the one penned by Di Spigna, Dr. Warren once again emerges from the pages of the past to stand in the first rank of gentlemen, of patriots, that sparked a revolution and created a country. Hopefully, he also finds a spot on your bookshelf, like he did on mine.
Publication Date: June 11, 2019
Publisher: Broadway Books