Independence Day Musings
A long time ago, in a place not so far away (from me), a bunch of young, untested Britons dressed in the red uniforms of their king’s army was ordered to head out from Boston in the dead of night to a little town named Concord. Their secret mission: to confiscate some arms and powder the “rebels” had stored there and to try and apprehend the known rabble-rousers Sam Adams and John Hancock. British General Gage, who was trying to keep a lid on things, figured that by taking the toys out of the hands of the children he could keep the steam in the pot, so to speak. Of course, word got out very quickly about this supposedly secret mission, and although the British troops moved as stealthily as they could through the night, the alarm was already being raised. There was a dawn face-off at Lexington and someone — we’ll never know who — fired a shot. After coming up empty-handed in nearby Concord, the British army prepared to make the long, ten-mile trek back to Boston. But more shots had been fired, tempers and fears were escalating on both sides, and it wasn’t long before more and more angry minutemen, pouring in from towns all over, were firing on the young redcoats as they began the march back to Boston — first in orderly fashion, and then, as discipline broke down under an onslaught of musketfire and what we would call in today’s language, “guerilla tactics,” in an absolute rout. By the time the war-torn British troops, many of whom had never seen action before, staggered — exhausted, hungry, and pretty much out of ammunition — back into Boston and the protection of the big warship Somerset‘s guns, they had lost over sixty men, with over another two hundred wounded and missing.
America would never be the same, and neither would the British army’s view of just who, and what, they were dealing with when it came to the Americans. Today, any schoolchild can recite the names of those patriotic Bostonians whose legacies have survived the trek down through over 200 years of history … names like John Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere. But there is another name, one that is, arguably, even more deserving of remembrance and commemoration … a name that did not survive that trek through history, a name, I’m sure, most people will respond to with nothing more than a blank look and a shrug of the shoulders.
That name was Joseph Warren.
I’ll go out on a limb (or not) and say that without this young physician, there would be no “Fourth of July” to celebrate today. Young, handsome, charismatic and gifted — as an orator, as a leader, as a writer, as an incendiary — the popular Dr. Joseph Warren was, in the words of historian James Nelson, considered by the British to be quite possibly “the most dangerous man in America.” Not Sam Adams. Not John Hancock. And certainly not Paul Revere, who was actually sent on his famous “midnight ride” by Warren himself, and only because Warren was the only patriot leader brave and reckless enough to remain in Boston on that fateful night … Adams and Hancock had fled into the countryside (hence Gage’s ill-fated expedition to apprehend them). We have Dr. Warren to thank for Paul’s ride, and we have Dr. Warren to thank for his huge part in the decade of “rabble-rousing” that preceded and culminated in the events of Lexington and Concord that opened the American Revolution. It was Dr. Warren — through his inspirational, inflammatory editorials in the Boston newspapers, his bold and direct challenges to the (British) government’s “offenses” on the colony, the influence he yielded as a Masonic leader, as an essayist, and as a prominent and respected citizen of the town — who deserves our gratitude. Indeed, when the musket- and cannonballs were flying on that fateful day of 19 April, 1775, and Hancock and Adams were hidden safely away, Warren didn’t remain in Boston. Never one to care much about his own personal safety, the young doctor grabbed a musket and headed straight into the fray himself.
He would die two months later in yet another act of insane, selfless courage at a place we know now as Bunker Hill. He died fighting for the country that he, with the passion and soaring imagination of youth, envisioned. America would mourn his loss as a national hero. Revolutionary warships would be named for him. Every state on the eastern seaboard would name a town or county for him.
But that was then. This is now. Paul Revere (who went on to face court martial after his part in the debacle that was the Penobscot Expedition, the worst American naval disaster until Pearl Harbor) got a poem written about him, so he’s a household name today. Hancock survived and got to put his big fancy signature on the Declaration of Independence. The Adamses need no introduction when it comes to their place in American history.
But Joseph Warren died. He died young, and he died too early, and he died before he could see the culmination of events that he — perhaps more than any other man in Boston — had set in motion. He had no famous poem written about him. He never got to sign the Declaration of Independence, though he was every inch the writer and visionary that Thomas Jefferson was. He never got to be president, though he would have made a magnificent one. I firmly believe that if he had not been shot in the face as he tried to cover the Americans’ retreat at Bunker Hill — a retreat that was only forced because the Americans were out of ammunition — we would know and remember him today as one of the greatest, most famous of our Founding Fathers.
So today, America, as you sit down to your Independence Day cookouts and fireworks and red, white and blue, take a few moments to get to know this forgotten patriot. His modern biographer, Dr. Samuel A. Forman, has written a wonderful book and also devoted a website to him.
We owe much to our Founding Fathers … including the ones who started it all. Thank you, Dr. Joseph Warren!
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