Joseph Warren, a respected physician and patriot, lived in the center of the whirlwind of revolutionary activity in the 1760s and 1770s, but was cheated of greater fame by an early death in the opening round of the War of Independence. He was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, where his father was a farmer and community leader. Warren graduated from Harvard College in 1759, then served briefly as master of the Roxbury grammar school.
Warren undertook the study of medicine and opened a practice in Boston in 1764. His political activities began in earnest the following year when he penned a number of newspaper essays during the Stamp Act Crisis. His involvement with the St. Andrew’s Masonic Lodge brought him into the company of James Otis and other notable critics of British policies.
Later, during the Townshend duty unrest, Joseph Warren's prominence was recognized when he was selected to deliver the commemorative oration on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre. He worked closely with Samuel Adams on the committee of correspondence and when Adams left to attend the First Continental Congress in 1774, Warren assumed leadership of the radical cause in Boston. He authored the Suffolk Resolves, a strongly worded statement of the emerging American position that was endorsed by the Congress.
The Massachusetts legislature was suspended in 1774, for its refusal to toe the line following the Boston Tea Party. An extralegal Provincial Congress met in October, and Warren served as president pro tem. He also chaired the Committee of Safety, whose purpose was to collect arms and train militia units.
In March 1775, despite receiving threats on his life, Joseph Warren again delivered the annual speech honoring the fallen in the Boston Massacre. Old South Church was so full that the speaker had to enter the building by climbing a ladder and crawling through a window behind the pulpit. His oration was well received, except by the British officers in attendance who heckled him.
On April 18, Warren made the decision to warn surrounding areas about British troop movements and dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes for that purpose. During the British return march from Lexington and Concord, Warren exposed himself to enemy fire repeatedly in order to reach and treat the wounded.
With the empire and infant nation engaged in war, Warren worked feverishly to organize the American military effort. In June, after learning of the British move to Charlestown, Warren went to the Battle of Bunker Hill to offer his services as a volunteer. He fought valiantly and was one of the last Americans to leave Breed’s Hill, but was struck in the back of the head by a musket ball and died instantly.
The four Warren children were imperiled by their father’s death. Their mother had died earlier and Warren had turned the children over to relatives so that he could devote his full energies to the Patriot cause. Benedict Arnold brought some stability to the unfortunate situation by donating funds for the children’s sustenance, then prevailing on Congress to provide a pension for them.
Thomas Gage, the British commander, remarked that Joseph Warren’s death was the equal of the deaths of 500 American soldiers, perhaps a fitting assessment of the value of Warren’s contribution to the Patriot cause.