“Listen my children, and you shall hear/of the midnight ride of . . . Joseph Warren?”
Okay, that doesn’t scan quite like Longfellow’s original “Paul Revere’s Ride.” But that’s the problem. In making sure we “hear” about “Revere,” Longfellow –an abolitionist who wrote that poem in 1861 as a call to rally the Union as the Civil War began– ignored the man whose name should be as familiar as those of John Adams or John Hancock. A man who deserves to be honored as we mark the first battles in America’s Revolution at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775
A successful physician and progressive thinker, Joseph Warren was born a farmer’s son in 1741 in Roxbury, outside Boston. Warren chose his profession when he saw his father die after a fall from a tree. Later, he became an outspoken advocate of inoculations to battle the plague of smallpox sweeping colonial America and vaccinated his most famous patient, John Adams.
But medicine was not his only passion. As the colonies began to clash with Mother England, Warren was drawn to the red-hot center of Boston’s patriot inner circle. He became a propagandist, spymaster and orator who modeled himself on Cicero, martyr of the Roman Republic, occasionally appearing in a toga to deliver incendiary speeches.
Most likely, it was Warren who led those men disguised as Indians to the “party” where they tossed a shipload of British tea into Boston Harbor. And he was the crucial go-between, linking Boston’s upper crust patriots –who got most of the glory– and the workingmen and artisans – like Paul Revere – who did most of the dirty work. But Warren was left out of our poems. And our schoolbooks. And that’s too bad, because his story is compelling.
It was Warren who issued Revere’s “riding orders” on that night in 1775, setting the stage for the fateful April 19th morning at Lexington and Concord. A few weeks later, Warren took to the front lines at the battle called “Bunker Hill.” An enemy ball caught him in the head and he fell.
For the British, Warren’s death was a coup, celebrated by tossing the rebel doctor’s body into a mass grave. But for the patriot cause, the loss of Warren cut deep. Abigail Adams mournfully wrote to husband John:
“Not all the havoc and devastation they have made has wounded me like the death of Warren. We want him in the Senate; we want him in his profession; we want him in the field. We mourn for the citizen, the senator, the physician, and the warrior. When he fell, liberty wept.”
Paul Revere later returned to the battleground to locate the rebel leader’s body. He was able to identify his compatriot’s remains because Revere had fitted the false teeth that Warren wore, one of the first known cases of forensic dentistry.
Yet, Joseph Warren’s story remained buried, overshadowed by the more illustrious Founders with better biographers –and admiring poets. He became the most important Founding Father most of us never heard of.
His story is told more fully in my book America’s Hidden History.
And while thinking of grade school poetry, here are the opening lines of another poem you should have read and learned about: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn”
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.