Christian Di Spigna
United States, Crown Publishing Group, 2018, ISBN: 9780553419320; 336pp.; Price: £22.50
University of Kent
Date accessed: 10 December, 2023
A simple man from humble beginnings, Joseph Warren earned himself the titles of doctor, husband, father, author, leader, soldier, and martyr through his expressions of compassion and qualities of leadership. With a sense of moral righteousness, as well as deeply rooted personal motivations, Warren fought for American independence with both the pen and the sword. During the years that comprised the Imperial Crisis, Joseph Warren and his associates undeniably provided the foundation for the final push for independence and, as violence ensued, Warren was insistent upon assuming a role of active duty. As a result, at the age of 34, Warren would be shot and killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill before ever witnessing his dream of an independent America come to fruition. To his contemporaries, Warren was considered a martyr; to British forces, he was a traitor to King George III. Still, while Di Spigna argues that Warren is a ‘revolutionary pillar’, he often remains in the shadow of Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. As indicated by its title, however, Founding Martyr aims to answer questions about the inner workings of Warren’s life, both personally and professionally, and ultimately to reinsert him into the American memory.
In Founding Martyr—the most recent of five biographical works on Dr Joseph Warren—Williamsburg-based historian Christian Di Spigna provides readers with an enthralling and insightful depiction of one of America’s earliest and most overlooked political activists. In Di Spigna’s recounting of the life of Joseph Warren, both his passion for the subject and his painstaking research methodologies are apparent. Although much of Joseph Warren’s journals, personal correspondence, and written articles were destroyed as a means of eluding persecution, Founding Martyr is based on rich primary sources, and as a consequence Di Spigna manages to compensate for some of the voids left by prior biographies and to correct previous misconceptions about one of America’s most underappreciated founding fathers.
Moving chronologically from the time Warren spent as a child, surrounded by the orchards of Roxbury, Massachusetts, to the years at Harvard which would lead him to become a prominent Boston physician, this work successfully details Warren’s rise as an influential political leader within the Patriot movement. Moreover, Di Spigna provides a meticulous account of the social, cultural, and political circumstances experienced by Bostonians in the decade prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In colonial Boston, violence was prevalent among both Loyalists and Patriots, and Di Spigna does not evade its ubiquity. Tactics of coercion, such as rough music, skimmington, tarring and feathering, and other rituals of humiliation gave way to outbursts of violence and vandalism. However, through the establishment of assigned motives; directed collective action; principles and practices for self-government; and ultimately the legitimisation of the methods and objectives pursued by the Patriot cause, Warren and his fellow sons of liberty were able to rein in these acts of violence and coordinate operations based on gathered intelligence rather than mob mentality. Thus, as colonists transitioned through various phases of opposition and resistance before their eventual push to completely sever ties with Great Britain, their decision-making processes were heavily influenced by men like Joseph Warren.
Born in June 1741, Joseph Warren was a child of the Great Awakening and the eldest son of a highly respected New England farm family. He grew up in an atmosphere of revivalist messages that encouraged colonists from New England to Georgia to take matters into their own hands when circumstances warranted direct action. In the decades to come, these notions would be carried over by Warren and his radical contemporaries as the leadership of the Patriot movement worked to mobilise colonists in the struggle against imperial British rule. Unrestricted by his modest upbringing, Warren would go on to complete his education at Harvard and become fully trained as a physician. Following his tenure as a medical student, the young Dr Warren established a large-scale medical office in Boston, where he would treat both staunch Loyalists and some of the most radical minds in the city and its surrounding areas. While Warren was never overly coy about his ideals, he possessed a personal character that rendered him incapable of entirely alienating others. Facilitated by the opportunities for interpersonal communication brought on by his practice, Warren established countless connections that crossed social barriers. In fact, in addition to the many middling sorts he treated, among Warren’s patients were the cousins Samuel and John Adams.
Di Spigna notes that Warren was not without his faults; however, he also reinforces the fact that the physician was far more than merely an understudy of the so-called ‘father of the American Revolution’. Long before he formed a close friendship with Samuel Adams, Warren maintained a similarly strong sense of civic duty in regard to the Anglo-American conflict. Both men were Harvard graduates, born and bred in New England, who seized an opportunity to revolt against a government that no longer met the needs of a significant portion of its population. Furthermore, it has been suggested that—like Adams—his family’s memory of the 1739 Land Bank Controversy may have encouraged Warren’s notion that aristocrats such as the Hutchinson family were especially prone to actively compromising the rights of those belonging to lower social classes. Through their roles in establishing intercolonial communication; their active correspondence; their involvement in the preparation of numerous official documents; and their composing of countless newspaper articles, both Adams and Warren—along with many of their fellow Patriots—not only expressed the general sentiment of British America, but also informed the opinions of its colonists.
In addition to his professional network, Warren was also active in Boston’s religious community. Moreover, in 1769, he joined both the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew and the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, whose memberships included tradesmen, merchants, printers, and lawyers, among others. Serving alongside Paul Revere and John Hancock, and effectively cementing his dedication to the resistance of the Crown, Warren came to identify himself as a true-born son of liberty. As a result, Warren would, additionally, participate in the first three provincial congresses held in Massachusetts, as well as the Committee of Safety. Young and approachable, but additionally intelligent and well-respected, Warren was truly a man of the people. A great orator, or ‘a natural at the pulpit with a passion for scripture’, as Di Spigna describes him, Warren was able to intrigue audiences and catalyse radical Patriot ideas and actions. Citing case studies from ancient Rome, Warren’s speeches and publications garnered a sense of legitimacy through historical anecdotes which supplied readers with ‘evidence’ of the tyranny that Great Britain intended to wield over its American colonies.
As Di Spigna elaborates, Warren was also a keystone figure in the planning of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 as well as in the orchestration of the Suffolk Resolves in September of the following year. Through these incidents, Warren and likeminded Patriots made it abundantly clear that taxation without adequate representation would not be tolerated. With the refusal to accept and consume imported British goods, colonists aimed to replace the immediate animosity caused by outbursts of violence with a more long-term economic impact by displaying their financial worth to their mother country. In 1775, Warren only increased British resentment of his character as his fiery, impassioned commemoration of the Boston Massacre reverberated throughout the colonies, encouraging all Americans to dismiss British authority, strive for sovereignty, and boldly pursue political activism through their town meetings, county conventions, and provincial congresses.
Warren applied a variety of his talents to the compilation of America’s original colonial spy network. He was a man of multitudinous personal contacts; Paul Revere and William Dawes were among Warren’s agents. Unfortunately, comparatively little is known about this portion of Warren’s life due to the fact that retaining any diaries or correspondence would have been a direct threat to both Warren’s personal safety and the success of his covert activities. Still, Di Spigna makes it clear that Joseph Warren was in fact ‘the original Whig spymaster’. Sadly, however, this brazen bravery would be the very thing that cost Warren his life. Firmly rejecting any notions that he serve merely as a combat medic, Warren chose to fight on the front lines during the siege of Boston. In truly patriotic fashion, Warren spent his final moments deterring British troops from any further frontal attacks against the colonial forces in the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill. It is difficult to ascertain exactly how much more Joseph Warren would have accomplished had he not suffered a premature death; however, due to the diligence of Christian Di Spigna’s research, the significance of this patriotic physician’s life can finally be restored to America’s historical consciousness.
While the title of this work may suggest otherwise, Di Spigna’s Founding Martyr is certainly no naïve or idealised representation of Dr Joseph Warren. A product of exhaustive research and of a plethora of primary sources, this work is thorough, powerful, and eloquently written. In short, as an effective outline of the life and times of an all too frequently overlooked founding father, this biography would be a valuable addition to the bookshelf of any historian, casual or professional. Through public speeches, personal conversations, and pseudonymous writings, Joseph Warren was able to cross Bostonian class barriers as he helped his fellow colonists to fully hone in on political issues such as Parliament’s insistence on the taxation of the colonies without the guarantee of sufficient representation, and the presence of a standing army in a time of peace. Through active duty and covert operations of espionage, Warren aided in both the shaping and the defense of the Patriot ideology. Although America’s future was still to be determined when Joseph Warren met his end in combat with British troops at Breed’s Hill, his influence on the American Revolution was irrefutably immense. Between his modest beginnings and his demonstrated social mobility, as well as his devotion to religion and his dedication to American liberty, Warren was credible, authentic, and ultimately the epitome of the Revolutionary American.