QUINCY, MASS. – One of America’s most forgotten leaders occupies a place of honor in the house of two of America’s most forgotten presidents.
Dr. Joseph Warren, a leading physician and a general in the Massachusetts revolutionary militia, was, effectively, the commanding officer of the army unit that fought one of America’s greatest battles against British troops. The militia, with an outstanding showing in earlier skirmishes against the Redcoats, at Lexington and Concord, in April 1775, would fight across Boston Harbor, in Charlestown, on ground that would later become a consecrated part of the American Revolution, Bunker Hill.
On that fateful June day, Dr. Warren did something that no American general has ever done since: He placed his second in command, Israel Putnam, in charge of the army, telling him that he could better serve the cause if he placed himself directly in harm’s way. Dr. Warren then took his place with the troops in the front line.
It’s difficult to say how much of an inspiration Dr. Warren was to his fellow soldiers. Certainly, they weren’t expecting a man of his social prominence to stand among them to battle the enemy.
Some reports say that the men cheered once they recognized that Dr. Warren would join them – as one of them – a lowly solider fighting, and likely dieing, for the cause. Others say the men had no reaction to Warren’s presence.
Warren had been a very public and a leading figure in the Patriot cause, heading up the Massachusetts Provincial Congress as well as a principal figure, with John Hancock and Samuel Adams, in protesting various Parliamentary acts considered by the colonists, especially those in Boston, to be repressive.
Warren was one of Boston’s leading men and top physicians. As would have been appropriate for a man of his stature during his time, he married very well. 18-year-old Elizabeth Hooten, considered one of the most beautiful ladies of her day, from one of Boston’s wealthiest families, was his wife, and she bore him four children until her untimely death, at 26, in 1772.
John and Abigail Adams admired Dr. Warren because he was one of the most innovative physicians, inoculating their children, as well as other patients, against smallpox, a leading killer in the 18th century. He was also one of the Adams’ dearest friends.
It’s thought that Warren had a premonition about his fate at Bunker Hill. The night before the battle, he dined with Betsy Palmer, whose husband had fought at Lexington. At the end of the meal, Dr. Warren suggested that they have one last drink before leaving one another – for good.
Just prior to the battle, Dr. Warren, who had just been commissioned a major general, called on Israel Putnam, the general commanding the militia assembled to fight on Bunker Hill. Putnam told Warren that he was prepared to accept his orders.
Warren invoked a technicality. While he was aware that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress had elected him a major general, he was also equally aware that he hadn’t actually received the commission by the time he arrived at Bunker Hill. So rather than take up his new position, which Putnam expected him to do, Warren, instead, inquired where the brunt of the fighting would occur. Putnam said it would be by their fortifications on Breed’s Hill, just below Bunker Hill. Warren dismissed himself and headed off to the front lines, where he met the militia’s battlefield commander, Colonel William Prescott.
One of America’s finest officers, so much so that the British offered him a commission in the regular army after the French-Indian War, Prescott attempted to dissuade Warren from his actions. But Warren wouldn’t hear of it. He insisted he was there to do his job as he saw fit – fight the British as a volunteer private – and took his place among the farmers, small merchants and tradesman making up the rebel army.
By doing so, he was violating 18th century social protocol. Men like Warren, educated and wealthy, were expected to command people making up the rebel army – not fight directly alongside of them as a peer.
Twenty-two hundred British troops squared off against 1,500 American volunteers at Breeds Hill on June 17, 1775. The Redcoats marched up the hill three times before finally overwhelming the colonial army. The cost to Great Britain: 268 killed. 828 wounded. The colonists suffered 115 dead and 305 wounded.
18th century battlefield tactics were, by today’s standards, suicidal. Opposing sides lined up out in the open without taking cover. Each side could see the enemy it faced.
Lined up side by side, British troops marched up Breed’s Hill toward the American lines. The British were likely under the impression that just by marching up the hill, with their swords and muskets gleaming, the Americans would run away.
Instead, Dr. Warren and his fellow soldiers successfully stopped two British advances. Twice the American forces fired their muskets at near point-blank range, around 150 feet, inflicting numerous casualties. As a result, British lines collapsed twice as their dead and wounded fell to the ground.
“’As we approached, an incessant stream of fire poured from the rebel line; it seemed a continued sheet of fire for near thirty minutes,’” reported one British officer.
With the battle’s outcome in the balance, Britain’s leading general on the battlefield that day, William Howe, refused to be defeated. He regrouped his forces and sent them right back up the hill for a third march. He likely knew that the Americans couldn’t win a battle of attrition.
Just prior to encountering the enemy for a third time, Colonel Prescott suggested to Dr. Warren that he remove himself from the ranks, so his life would be spared.
Dr. Warren refused to leave.
By this time every American soldier was aware that they were short on ammunition, gunpowder and men.
The Americans, as they had done the two previous times, waited until the British troops were near them, around 150 feet. They fired their muskets but this volley, unlike previous ones, was no where near as effective because of the lack of ammunition as well as the number of American wounded and dead.
As the enemy continued its approach, many Americans fled either because they were out of ammunition or scared. Warren and a number of others stayed. Out of ammunition, the doctor turned his musket into a club and started swinging it at the British. Soon he drew his sword, holding his ground, determined to fight. A British officer drew his weapon and fired at Warren, striking him in the head. Warren immediately placed a hand over the wound, turned his torso slightly and fell to the ground dead. Dr. Warren was 34.
The British had secured victory. Had General Howe possessed a killer instinct, British troops would have pursued the fleeing Americans. Instead, His Majesty’s soldiers tended to their wounded and dead and took prisoners.
Dr. Warren’s death was significant, not only for the Americans but also for the British. His name was synonymous with the rebel cause. One British general, John Burgoyne, went to Charlestown to identify the body. Warren’s death, reported one historian, seemed to leave the rebels “virtually headless.”
One British officer, in charge of the burial detail from the battle, recognized Dr. Warren and boasted that he “’stuffed the scoundrel with another Rebel into one hole and there he and his seditious principles may remain.’”
Dr. Warren’s remains were later dug up and positively identified for the Americans by Paul Revere. He had inserted two false teeth into Warren. When he came across Warren’s body, he opened his mouth, found the false teeth and confirmed Warren’s death.
The battle, one of the most significant ones during the Revolution, showed that America’s rag-tag, volunteer army could fight against a seasoned, disciplined, professional and highly trained force. It inflicted casualties on nearly 50 percent of the enemy’s troops and held its ground until it ran out of ammunition – or was wounded and killed.
The British were shocked by their losses, with one officer writing, “’Damn the Rebels – that they would not flinch.’” Britain’s generals in America realized they were in for a long, hard fight and success wasn’t guaranteed.
It’ll be long debated why some men, who aren’t expected to make such a sacrifice, do so. Maybe Dr. Warren was still mourning the loss of his young wife; perhaps he felt overburdened about having to care for his children, even though he likely had assistance; perhaps he was the greatest Patriot to have ever lived, believing that he should fight, even die, for a cause to which he had contributed so many words, inspired so many and which he also led. Or, possibly, Dr. Warren thought it was abhorrent to let others fight for principles he helped create.
It’s hard to say what Dr. Warren was thinking just prior to his death. He didn’t leave much behind in terms of correspondence. John Adams thought Dr. Warren was a hero.
Sixth months prior to Bunker Hill, Dr. Warren believed that the American colonies and British Crown could resolve their differences. When he died, the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, was formulating a course of action against the British, including appointing a commanding general (George Washington) of the army units assembled in Massachusetts, just outside of Charlestown. At the time of Warren’s death, the idea of seeking independence from the Crown was just beginning to be debated in Philadelphia. It’s quite possible that Dr. Warren died thinking he was a loyal British subject, seeking to redress the rights he thought had been trampled upon by Parliament and the king.
Today, Dr. Warren’s portrait graces the living room mantle of the house that John and Abigail Adams occupied for 30 years in Quincy, just south of Boston. It’s one of the first pictures visitors notice as they enter the living room. Not even George Washington, a man the second president greatly admired, occupies such a place of honor. His portrait hangs in the hallway.
Unlike so many historical houses, everything in this one is original, from the furniture to the china and crystal collections to the living room wallpaper. Abigail bought the house, called Peacefield, in 1788. The house was occupied by a member of the Adams family for nearly 140 years.
(As you walk through the house, you’re exposed to replicas of the 3,800 books that were owned by John Adams. His original books are under lock and key at the Boston Public Library. Adams grandson built a library behind the house in the 1870s and it stores 14,000 volumes owned by various members of the Adams family. You can’t help but to feel the intellectual inferior of men long since passed.)
John Adams was not the greatest president of the United States. In fact, compared to the one he served as vice president, George Washington, he was a complete failure. One-term presidents don’t last long in America’s collective memory bank. What makes Adams great, compared to other one-term presidents, as well as a few two-term presidents, is his work during and after the Revolution and the fact that he was one of the country’s best students of politics.
He was the leading constitutional scholar of his day, writing books and articles that explained and defended them. Adams knowledge of constitutions and politics was so profound he was asked to write the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (He was also one of the Commonwealth’s favorite sons in the 1770s.) It’s the world’s oldest, written constitution and political scholars consider it a forerunner to the U.S. Constitution.
(Many of the original 13 states also wrote and passed constitutions in the 1770s, ahead of Massachusetts. For example, the Virginia legislature ratified its first constitution in 1776. But many of the constitutions that were passed during those early days of the Republic, including that of Virginia, were later re-written. The constitution that John Adams wrote for Massachusetts remains in effect today, making it the world’s oldest, written constitution.)
John Adams’ resume is long: he was an outstanding lawyer; he represented Massachusetts in both Continental Congresses; and he was one of the first voices to push for independence; and he wrote the oldest constitution in effect today. It was his speech, at the Second Continental Congress, that persuaded the colonists to seek liberation from London.
In addition, Adams represented the United States in Europe, securing diplomatic ties and loans for the young country. He was also the first U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, establishing a working relationship with the king his country had fought so hard against, George III.
But the single greatest thing John Adams did, which doesn’t receive the prominence it deserves, is show how a defeated political leader leaves office. He didn’t turn to his allies and friends to organize an army to fight his opponents so he could hold the office he had lost in an election. Instead, like those who would succeed him, he headed home to become a private citizen – peacefully.
By this very act, Adams showed that the democracy he and his fellow founders worked to create functioned. President Adams demonstrated that America could change presidents and political parties without gunfire. By acting in such a manner, he becomes one of the most remarkable political figures to have ever graced the United States. Every time a defeated president peacefully observes their successor’s inauguration, the American Revolution and the Constitution are kept alive and John Adams is saluted.
John Adams also showed retired and defeated political leaders that there’s life after the office. He worked on his farm, doted on his family, wrote down his thoughts and re-established his friendship with Thomas Jefferson. None of this came easy. Adams left office a bitter man and it took a number of years for him to recover from the pain he felt from having been defeated in his reelection attempt.
The correspondence between Adams and Jefferson should be read by every American. Adams told Jefferson, in one letter, that he’d be long forgotten while Jefferson would be long remembered. How right he was.
Unlike the other leading Founding Fathers, John Adams was the only one to produce a son who would enter national politics. It must have come as quite the shock to Jefferson to see the son of his one-time foe become the president.
John Quincy was as much of a student of politics and law as his father, becoming one of America’s finest diplomats. In fact, many of the principles he laid down as secretary of state formed the foundations of U.S. foreign policy for nearly 100 years. Some of them continue to this very day. And yet, today, like his father, John Quincy is a figure lost in American history.
John Quincy’s presidency was hardly distinguishable. He pressed for roads and canals that would connect distant parts of the young nation. Like his father, he would only serve as president for one term. He had a far more remarkable career in the House of Representatives, where he served after having been the nation’s sixth president. To date, he is the only president to later serve in Congress.
Ask the average American to name the first four or five presidents and they’ll likely say, “George Washington … Thomas Jefferson … “ and that’s where they stop. Even James Madison and James Monroe, the fourth and fifth presidents, respectively, aren’t likely recalled; and they each served eight years as president. More often than not, John Adams is overlooked.
It’s historical irony that Dr. Warren, John Adams and John Quincy, who contributed so much, whose names were so widely known, and were so influential, become such lost figures in the American story. This appears to be the tie that binds them but there are a few others, too.
They did the unexpected. John Adams could have sat out the Revolution and no one was pressing him to make a speech on behalf of independence at the Second Continental Congress. Adams could also have acted very differently after losing the presidential election in 1800 to Thomas Jefferson. Instead, he left office peacefully and became a private citizen. Dr. Warren didn’t have to fight at Bunker Hill. He could have remained far to the rear, observing the battle from relative safety. Instead, he went to the front lines, making the ultimate sacrifice. John Quincy, a highly educated man, pressed for a national university and helped to found the Smithsonian, thinking that all Americans should possess as much knowledge as they could acquire. He was also a vociferous advocate to end slavery. And while he could have stayed home after losing the presidency – which would have been accepted and expected by his peers – he, instead, served his congressional district in the House of Representatives, something he didn’t consider beneath the stature of a former president.
Each of these men did what that they thought was correct – the immediate consequences be damned. Expedient, cautious and retiring are words that could never describe them. Brave, intelligent, idealistic, and determined are just a few of the words that come to mind, instead. It’s a tragedy these remarkable men, some of the finest sons America ever produced, who should be emulated, are long forgotten figures in the history of this political experiment.
War for America: The Fight for Independence, 1775 – 1783, Jeremy Black, Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd., Gloucestershire, United Kingdom, 1991
John Adams: A Life, John Ferling, Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1992
John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty, C. Bradley Thompson, University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, Kansas, 1998
John Adams, David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 2001
Battles of the Revolutionary War, 1775 – 1783, W. J. Wood, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1990
The Battle for Bunker Hill, Richard M. Ketchum, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York, 1962
Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill, Richard M. Ketchum, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York, 1974
The Adamses, 1735 – 1918: America’s First Dynasty, Richard Brookhiser, The Free Press, New York, New York, 2002
Heroes Among Us, Jim Ryun & Sons, Destiny Image, Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, 2002
John Quincy Adams and The Foundations of American Foreign Policy, Samuel Flagg Bemis, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 1949
Patriots: The Men Who Started The American Revolution, A.J. Langguth, Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster, New York, New York, 1988
American National Biography, John A. Garraty and Mark Carnes, Oxford University Press, American Council of Learned Societies, 1999
Dictionary of American Biography, Dumas Malone, editor, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, New York, 1936
The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, Jack P. Greene and J.R. Dole, Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991
The American Revolution, 1775 – 1783: An Encyclopedia, Garland Publications, New York, New York, 1993
Tour of the Adams Homestead in Quincy, Massachusetts, given by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, October 17, 2007
Tour of Bunker Hill, Charlestown, Massachusetts, given by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, October 18, 2007