Dimming Spotlight: 5 Tracks to Historical Obscurity


August 21, 2013
by Samuel A. Forman Also by this Author


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Painting of Joseph Warren by John Singleton Copley, 1772. Source: Adams National Historical Park
Joseph Warren by Copley, 1772. Source: Adams National Historical Park

In recent years, Dr. Joseph Warren has earned more of the spotlight in the American Revolution’s cast of characters with some portraying him as a swashbuckling political activist, inspiring speaker, and ladies’ man. However, for decades, Warren’s legacy lurked in the shadows of other American Founders.

Ironically, Joseph Warren’s agency as an American Founder was well recognized and celebrated during the Revolutionary War and throughout Early America.  He was more famous than now iconic figures of the period like Paul Revere, Sam Adams and John Hancock.  For over a century Warren’s legacy has been off the historical stage to such an extent that most fans of the Revolutionary Era still ask incredulously, “Who was he?”  So it is not surprising they have a hard time believing Warren’s former prominence in American collective memory.  If proof is desired, here it is.

During the Revolutionary War, Warren’s heroics at Bunker Hill were synonymous with accounts of that pivotal battle. Most newspaper stories in both North America and Britain include his demise as a prominent aspect of the story. Typical is Abigail Adam’s oft quoted breaking news of the battle, sent to her husband at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

The day – perhaps the decisive day – is come, on which the fate of America depends. My bursting heart must find vent to my pen. I have just heard that our dear friend, Dr. Warren, is no more, but fell gloriously fighting for his country; saying, Better to die honorably in the field, than ignominiously hang upon the gallows. Great is our loss. He has distinguished himself in every engagement, by his courage and fortitude, by animating the soldiers, and leading them by his own example. A particular account of these dreadful, glorious days, will be transmitted to you, no doubt in the exactest manner…

Journal of the American Revolution readers will instantly recognize the first sentence of the quote. Perhaps they should properly wonder at the systematic expurgation by historians of the subsequent mentions of Warren. To Abigail and her compatriots Warren was a pivotal figure and a personal friend to many. News of his demise was almost as important as the battle itself. Numerous newspaper and broadside elegies and eulogies appearing during the Revolutionary War attest that such opinions were not confined only to those who knew him personally, but were widely held.

Though it was his death as a fighting patriot-martyr that was being memorialized, Warren’s name was already known as an eloquent activist throughout the colonies.  His stirring 1772 and 1775 Boston Massacre Orations, delivered at Old South Meeting House, had a large audience by way of pamphlet versions running through multiple editions, not to mention newspaper accounts of the speeches. Warren’s 1775 Massacre speech was reprinted in its entirety by the leading newspaper in far-from-New England North Carolina. Warren’s personalized and stirring Committee of Correspondence letters earned him friends for the cause and personal recognition from influential Patriots up and down the Eastern seaboard.

Positive name recognition was not ephemeral. It took root in place names conferred by locals in every part of the country – North, South, Mid-Atlantic, and West. Between 1776 and the 1840s, fourteen counties were named for Joseph Warren. As residents of Warren counties in North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri, can attest, this was not a phenomenon confined only to New England. Towns and public places named for him are legion.  Just a few for starters: Warren, Michigan; Warren, Ohio; Warren, Pennsylvania; and Warren Street in historic downtown Charlestown, South Carolina. His legacy was treasured across America. Many of the place names were christened below the Mason Dixon line in antebellum America. Not bad for a Yankee boy who never traveled more than 75 miles from Boston while he lived.

Warren’s legacy was celebrated on stage. Brackenridge’s 1776 play, one of the earlier ones written by and for American audiences, is about Warren’s exploits at Bunker Hill. So too is a play by Burk staged in 1797. Burk’s play was one of the first produced in Boston when that place became a notch less up-tight and newly permitted commercial theater performances. Reprinted in 1808 and 1816, it continued to be popular in the Early Republic.

Warren’s legacy was reinforced in visual media. John Trumbull, an eyewitness to Bunker Hill, made his mark in 1785 with the first great iconic historical genre painting of the American Revolution. The original title – “The Death of Major General Joseph Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775” – and continued uses of this painting illustrate the highs and subsequent lows of Joseph Warren’s legacy as a Founding figure. Just as Abigail Adams had lamented in her July 1775 letter to husband John, Dr. Warren is the pivotal figure depicted by Trumbull among so many heroes of the struggle.

Trumbull had his painting adapted into an elegant engraving in 1798. He enjoyed subscribers among surviving leaders of the Revolution. His masterpiece rapidly became one of the iconic images of the early Revolutionary War. But in the last 150 years Warren’s name no longer has been applied to the artwork, contrary to Trumbull’s intention. It simply became known as “The Battle of Bunker Hill.” In more recent decades that indignity and historical inaccuracy has been compounded as the public domain image is picked over to illustrate book covers and the like, productions that do not acknowledge Warren’s agency in any way and literally cut him out of the picture.

Frontispiece to Brackenridge’s The Battle of Bunker Hill, 1776. Joseph Warren was widely recognized during the Revolution and soon after.
Frontispiece to Brackenridge’s The Battle of Bunker Hill, 1776. Joseph Warren was widely recognized during the Revolution and soon after.

The evidence that Joseph Warren was celebrated and famous during the American Revolution and for generations into the 19th century is overwhelming – contemporary news, reprints of his speeches, poetry, the stage, visual arts, and place names. Yet, Warren subsequently slipped from national renown in a slow and steep decline. Warren has been so long out of the public consciousness, and his modern level of obscurity until my American Founder’s biography and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill renewed interest, that Warren’s posthumous experience provides a case study of the anatomy and dismantling of historical fame.

In our modern culture obsessed with celebrity, where no-talent starlets pursue fame for the sake of being famous, what can we learn about the essential components of historical fame through Warren’s case of going from the extreme heights of name recognition, based on real contributions to the American experience, to near total obscurity?

Mind you, Warren was never an ersatz celebrity. His Boston Massacre Orations comprise aspirational views for America, his Suffolk Resolves were adopted word for word by the first Continental Congress, he ordered Paul Revere on that Midnight Ride, he led the Siege of Boston in its earliest phase, and was the hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill. So, unlike Paris Hilton, his fame was hard earned and meaningful in defining and advancing what was to become the United States.

It took some work to knock him off the historical pedestal. By defining the causes that dismantled Warren’s fame, perhaps we can discern the essential elements of maintaining or building fame of worthy individuals.

  1. Place names in themselves are ancillary to supporting historical fame.  Warren has them aplenty.  In the absence of other supporting elements, even people in Warren, Michigan, and Warren, Ohio, will know little or care about their city’s eponymous hero.
  2. Scholarship sustains and enhances historical fame. Its absence tends to extinguish it.  His life short, Warren left relatively few manuscripts aside from political letters from the last year of his life. The most voluminous materials are his medical account books, long judged impenetrable until I applied the tools of modern historiography to them. So when personalities like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and other Founders were having their papers collected, biographies written, and scholarly and popular tomes involving them produced, there was precious little available for people interested in Warren to work with.
  3. Fame is stamped out when the supporting saga becomes offensive to the host community.  Warren’s popularity in the South was diminished by Daniel Webster’s identification of “Liberty and Union” with the heroics at Bunker Hill and of Joseph Warren. Webster’s speeches at the Bunker Hill monument dedication in 1843, a huge national event, asserted this pro-Northern stance to broad national coverage. One did not endear oneself to the antebellum South in this manner.
  4. It takes current, positive depictions in both high and low culture, delivered in the vernacular of each generation, to sustain historical fame. Warren’s legacy was denied this from the eve of the Civil War.  Longfellow’s catchy 1860 poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere makes no mention of Joseph Warren’s critical agency. It makes for engaging poetry but poor history. As generations of children listened and heard about Revere, rather than Warren, and the earlier plays and poems lionizing the hero of Bunker Hill became passé, Warren was no longer being memorialized in the arts. Ironically, though friends in life, Warren’s posthumous legacy lost out to Paul Revere’s in no small part due to Longfellow’s poem.
  5. Pilgrimage sites, historic places, and relics perpetuate renown; their absence mutes it. Myriads of people visit Benjamin Franklin’s grave in Philadelphia; George and Martha Washington’s tomb at Mt. Vernon; and Revere’s, John Hancock’s, James Otis’, and the Boston Massacre Martyrs’ graves at the Old Granary Burial Ground on Boston’s Freedom Trail. Pundits declare that we live in a virtual world. Yet when it comes to paying homage, commemorating, honoring, and remembering a notable person, the physical grave or “hard copy” significant place is requisite. The appeal is something primitive and ritualistic that resides deeply within us. In a solemn state funeral Joseph Warren was interred in 1776 in the Old Granary Burial Ground near his Sons of Liberty friends in downtown Boston.  But in 1856 a well-meaning but misguided descendant had him reburied far from patriotic pilgrimage sites. With the demolition in the 1840s of Warren’s North End house, from which he dispatched Paul Revere and William Dawes on the Midnight Ride and triggered the chain of events beginning the Revolutionary War, there were no longer any accessible and special places left to pay homage specifically to Warren’s memory in downtown Boston. Gravesites and historic structures do not establish historical fame; deeds, historians, bards, and a receptive audience do that. But they are required to sustain reverence, provide the physical structure for pilgrimage of the faithful, and serve as a point of reference for perpetuating legacy amongst the younger set.



  • I wouldn’t know where to begin in praising the concept of this article so I’ll limit my comment to my pet peeve: for some reason American culture throws its history under the bus. If we’re lucky, we get a postage stamp about the person, place or event. I was lucky. I had wonderful teachers and professors to instill such an interest that my reading is mostly about history. Yet history surrounds us and is literally underfoot. At a time when science and math is the mantra of public education, we give little emphasis to history. I recently tutored a junior high school student who had failed the US history state exam. I was appalled at the lack of knowledge about such basics as the Founding Documents, Manifest Destiny, the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution, not to mention many other important subjects. Dr. Forman’s “tracks” are very instructive and I’ve found myself using several of them to inform, if not bore, my loved ones and friends. It’s up to all “students’ of history, in our own ways, to make use of the 5 factors wherever we can. So, who wants a postage stamp for John Glover?

  • Embarrassingly true. I’m sure I’ve read his name here and there in connection with the events, but I have no recollection.

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