“The arm of a tyrant is never supported by justice, and therefore must fall.”
— Joseph Warren
Following the Dutch surrender to the British, and New Amsterdam becoming New York, this area (now Warren County) was part of Albany County. Albany County was too huge, and even included part of Vermont, so it was subdivided. Our area then became part of Charlotte County, named after King George III’s consort. In 1778, in the midst of our War for Independence, Charlotte County was renamed Washington County, in tribute to General George Washington. Still too big, in 1813, a new county was carved out of Washington County and was titled Warren County, after Dr. Joseph Warren. As you will see, Warren is a worthy county title.
The essay begins and ends with Warren’s last day; the rest covers highlights of Warren’s life that explain why his deeds and thoughts are deserving of our honor and remembrance. It was his leadership and scorching words that helped inspire a revolution.
On the 17th of June 1775, the Charles River and Boston beyond were swallowed by the metallic gray fog of war, and the pungent powdered air sat eerily still; only the rhythmic flashes of musket blasts made discernible the silhouettes of the few remaining rebels. Following two hours of intense fighting, exhausted, and with their ammunition drained, the patriots peered over their earthen-banked redoubt, knowing that this day’s third redcoat advance would be the last. Knowing their fate, these brave colonists volunteered to stay so that their fellow Colonial soldiers could live to fight another day. Among them sat Warren, his bayonet ready.
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Warren was born on a farm just the other side of Boston’s neck in Roxbury, on June 11, 1741.
His early bucolic life would have to become more focused, when, at just 14 years of age and in his first year at Harvard, his father, working an apple tree, fell and broke his neck. As the eldest of four, Joseph would now have to simultaneously endeavor to cope with the rigors of college and help his mother with family and farm.
Following his Harvard education and short teaching career in Roxbury, he pursued a medical career. Shortly after completing his apprenticeship and opening his own practice, he gained the respect of his fellow Bostonians by bravely volunteering to confront Boston’s smallpox epidemic in 1764. At great risk to his own health, he administered inoculations to thousands, helping to stem the tide of this deadly disease.
Warren’s shift towards addressing the growing political causes of the day was at first tempered and cautious. Parliament’s 1765 Stamp Act, although repealed the following year, bruised an otherwise cordial relationship between the Colonies and their mother country. Despite the wrath felt by some because of the new tax’s lack of Colonial representation, Warren was among most other colonists who maintained their strongly felt paternalistic bond with King George III (after whom Lake George was named). However, the King and Parliament remained adamant that the Colonies should help pay for the past war, called the French & Indian War in this hemisphere, and two years later imposed upon their 13 Colonies the Townshend Duties. Under pseudonyms, among them “A True Patriot,” Warren published articles in Boston’s “Gazette” criticizing British attempts to tax and control the Colonies.
Respect for Warren was well established, so much so, he was granted the title of Grand Master of the Masonic Lodge of St. Andrew in 1769. Given Boston’s growing divide with the British, there is little doubt that Warren sided with his friend and this lodge’s secretary, silversmith Paul Revere, in plotting anti-tax strategies.
On March 5, 1770, Bostonian and Colonial anger grew deeper when British soldiers fired upon a Bostonian mob, killing five of them. This event, published by Bostonian newspapers, was headlined as the Boston Massacre, a publicity effort to emphasize the Mother Country’s stamping upon the Colonial “spirit of liberty.” As a result, anti-British bitterness feelings found wider appeal, and Warren was among them. No longer riding the fence, Warren’s hostility toward the growing tide of British troops and British taxation became more public and more direct. He was asked to speak to the now infamous confrontation at the 1772 Boston Massacre anniversary, held in Boston’s Old South Meeting House. Warren offered his oration, “The Bloody Tragedy of the Fifth of March,” denouncing taxation without representation and the presence of British troops in Boston. Warren was asked to offer his thoughts again in 1775 at the Massacre’s fifth anniversary. This time he wore a Roman-style toga, possibly as an appeal to the Greek Stoics’ focus on virtuous behavior and/or a disguise meant to thwart British authority intervention. Once in the pulpit, he warned of the country’s danger, saying, “Our fathers having nobly resolved never to wear the yoke of despotism, and seeing the European world, at the time, through indolence and cowardice, falling a prey to tyranny, bravely threw themselves upon the bosom of the ocean, determined to find a place in which they might enjoy their freedom, or perish in the glorious attempt.”
In 1773, the year his beloved wife, Elizabeth, died leaving him with four children, Warren likely helped to engineer the events we call the Boston Tea Party. The colonists loved their tea, be it smuggled from the Dutch or legally obtained from the British East India Company, until the British East India Company added a tax, a tax added without representation of the Colonies in Parliament. The Sons of Liberty, which included many names we associate with our Revolution for independence, like Samuel Adams, Benedict Arnold, Paul Revere, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, also included Dr. Joseph Warren. Although there is no known evidence that he dressed in Native American garb to cast chests of tea from the holds of Griffin’s Wharf’s ships, Warren was likely a co-conspirator.
The following year, 1774, was pivotal in furthering Colonial opposition to gathering British controls over the Colonies. The Intolerable Acts, the Boston Port Act, the Quartering Act and the Massachusetts Government Act all helped give rise to the First Continental Congress and Massachusetts Provincial Congress. It was not long after his election to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (the first Colonial government independent of the king) that Warren was appointed its pro tem president. To better assure escape from Loyalist surveillance, meetings were held in fellow patriot homes, Warren chairing the Suffolk Convention. Ink drawn from Warren’s pen was barely dry when his Suffolk Resolves were endorsed by the First Continental Congress. The Suffolk Resolves decried the Crown’s sabotage of the colonists’ hard-fought rights and liberties, opposed the blocking of Boston’s harbor, advocated for the boycotting of imported goods unless the Intolerable Acts were repealed, and spoke to the “fate of this New World, and unborn millions.” This document helped to further catalyze patriot dissent and calls to action and elements of it can be seen in the Declaration of Independence. Also in 1774, he authored “Free America,” a song not as popular with loyalists as it was with Colonial dissidents.
As Colonial animosity toward the mounting presence of British soldiers grew, it was Warren, probably in his role as a Sons of Liberty leader, who, on the evening of April 18th, 1775, informed Paul Revere and William Dawes that the British were planning an expedition to search for weapons and supplies and dispatched Paul Revere to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock and the residents of Concord of the British plans (today known as the Midnight Ride). The next day came the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Warren was militarily active in hounding the British as they made their return from Concord, returning fire as a musket ball grazed his head. As the chairman of the Committee of Safety, he began to organize and arm a militia.
The young militia needed armaments. So, when Benedict Arnold communicated his plan to capture Fort Ticonderoga’s cannons and mortars, Warren championed the cause and helped gather the resources Arnold would need to carry out his plan. That May 10, Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allan took the fort. Unfortunately, Warren would not be present when, the following year, Henry Knox made his delivery to the Boston Patriots.
Not two months following Lexington and Concord, less than a week into his 34th year, and knowing of the depletion of his fellow defenders’ ammunition, Major General Joseph Warren joined the intense fighting atop a hill (later titled Breed’s Hill) in the battle called Bunker Hill. It took the British three attempts to end this patriot siege of Boston, a Pyrrhic victory, as the War for Independence was now entrenched. Even though he was recently commissioned a major general and did not have to stay, and knowing his likely fate, Warren was among those few silhouetted rebels who faced the severest redcoat onslaught that 17th day of June 1775. He received a shot in the head.
His decision to stay and fight to the end helped guarantee that some militia would survive and be able to fight another day — and grow to become the force that would eventually defeat the Crown’s hold over these 13 Colonies. It was Joseph Warren’s brave pen, fiery oratory, guiding leadership and ultimate sacrifice that helped create a new nation, the United States of America. General Warren gave his life to assure our children’s independence and liberty. That is why we named our county Warren.
Editor’s note: Town of Queensbury Supervisor John Strough’s familiarity with Joseph Warren, the namesake of Warren County, began in 2013 when he volunteered to portray the activist and leader in the American Revolution as part of the county’s bicentennial celebration. As Joseph Warren, he delivered a speech on the county municipal center’s front steps, hosted the county’s Bicentennial Banquet and delivered a biographical oration in first person. Since that time, he has given several presentations dressed as Warren, informing others as to his deeds and thoughts. This essay was written in support of ongoing efforts by Shane Newell and members of the Warren County Historical Society to create a center dedicated to Joseph Warren.