J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Dr. Joseph Warren Dresses for an Oration

One of the more picturesque confrontations that led up to the Battle of Lexington and Concord was Dr. Joseph Warren’s oration in memory of the Boston Massacre on 6 March 1775. (The actual anniversary was on the 5th, but that was a Sunday.) The online history magazine Common-Place has published Prof. Eran Shalev’s article on Dr. Warren’s style that day, which sets the scene this way:

On the morning of March 6, 1775, Joseph Warren, a physician-turned-revolutionary leader, stopped his one-chair carriage in front of Boston’s Old South Church [known then as Old South Meeting-House, as I discussed yesterday]. Warren climbed down from the carriage, followed by a servant holding a small bundle. The two men crossed the street and entered an apothecary’s shop. When Warren came out of the store he wore a Roman toga. He now crossed the street once more and burst into the swarming Old South to deliver the fourth annual Boston Massacre oration.
Prof. Shalev seems to imply that Dr. Warren wore only a toga. I strongly believe more witnesses would have commented on the doctor’s undress if he’d fully adopted Roman dress—and undress. Indeed, Judge Peter Oliver made a big deal later of how Warren had been “a bare legged milk Boy” while growing up in Roxbury. How could he have resisted describing the man making a public speech wearing nothing but a blanket? The New York Gazetteer noted that Warren still wore his “breeches,” at least. It was early March in New England, after all.

I rather think the doctor made his sartorial point by wearing a Roman toga over contemporary genteel dress, as in William Rush’s statue of Washington or this similar example by Sir Francis Chantrey, now in the Massachusetts State House.

As Shalev’s account proceeds, it’s weakened by some factual errors, small and medium-sized. This wasn’t the fourth annual oration on the Massacre. There were two in 1771, one on the anniversary offered by radical Dr. Thomas Young, and a second a few weeks later that the town officially requested from a more mainstream Whig, schoolteacher James Lovell. Dr. Warren first spoke in 1772; Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., in 1773; and John Hancock in 1774. So Dr. Warren’s 1775 oration was, depending on how we count, the fifth or sixth.

Furthermore, Samuel Adams never delivered one of those speeches, contrary to the article. Adams generally worked in town meetings or behind the scenes. As his 1898 biographer James K. Hosmer wrote, “He was always in speech straightforward and sensible, and upon occasion could be impressive, but his endowment was not that of the mouth of gold.” Adams had a tremor that affected his hands and voice, which neurologist Elan Louis has concluded was an essential tremor.

The article’s implication that in 1772 Dr. Warren was “a member of the Committee of Safety, a board of selectmen who dealt with security issues,” seems to confuse various groups. The selectmen were the town’s seven highest officials, elected each March to serve the full year and usually reelected for the next as well. The town meeting also appointed committees for various tasks. Immediately after the Boston Massacre, Boston created a committee of safety to demand that the governor remove the army regiments from the center of town, and Warren served on it. But that was an ad hoc committee, disbanding after it had accomplished its purpose. Later, in 1775, Warren served on a stronger and longer-lived Committee of Safety, created by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to organize military resistance against the Crown.

Prof. Shalov ends his article with the tumultuous ending of the 1775 oration:
After Warren stepped from the pulpit, Samuel Adams stood up and asked for a volunteer to deliver next year’s commemorative oration. Adams apparently took the opportunity to reinforce colonists’ sense that the events of 1770 represented an entirely unjust massacre. Not surprisingly, the redcoats, according to MacKenzie, “began to hiss,” and someone mistakenly heard the words “Fire! Fire!”
I think a better picture comes from Shalov’s original source, the diary of Lt. Frederick Mackenzie of the 23rd Regiment (Royal Welch Fusiliers):
As this meeting was called an Adjournment of a former Town meeting, as soon as the Oration was ended, Mr. Saml. Adams came forward from a Pew in which he and the other Select men sat [sic—Adams wasn’t a Selectman, but Mackenzie was from out of town], very near the Pulpit, and moved, “that the thanks of the Town should be presented to Doctor Warren for his Elegant and Spirited Oration, and that another Oration should be delivered on the 5th of March next, to commemorate the Bloody Massacre of the 5th of March 1770.”
For Bostonians, the word “bloody” was an accurate description of the shootings on King Street. For late-eighteenth-century British gentlemen, however, the word was quite rude. Adams probably knew that, as did the crowds who called British soldiers “bloodybacks.” And, Mackenzie went on to write, the British officers in Warren’s audience took the bait:
On this several Officers began to hiss; others cried out, “Oh! fie! Oh! fie!” and a great bustle ensued. As everyone was now in motion, intending to go out, there was a good deal of noise, and the exclamation was mistaken for the cry of Fire! Fire! Numbers immediately called out Fire! Fire! which created a Scene of the greatest confusion imaginable.
Again, British and Bostonians suffered from being separated by a common language.

Here’s the text of Warren’s oration. Note that the doctor avoided the word “bloody” even as he wallowed in scenes of gore:
...behold thy murdered husband gasping on the ground, and to complete the pompous show of wretchedness, bring in each hand thy infant children to bewail their father's fate. Take heed, ye orphan babes, lest, whilst your streaming eyes are fixed upon the ghastly corpse, your feet glide on the stones bespattered with your father’s brains. Enough! this tragedy need not be heightened by an infant weltering in the blood of him that gave it birth.
(For the record, not one of the fatalities of the Massacre is known to have had a wife or children.)

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