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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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

“Composed, it is supposed, by General WARREN”

Yesterday I quoted a letter reportedly sent to the Virginia Argus in Richmond on 6 Nov 1804, referring to a “most excellent SONG composed, it is supposed, by General WARREN, who fell at the battle of Bunker’s Hill, in the year 1775.”

The lyrics that followed were “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song,” to the tune of “The British Grenadiers.”

On 4 July 1807, the Virginia Argus reprinted those lyrics with this explanation:
The following most excellent SONG composed it is supposed, by general WARREN, who fell at the battle of Bunker’s hill, in the yesr 1775, was published in the Argus some years ago:—But believing it may not be unacceptable to our readers at the present time, we have thought proper to republish it.
That item was picked up, prefatory paragraph and all, in Salem’s Essex Register on 10 August for its “Selected Poetry” column. Thus, a Massachusetts newspaper credited Dr. Joseph Warren with writing “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” within the lifetime of people who knew him during the political contention of pre-Revolutionary Boston. Other newspapers ran the article as well.

That question of attribution is what started me looking into this song, and the preceding “Liberty Songs,” and the patriotic British tunes they were written to. I didn’t expect to learn about Arthur Lee’s early career, or to contemplate why a Whig newspaper printed a Loyalist song and a Loyalist newspaper printed a Whig song, or to puzzle through all the changes in lyrics.

For over a century, American authors have linked “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” to Warren, but the evidence was sparse. Musical scholars could trace that credit back only to the DuyckincksCyclopaedia of American Literature (1855), which said: “Warren wrote for the newspapers in favor of freedom, and turned his poetical abilities in the same direction. His Free America, written probably not long before his lamented death, shows that he possessed facility as a versifier.”

The 1804 and 1807 newspaper items aren’t solid evidence. We don’t know who the “Subscriber” who wrote to the Virginia Argus was, or on what basis he or she told the newspaper that “it is supposed” that Warren composed the lines. It’s conceivable that the correspondent had known Warren personally. It’s also conceivable that someone had heard vague talk about a Whiggish Boston physician writing political verses and assumed it was the famous Dr. Warren when it was in fact Dr. Benjamin Church.

But those early newspaper publications push the attribution to Warren back to a period when his family and friends—his brother John, his medical student William Eustis, printer Isaiah Thomas, manufacturer Paul Revere, and so on—could have corrected the record. Again, that situation doesn’t mean Dr. Warren definitely wrote “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song,” but it does make the attribution more credible.

TOMORROW: “Free America” at last.

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