"One of our most bawling demagogues and voluminous writers is a crazy doctor." -- a Tory pamphleteer
Two Key Figures
Boston in the 1770s saw the rise and fall of two doctors, Joseph Warren and Benjamin Church. Both were closely connected to the events of April 18-19, 1775, and thus to the American Revolution as a whole. Both were accused of treason and sedition, although it is their characters and not their politics for which they have been judged.
A Successful Doctor
Benjamin Church, born in 1734, attended Boston Latin School (the first public school in the nation, founded 1635) and Harvard College. He went to England to study medicine and married an Englishwoman while there. Upon his return to Boston, he opened a practice, built a large house and lived well.
Another Successful Doctor
Joseph Warren, born in Roxbury in 1741, attended Roxbury Latin School (founded1645) and took his first degree from Harvard when he was just eighteen. He studied medicine at Harvard, married well, and joined a practice in Boston.
Protested British Policies
Harsh British policies prompted both men to participate in public life. When Britain imposed the Stamp Act of 1765, Warren studied the law and came to the conclusion that the British treatment of the American colonists did not measure up to the ideals of British citizenship. At first, he did not seek revolution, but a restoration of his rights as a British subject. Warren published articles against the Stamp Act in the Boston Gazette. Similarly, Church wrote for the Times, and both doctors attracted the attention of Samuel Adams, the mastermind behind the colonial rebels' nascent Provincial Congress.
Joined the Patriots Circle
Through Adams's group, Church and Warren met Paul Revere, John Hancock, John Adams, and other politically active men. No one truly knows who participated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773, but Revere, Warren and Church have all been suspected.
Warren and Church, along with much of Boston's population, were moved to active resistance by the Boston Massacre of 1770. Church, in fact, was the first physician on the scene, and tended to the victims, colonists who had been shot by British soldiers. On each anniversary of the event, Adams would select orators to deliver speeches at the Old South Church that were provocations as much as memorials. Warren delivered a Boston Massacre speech in 1772; Church gave the speech the following year. When Warren delivered the speech again in 1775, British soldiers sat in the front, heckling him and conspicuously handling their firearms. Warren's mere appearance was a sign of his bravery -- and his second speech confirmed his commitment to the patriot cause.
Both men were appointed to the Provincial Congress in 1774. As the acting chairman of theCommittee of Safety, Warren organized the local militia and their supplies. Church participated as a delegate, but then sold what he knew to the British governor, Thomas Gage, in Boston. Since at least 1772, in fact, Church had been in contact with the British, and may even have published Tory articles under a pseudonym. His motivation to aid the British may have come in part from his English wife, or possibly from the costs of keeping a mistress in Boston. In any case, despite his high living, his accounts always seemed perilously close to empty before another unexplained windfall. Gage learned of the existence and location of the Concord munitions from the doctor, so the march on Concord can be attributed to Benjamin Church.
The defense of Concord can be attributed to Joseph Warren. Dr. Warren led the patriots in Samuel Adams's absence, and when he heard rumors of the British march planned for April 19, 1775, he confirmed the order with a spy he had among the British (Warren never revealed the identity of his informant, but some historians suspect Margaret Gage, the American-born wife of Governor Gage). Warren then dispatched William Dawes and Paul Revere to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock. Late on April 19, after the conflicts in Lexington and Concord, Warren himself joined the militia attacking the retreating British troops. He was not trained as a soldier, and he was the only political leader who participated in the battle. His valor on the field, treating the wounded while under fire, earned him both respect from the men and the rank of major general.
A Spy at Work
On the second day after the battle, when the colonial militiamen and patriot leaders had gathered in Cambridge, Church decided to return to the city. "Are you serious, Dr. Church?" asked Warren. "They will hang you if they catch you in Boston!" "I am serious," was thereply, "and determined to go at all adventures." Warren asked Church to bring back medicine for the wounded. Upon his return, Church told Revere that he had been captured and brought before Gage. Revere, the supreme networker of 18th-century Boston, heard from another source that Church had been seen leaving Gage's house "like persons who had been long acquainted." Revere was suspicious -- but Church had the confidence of Warren and others.
Warren assigned Church the job of writing a narrative history of the events of the past days. Church, perhaps fearing his loyalty would be questioned, wrote a hyperbolic and occasionally false account of the battles which served as extremely effective propaganda for the patriot cause.
Martyr for the Cause
Two months after the fighting in Lexington and Concord, Dr. Warren rode to another battle, at Bunker Hill, to see how he could assist American militiamen. Still awaiting his official commission as major general, Warren insisted on fighting on the front lines as an infantryman -- and was killed in battle.
The following month, Dr. Church was among the group that welcomed George Washington when he arrived to take command of the Continental Army. Church was made the first Surgeon-General of the Army, but served for only three months. Coded letters to British officials were found and deciphered, and Church's mistress named him as the man who had asked her to deliver them. Charged with treason, the doctor was found guilty, but since the new army and the new nation did not yet have laws for this circumstance, Church was sentenced to life imprisonment. Church concluded his defense with these words: "The warmest bosom here does not flame with a brighter zeal for the security, happiness and liberties of America, than mine." Washington reported to Congress: "The army and country are exceedingly irritated." Church became ill in prison and his sentence was changed. Put on a boat to be exiled to the West Indies, the ship, crew, and Church werenever heard from again. Benjamin Church's family is rumored to have received a pension from the British government.
Friend and Traitor
Joseph Warren had been widowed in 1773, and was survived by four children. After his death, the children had no means of support until an influential friend of their father's gave them a gift of $500, and petitioned the Congress to provide half a major general's salary until the youngest came of age. Warren's friend and family benefactor was General Benedict Arnold.