Since moving to Massachusetts, in September 2015, I’ve taken great pleasure in visiting some of Boston’s historic sites. I’ve walked (part of) the Freedom Trail and visited the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, the Granary Burying Ground, the Old South Church, and the Adams crypt in Quincy. A few weeks ago, I took it a step further: I went on a duck boat tour. While on the tour, the on-board historian told passengers that Joseph Warren would have been America’s first president if he was not killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. *MIC DROP*
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about what could have been for Joseph Warren. In fact, earlier that same week I was told by another person that they’d heard the same thing. Joseph Warren “would have been the first president of the United States, not Washington.”
So as the duck boat went along, the on-board historian’s short but punchy tribute to Warren took me by surprise. Warren potentially upstaging George Washington? Surely not. This was counterfactual history at its best.
I’m not particularly fond of counterfactual history. In past teaching situations, in Scotland and in the U.S., I’ve invoked E. P. Thompson when discussing its utility: “Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical shit.” (Similarly, E. H. Carr dubbed it a “parlour game.”) Many “professional” historians, with perhaps the exception of Niall Ferguson, are, to paraphrase Ferguson’s term in his Virtual History, hostile toward it.
To be sure, counterfactuals can be fun. I’ve often heard students go back and forth over a particular “what if” question. For instance, what if Napoleon’s defeat in Russia never happened? When this particular question popped up, however, I nipped it in the bud, deciding instead to do a little bit of digging to see if I could use this particular counterfactual for something other than a fiery debate. It didn’t take me long to find something.
In the early nineteenth century, Louis Geoffrey published Napoléon Apocryphe. 1812–1832. It offered an account of Napoleon conquering a large portion of the world and becoming its ruler. As one reviewer wrote, “It is a history hanging on a single ‘if.’ It is the life of Napoleon, as he would have been. If Moscow had not proved his ruin.”
It was a “curious history,” the reviewer continued, and a “curious romance.” The account was “interesting in the extreme.” In the end, though, Napoléon Apocryphe was more akin to a good novel. Geoffrey gave “zest and animation to his tale by sprinkling it with real events.”
Other counterfactual histories have emerged over time. In July 1907, the distinguished English historian G. M. Trevelyan published an essay in The Westminster Gazette titled “If Napoleon Had Won the Battle of Waterloo.” It was subsequently reprinted in an edited collection in 1926. In Douglas Egerton’s essay, “The Empire of Liberty Reconsidered,” in The Revolution of 1800, he suggested, “a North American, perhaps even a hemispheric, empire of liberty, would have been better served by the re-election of John Adams.” And in 2002 Robert Cowley’s edited collection, What Ifs? of American History, hit the bookshelves. Counterfactual history was and remains extremely popular. (We’ve dabbled in some here, too.)
But would Joseph Warren have been America’s first president, if he had lived? I’m not sure. Of course, he was militarily and politically significant. As Ethan Rafuse writes, “No man, with the possible exception of Samuel Adams, did so much to bring about the rise of a movement powerful enough to lead the people of Massachusetts to revolution.”
Contemporaries appreciated his importance, too. When Abigail Adams heard of his death, she told John, “our dear Friend Dr. Warren is no more but fell gloriously fighting for his Country.” “Great is our Loss,” she continued, “He has distinguished himself in every engagement, by his courage and fortitude, by animating the Soldiers and leading them on by his own example.” Even Thomas Jefferson appreciated Warren’s importance, though he also recognized his significance was amplified in New England. In a short statement, which reads like an obituary, Jefferson stated: “Dr. Warren, a man who seems to have been immensely valued in the North.” In 2016, it seems, Jefferson’s view remains accurate.
Indeed, for the duck boat historian, it was Warren who was Massachusetts’ most important (male) figure, at least in 1775. And for that, he offered a unique insight into how Bostonians remember the American Revolution and, equally important, how they want duck boat riders, most of whom are tourists, to understand it.
There’s no doubt that the same process of “regional remembering” occurs in other areas. It happens to different aspects of history, too. Perhaps most famous is the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War and its impact on American memory, well discussed by David Blight in the classic Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. As he argues, after the war ended the United States had to redefine and recreate what it was as a nation. By extension, people had to reexamine their immediate and distant past, something which many struggled to do.
The manner in which the duck boat historian remembered Joseph Warren was similar. And it’s forced me to reconsider how people beyond George Robert Twelves Hewes remembered the Revolution in different areas. In particular, I’ve found myself revisiting the Westchester County Historical Society’s McDonald’s Papers, a “record the interviews of 241 elderly men and women who had been living in Westchester County during the [Revolutionary] war.” Perhaps now I’ll find a way to finally get to Elmsford, New York.
 “The Apocryphal Napoleon,” The Boston Miscellany of Literature and Fashion, May 1, 1842, p. 231–36.
 James Horn, Jan Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf, ed., The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic, Jeffersonian America (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), 309–30.
 Recent Essays, ed. W. A. J. Archbold (London, 1926).
 See Joseph Warren’s American National Biography entry at http://www.anb.org/articles/02/02-00331.html.
“Geschichtswissenschlopff, unhistorical shit”
I learn such useful things from this blog, usually historical in nature. In this case, something practical and destined for permanency in my academic vocabulary!
Glad you like today’s post, Carla. Your comments about The Junto are very generous. Thank you for reading! We have a number of exciting posts coming up—I hope you’ll enjoy them, too.
This fascination with Warren began right after his death. Am I right in thinking that he was the first highly prominent patriot leader to die in military conflict with the British? Anyway, this is part of a paragraph from a dissertation chapter of mine which briefly talks about the popularity of John Daly Burk’s play Bunker-Hill, or the Death of General Warren:
It premiered at the Hay-Market Theatre in Boston on February 17, 1790 to “a larger and more respectable auditory than perhaps was ever contained in any other theatre on the continent.” As one reviewer noted, “The very name of this piece, without any knowledge of its real merits, was enough to excite the curiosity and attention of the public.” This was not just a theatrical premiere but a public event that concluded with “a grand Procession in honor of Warren” with “Young Women dressed in White, holding Flowers in their hands.” The notice also assured the audience that “at proper Intervals, Flags will display Republican Emblems” and “American Music only, will be play’d between the Acts.” Though panned by critics, it was “received with the most lively and flattering approbation” and a “high degree of incitement” amongst the city’s working class population. The play was staged nine times in Boston and multiple times in Philadelphia over the next decade. It was also staged at least half a dozen times in New York City in fall of 1797, where it was said to have been shown to “the largest and most respectable Assembly that ever graced a Theatre in America,” among whom was then-President John Adams.
Thanks for the engaged comment, Michael, as ever.
The immediate remembering of Warren, then, is perhaps something that’s permeated Boston culture since his death.
But aside from his prominence, the details about what happened to Warren after he died might have contributed to how he was viewed. Below is an extract from Benjamin Hichborn to John Adams, 25 Nov. 1775 (PJA, 3:320–27)
“As I find you are upon a Committee for collecting Evidence of the Hostilities committed by the British troops and Navy, I cannot omit the following anecdote, as a remarkable Instance of their Savage barbarity. One Drew now a Lieutenant of the Scorpion or Viper, I am uncertain which, and Bruce a private belonging to the Preston, landed on Bunkers Hill, soon after the battle of the 17th of June. Drew, after walking for some time over the bodies of the dead, with great fortitude, went up to one of our wounded Men, and very deliberately shot him through the Head. Bruce advanced further over the Hill, and meeting with a forlorn wretch, begging Mercy for Gods Sake! he advanced and with a ‘damn ye, you Bugger you! are you not dead yet?’ instantly demolished him. In a day or two after, Drew went upon the Hill again opened the dirt that was thrown over Doctr: Warren, spit in his Face jump’d on his Stomach and at last cut off his Head and committed every act of violence upon his Body. I had this Story from two Gentlemen belonging to the Preston who were eye Witnesses of the facts. In justice to the officers in general I must add, that they despised Drew for his Conduct, the other was below their notice.“
David Waldstreicher discussed “regional nationalism” in his dissertation. I enjoyed the post.
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