Two hundred and forty-six years ago this evening, a prominent Boston silversmith set out on a ride that would be immortalized by America’s finest poet. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was looking for a subject to write about that illustrated American virtues and concluded that Paul Revere’s ride on April 18, 1775, to alert Sam Adams and John Hancock that the British regulars were coming to arrest them in Lexington was a perfect allegory.
Longfellow wrote the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860 when no one was alive who remembered the actual events. And that was a good thing. Longfellow took enormous liberties with the subject matter. But he wasn’t trying to achieve historical accuracy. Instead, Longfellow wanted to say something profound about the American character and the entire revolutionary generation: that they were willing to suffer and die for something greater than themselves.
Revere was a fairly wealthy man by standards of the time and could have done quite well for himself if he had stuck with the British during the Revolution. But he was a figure that would become quite common in America’s future. Revere was a man on the make and knew that if allowed the freedom to prosper, he could do better.
Revere became one of the first American industrialists and died a very wealthy man.
But most colonists were like the small group of militiamen who took positions on the green at Lexington the next day. They were simple folk — farmers, tradesmen, nary a wealthy man among them. They weren’t really sure why they were there except they knew they were standing up for what they understood their rights as free-born Englishmen to be. They were bitterly and tragically mistaken.
Imagine you were there. What side would you have been on?
You may have heard Parker utter the immortal words “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” (The accuracy of this statement is doubtful. More likely, he cautioned his men against antagonizing the Red Coats. Besides, the militia’s guns weren’t loaded.) Suddenly, a British officer (probably Pitcairn) rode up and ordered you and your fellows to disperse and to “lay down your arms, you damned rebels.”
At this point, there was confusion on the green with shouted orders coming from British officers, probably shouts from the 50 or so assembled spectators, and Parker himself ordering the militia to disperse. It is one of those tantalizing moments in history that you really “had to be there” to find out exactly what happened because at that moment, a shot rang out.
The British regulars slaughtered them.
Word spread quickly throughout the region, drawing angry colonials from several nearby towns who lined the road back to Boston and inflicted 50 percent casualties on the regulars. By the end of the day after a long, tortuous march from Concord back to Boston, the war for American independence was well and truly begun.
Lexington and Concord will always be remembered for being a “hinge of history.” On one side of the door was the old colonial America. On the other side, a new nation creating its own identity. The two battles that took place so long ago played a large role in forming that new consciousness.
It wouldn’t have been possible without ordinary people standing up and demonstrating the courage of their convictions and being willing to face death. We might understand that kind of courage. But what about the courage of contemporary activists who stand in front of the police willing to provoke a violent response for what they believe in? Are they any less courageous? Any less American? Is what they believe less worthwhile than what those colonists believed? How can you judge?
I don’t expect too many readers to think about that before answering the questions. Too many today reflexively reject anything that doesn’t fit in with the tribal narrative. But all sides could look at what happened in Lexington and Concord and draw inspiration and perhaps — just perhaps — begin to understand just a little bit about what America truly means.