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April 19, 1775: The Day America Was Born

The Battle of Lexington by William Barns Wollen, 1910. (Public domain)

As the sun rose on Lexington, Massachusetts, 77 Colonial militiamen took the field against 400 crack British troops operating under secret orders to seize the colonists’ weapons and supplies. Badly outnumbered and with eight dead after the first exchange of fire, the militiamen fell back to await reinforcement. And the reinforcements — they came. While the Brits marched on to Concord, militiamen from the surrounding towns and countryside rushed in with their weapons. At Concord’s North Bridge just a few hours after Lexington, about 400 Colonial militiamen caught a detachment of 100 Redcoats, forcing them back. Given what was supposed to be an easy task, the Brits were caught off guard due to surprisingly good Colonial intelligence about their intentions, and the fierce resistance of the militia. The Redcoats retreated first to Boston, then to Charlestown. At the end of the day, nearly 4,000 militiamen had faced down 1,500 regular British troops. The colonists suffered 49 killed, another 39 wounded, and 5 went missing. The Brits lost 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 53 went missing in their retreat.

While it wouldn’t become official until July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was made public, April 19, 1775, is in my mind the day America was born. Like any birth, it was messy, bloody, and resulted in a life of tremendous potential.

The first battle of what would quickly grow into the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and her 13 rebellious North American colonies was years in the making. The Seven Years War had ended a dozen years before shots were exchanged in Lexington, and King & Parliament were determined to get the colonies to pay their “fair share” of Britain’s war debts.

The first attempt at just that was the Stamp Act of 1765, a tax on all colonial paper documents payable to London. The colonists bristled at a tax imposed from thousands of miles away without their consent and protested violently. Unable to collect the tax or pacify the colonists, Parliament did maybe the stupidest thing possible: They repealed the tax the very next year, but also issued a petulant Declaratory Act stating that Parliament had the authority to pass any laws they wanted on the colonies. Repeal showed that Parliament had, shall we say, incomplete effective authority over the colonies. The Declaratory Act showed that they didn’t understand this fact. So the stage was set for further tyrannical acts from Parliament and increased resistance from the colonies.

Further tyrannies quickly came.

Parliament passed the Townsend Acts in 1770, imposing taxes on goods imported into the colonies. The duties were on popular items not (yet) widely made in America like British china, glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. There was something sinister behind the Townsend Acts aside from the imposition of taxation without representation:

While the original intent of the import duties had been to raise revenue, Charles Townshend saw the policies as a way to remodel colonial governments. The Townshend Acts would use the revenue raised by the duties to pay the salaries of colonial governors and judges, ensuring the loyalty of America’s governmental officials to the British Crown.

The result was a colonial boycott of British goods — and the deployment of British troops to pacify Boston.

Parliament followed Townsend with the Tea Act of 1773, granting a monopoly on tea imports and sales in North America. When Bostonians responded by dumping crates of tea from several East India Company ships at the Boston Tea Party, Britain cracked down even harder. The Coercive Acts of 1774 — known here as the Intolerable Acts — consisted of four laws.

The Boston Port Act, which closed the city’s port to all business until the colonists paid for the tea destroyed during the Tea Party.

The Administration of Justice Act allowed British officials accused of crimes in Massachusetts to be removed to Britain for trial, presumably with friendlier juries.

The Massachusetts Government Act abrogated the colony’s charter allowing for direct British control.

The Quartering Act applied to all 13 colonies and mandated the quartering of British in private buildings.

The patriots who showed up, muskets in hand, at Lexington and Concord on this day 245 years ago were the first Americans. Prodded by years of increasing (if largely ineffective) tyrannies from King & Parliament, they came not to conquer but to defend their inalienable rights by the only way left to them. The stakes might seem small to us today: Niggling fees, taxes, import duties. But the principles at stake were huge: Are the people sovereign in their own country, their own homes, their own affairs, or may a distant government elected by others dictate their fate?

Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress published the Declaration of Independence a year later, an act of philosophical and political daring the equal of Lexington and Concord. Not to give slight to their work in Philadelphia, “all” they did was make official what the American patriots in Massachusetts had already begun to make real.

Too often, when we think of tyranny today, we think of state-owned media and secret police and barbed wire and concentration camps. But the Founding Fathers set a much lower bar for their definition of tyranny. James Madison argued that “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” He also boldly insisted, “We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties.” And that’s exactly what the American patriots of Lexington & Concord did. To them, as it still should be for us today, tyranny comes in the form of any law or government action not subject to the consent of the people, who are sovereign.

We would do well on today of all days to remember that.

When all government …in little as in great things… shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power; it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated. — Thomas Jefferson