Put U.S. Divisions Aside on Patriots' Day

(Bloomberg View) -- Americans think of July Fourth as Independence Day — the anniversary of their nation’s birth, signaled by the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But if you really want to celebrate the country’s birthday, you might do that today.

It’s Patriots’ Day. In a time of national tumult and division, let’s all raise a toast, and shed some tears.

Recognized in just four states, Patriots’ Day commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord, where the American Revolution began on April 19, 1775. Every American should know the tale.

Ever wonder about the origins of the phrase “the shot heard round the world”? It’s from the Concord Hymn, written in 1836 by Ralph Waldo Emerson for the dedication of the Obelisk, a monument commemorating the Battle of Concord. Here are the first lines:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

For the embattled farmers, the stage was set in February 1775, when the British Parliament declared the existence of a rebellion in Massachusetts. In Concord, the colonists were storing munitions, and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress calmly resolved, “the military force of the Province ought to be assembled, and an army of observation immediately formed, to act solely on the defensive so long as it can be justified on the principles of reason and self-preservation.”

The colonists received word that on April 19, British soldiers would be coming to Concord to remove the munitions. As they made their way there, the British defeated the colonists’ assembled militia in Lexington, killing eight people, and marched on toward Concord.

The closest thing to a contemporaneous account is a small, riveting book published in 1827, under the title “A History of the Fight At Concord on the 19th of April, 1775,” by the Reverend Ezra Ripley, “with other citizens of Concord.” It’s based on the testimony of people who were actually there.

As Ripley and his co-authors tell the tale, the officers in Concord on that day included Colonel James Barrett of Sudbury, Major John Buttrick of Concord, and Captain Isaac Davis of Acton. Davis explained his willingness to defend Concord this way: “I’m not afraid to go, and I haven’t a man that is.”

Barrett gave unambiguous orders to members of the militia: “not to fire, unless the British should first fire on them.” He directed them to march over North Bridge and to await further orders. In the meantime, the British “were very expeditious in destroying all the public stores they could find.” They burned down the local courthouse.

A growing number of armed colonists assembled at North Bridge. From neighboring Acton, Captain Davis arrived with his company. The group “was composed of military officers, volunteers and citizens, the proprietors of the soil, the substantial yeomanry of the then province” — including plenty of farmers. The colonists could see the smoke rising from the town’s center, and the triumphant flags of “the invading troops of the mother country.”

Then and there, they resolved to defend the town, or die in its defense. Still the orders remained: Do not fire unless fired upon.

The confrontation started when the British shot into the Concord River. The Americans saw them as mere warning shots, not aimed at them. But a minute later, the British followed with a volley, killing Captain Davis, who was shot in the heart. He left a widow and five children.

Witnessing this, Major John Buttrick, a leader of the Concord militia, leaped up from the ground and exclaimed, “Fire, fellow soldiers, for God’s sake, fire.” According to those who were there, “The word fire ran like electricity through the whole line of Americans,” and “For a few seconds, the word, fire, fire was heard from hundreds of mouths.”

Acting as one, Concord’s embattled farmers followed Buttrick’s order. (That’s the shot heard round the world.) They killed two British soldiers and wounded several others. The rest immediately retreated. In the words of Ripley and his co-authors, “They appeared to be very much alarmed, and ran with great speed.” 

The Americans had won the first engagement. The war was on. 

The events of April 19, 1775, were the culmination of decades of new thinking about equality, freedom and self-government. With amazement, John Adams wrote that “Idolatry to Monarchs, and servility to Aristocratical Pride, was never so totally eradicated from so many Minds in so short a Time.”

David Ramsay, one of the nation’s first historians (himself captured by the British during the Revolution), marveled that Americans were transformed “from subjects to citizens,” and that was an “immense” difference, because citizens “possess sovereignty. Subjects look up to a master, but citizens are so far equal, that none have hereditary rights superior to others.”

If you want to understand American exceptionalism, that’s a good place to start. And if you want to understand the nation’s character, you would do well to focus on Concord’s embattled farmers — united, keenly aware of the risks, and without a single one afraid to go.

Happy Patriots’ Day to all. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the editor of "Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America" and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

To contact the author of this story: Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net.

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