SAN JOSE, Calif., April 20, 2015 — Last weekend provided the opportunity for Americans to reflect on the actual birth of the Land of the Free. It was between April 18 and 19 of 1775 that the cries of danger swept through the Massachusetts countryside, and brave men and boys gathered their powder horns and musket and shot and made their way to Lexington Green to wait for the dreaded British troops marching methodically toward their objective. British Gen. Thomas Gage had dispatched a contingent of approximately 700 regulars to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock in Lexington and to to seize from rebels a cache of gunpowder, ammunition and weapons reportedly near Concord.
The Americans, however, had made plans and contingencies that had been implemented and fulfilled. On the weekend prior to the 18th, Paul Revere had organized a plan to use lighted lanterns hung in the tower of the Old North Church as signals to other riders that the British troops would be on the march and taking a land route or one by water. Revere was not certain he would be able to leave Boston with a British curfew in effect. However, he was able to slip away in the night and had arranged for compatriots to row him across the Charles River to get a decent head start to warn the two leaders in Lexington.
On that April evening, as Paul Revere and William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott, as well as other riders, alerted their fellow citizens that the British regulars were on the march, several individual efforts initiated a unique American response to the British military’s harassment of the people in their homes. As the cries of alarm spread “through every Middlesex village and farm, for the country folk to be up in arms,” as Longfellow reminded Americans in 1860, the ordinary people in that region rose from their sleep, left their beds and braced themselves to face a formidable foe.
In reality, several volunteer riders were utilized to warn Adams and Hancock, warn the rural people and call the able-bodied to arms. About midnight, William Dawes, who had ridden on a different route, arrived in Lexington shortly after Revere. While Revere and Dawes made it to Lexington, neither of them made it to Concord. Though Prescott rode with the two, all three were captured by a British patrol along the road. Dawes and Prescott got away, but Dawes was thrown by his horse, and eventually only Prescott made it to Concord. The contingency plans proved valuable.
The primary plans, directives from the primitive Continental Congress to prepare local militias to meet the British threat, also worked; but the shot heard ’round the world sparked a war. A rag-tag band of men and boys made their way to Lexington Green to wait in the cool April morning, uncertain of what would happen next because it had never happened before. Certainly, these brave souls had not read a British military manual instructing them that it was futile to resist. They stood their ground, waiting. Some may have been wondering if they would get back home to their beds that day. Thirty-eight citizens stood their ground.
Ironically, the “first shot” Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to in his famous poem, “The Concord Hymn,” was fired at Lexington and not at Concord, where a larger skirmish occurred later on the 19th. But his poem immortalized the moment in Concord:
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….
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Throughout New England, news spread of the skirmishes from Lexington and Concord on the 19th of April. Tensions rapidly surged between the colonists and British troops. From surrounding colonies, various leaders marched volunteers together toward Boston in a simplistic strategy to surround the British forces and trap them in the city. Fear, anger or pride set colonists on a path in one direction or another. Not all Americans in that day understood what had just happened, but they soon learned that common folk had stood up to the mighty British military.
By May 10, the Continental Congress reconvened in order to decipher eyewitness accounts of the battles with British regulars. Cooler heads needed to digest the events of those days in Massachusetts. But everyone knew that the brave souls in Lexington and Concord had fired on and killed the King’s troops. This was certainly an act of war, comparable to firing on the King himself. It was not easy to digest or to spin as multiple gun-cleaning accidents. There would definitely be a reckoning, but the Congress did not formally declare war against the mother country in 1775.
There were some in Congress who pursued the belief that the tyrannical British King and the government could be still be trusted to look upon the colonials with respect and esteem after all that had happened. They ignored the reality — perhaps through wishful thinking or through a vain belief in an illusion of peaceful resolution to such irreconcilable differences. At the time, clear-thinking men harbored no illusions about what was next, for there was little doubt that the British government would send more shiploads of troops. And it did.
It was fairly clear that the British, a government boasting the most powerful army on the planet at the time, would not put up with rebellion in their precious colonies without a serious fight. In Massachusetts, the revolutionary leadership saw the real need to re-organize the “American troops” in order to create a more cohesive and realistic fighting force. Various volunteer militias eventually aggregated in Massachusetts, intent upon armed conflict with the British after what had happened in Lexington and Concord. New England, and ultimately the other colonies had been rallied to the cause of freedom.
Finally, in mid-June, John Adams rose in Congress to propose an appeal from the Massachussetts Provincial Congress for assistance with organization and some assumption of authority for the crisis. He addressed the delegates of Congress with a sense of urgency to avoid a disaster should the British troops manage to break out of Boston and “spread desolation as far as they could go.” John Adam’s resolution was for the Congress to take charge of the band of amateur troops and to appoint someone commanding general to take charge of the troops in the field. The rest shines in history as unbelievable.
In reality, it was true patriots like John Adams and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin who understood the ruthlessness of the British, for they all had worked closely in their own ways with such men of tyranny. These patriots were ready to go the distance in the rebellion, not knowing how great that distance, or how many years, or how much sacrifice it would require. They knew the impossible odds stacked against their success, yet they still persisted. This moment in American history, some said, was the point at which they could not turn back – and some would say it was the birth of the infant Land of the Free.