The real April 19

April 19 is the anniversary of the Battle of Concord and Lexington in 1775, a minor military engagement that wound up having major political repercussions. Patrick Murfin has one of the best summaries of the events of that day that I’ve seen in a long time, and you should go check it out.

As someone who lived the first 42 years of his life mostly in Concord, and who worked for several years at the church on Lexington Green, it has been interesting to watch over the years as different political groups have tried to claim that the participants in the Battle of Concord and Lexington agreed with some narrow political ideology of the present day. In 1975, quasi-leftists staged a “people’s” celebration of the bicentennial of the battle, saying that the British colonials who presented armed resistance to His Majesty’s troops were in fact aligned with what was then called the New Left. More recently, right-wingers are wrapping themselves in quasi-colonial costumes, saying that the British colonials who presented armed resistance to His Majesty’s troops were in fact aligned with what is now called the “Tea Party” movement.

Both these claims, and all similar claims, have little to do with historical fact, and must be dismissed as silly. The 18th century men and women in the colonies of British North America inhabited a very different political and social world than we do in the early 21st century. Those 18th century men and women were colonials, subjects of the worldwide British empire. They were also subjects of an 18th century constitutional monarchy, and they owed allegiance to the person of King George. As colonials, they were subject to the laws promulgated by Parliament, yet they had no elected representation in Parliament. As colonials, whatever local government they had could be removed or replace by His Majesty’s government; in fact, that’s exactly what had happened, and the colonials had had essentially no political recourse when their elected officials were removed from office. Any recent citizen of the United States — and that includes the Tea Partyites and the old New Leftists — inhabits a very different political world than the colonials of British North America.

In my years living and working in Concord and Lexington, I saw plenty of political infighting; Lexington had a particularly nasty split between liberals and conservatives. But on April 19, we all tried to put aside our present-day politics. In Concord and Lexington, everyone is a patriot on April 19 (yes, even the guys who dress up as Redcoats in the re-enactments of the battle). We knew that trying to claim the battle for one or another present-day political ideology was bad form, serving merely to distract us all from the serious duties of knowing the historical facts as accurately as possible, and celebrating the courage and commitment of those long-ago men and women.

Even as I write this, the re-enactors have just moved across Lexington Green for the second time today, this time with the colonial militia and minutemen in hot pursuit of His Majesty’s regulars. There’s no one re-enacting the role of Tea Partyites, because there were no Tea Partyites back in 1775, no New Left, no small-minded politicians trying to claim a mantle that wasn’t theirs to claim. There were only men and women, both black and white, slowly and painfully, sometimes bloodily, working their way towards a new political system that was still only vaguely imagined.

5 thoughts on “The real April 19

  1. Abs

    Thank you, Dan, for this post. I’ve been feeling pretty cranky about this topic lately, and appreciate your presentation of the facts.

    (P.S. The parade was fun this year – but your presence was missed!)

  2. Jean

    Yes, indeed, thank you for this post. I miss that holiday a great deal. Out here it’s invisible. I used to love going to the North Bridge at dawn to watch Samuel Dawes (do I have that right?) ride in on his great horse. It always seemed that a mist was rising above the river at that time of day, making the re-enactment feel dreamlike, almost like a real memory we all might have entered into. I miss that a lot.

    I really wish my sabbatical were in the spring next year. I’d make a point to be there in April. As we say about the Red Sox…maybe the next year.

  3. Amy

    Not to stir up any political controversies, but we always called it the Battle of Lexington and Concord. ;-)

    This was an inspiring entry, thanks. In all my 25+ years of living in New England, I never went to see this reenactment. I wish someone had recommended it to me. Instead, with ¨stay away from crowds¨ well-inculcated, I figured the only reason to go to Boston on April 19 was to run a marathon.

  4. Sarah K.

    Thanks, Dan. Even in Massachusetts, 90% of people equate Patriot’s Day with the Marathon and the Red Sox. As a Concordian for the past twenty-five years, I love to remind people of the reason why we have the day off. It’s not so people can run twenty-six miles in sometimes ungodly April weather, it’s to honor our local patriots who truly changed the course of history.

    My family and I always go to the same spot in Concord for the parade (the Green in Concord center, near the Minuteman Statue, directly across from Town Hall), and it’s a privilege to honor patriots past and patriots now (our Boy and Girl Scouts, our veterans, our historians).

  5. Ted

    I lived on Massachusetts Avenue in eastern Lexington in my preschool days. The question was never about politics or patriotism. It was “what are all those people doing in my front yard?”

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