Two hundred and thirty-nine years ago, a group of nearly eighty men milled about at a town tavern. It had been a long night, not of carousing with friends and relatives, but of preparing for what might be an open confrontation with the most effective military fighting force the world had known; their own countrymen. The men of the Lexington militia didn’t see themselves as “Americans fighting the British”. There were no “Americans”. They did not want to be “Americans”. They were all subjects of the Crown and wished to remain so. But that Crown had turned on its colony.
For many years, the colonies had governed their own affairs while their brethren “back home” waged war with France. Once that war was concluded, the Crown needed to recoup much of the wealth it had spent in the conflict and it began to raise taxes. Being used to self-governance by then, the Colonials chafed at this and attempted to discuss the matter – but they were dismissed and derided. They were treated as second-class subjects, suitable to being fleeced of their earnings, but not considered in matters of law. They were there to obey, not question or propose. The resentment built until, predictably, there were flare-ups of temper and acts of violence. Colonists, feeling that they were being ignored and all but robbed under color of law, committed acts of vandalism, published pamphlets speaking out against their government and even assaulted government agents. In turn, the Crown became even more punitive in its acts, taxing items most critical and commonly used, seizing private property, imprisoning those who spoke out and, eventually, attempting to disarm the Colonials.
This was the mission that the men of Lexington hoped to thwart. They were aware for some weeks that, when the push to confiscate the gunpowder and arms of Concord came, the Regulars would travel through their town. And it was their duty to try to stop it. They would give at least some token resistance to show that they would not be ignored or treated like property. They would do something, even if it was only symbolic.
Imagine being in Lexington with those colonists, sitting in the tavern and discussing what the immediate future might hold. On the morning of April 19th, the sun just cresting the horizon, you file out of the tavern and assemble in formation on the Green. You feel the cold dew of early New England spring on your shoes, the dampness and crisp air as they mingle with the adrenaline-ice roiling in your stomach. You knew it might come to this, but you hope that the spies and messengers were wrong. Maybe the Regulars returned to Boston and this could all be avoided. Perhaps the Crown had finally heard you all and would treat you as equals, not slaves.
But then you hear the tramping, the sound of boots marching, and soon, through the thick Massachusetts woods, you see the bright red of the uniforms, the gleam of the bayonets in the morning sun. Hundreds of soldiers are moving toward you. You glance to your left and right and see your cousins, your neighbors, perhaps your own sons – so precious few. You can see them counting as well… and their fear, much as they try to swallow it. You hold your formation, as a force outnumbering you almost ten to one assembles across from you.
You remain stoic as the Regulars jeer and shout at you. You look at them and wonder just what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into. An officer on horseback demands that you disarm and disperse. You look to your commander, Captain John Parker, who shows no sign of obeying and you grip your musket a little tighter. Then you hear the words: Traitor…. Rebel.… Rebel!! As though you started this fight! As though it was you that turned against your government and not your government that turned on you! And that’s when something else joins that churning in your gut. And it’s hot this time.
You look at the men across from you, murder in their eyes, and you think bitterly about how the finery on their backs and the food in their belly was paid for by your taxes. Taxes that were increased every year on every good you use until they reached into every corner of your life. You wonder if those taxes have also paid for the musket ball that will snuff out your life or the bayonet that will spill your neighbor’s innards. And this time, you feel anger. You remember Captain Parker’s admonition: “Stand your ground! Do not fire unless fired upon! But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Your feet grow roots. Why can’t they just leave us alone? Why must they punish us for doing nothing more than what we’ve always done? Who are they to deny me my rights and my choices? Just because you made it law doesn’t mean you made it just or right!
After what feels like a lifetime, your thoughts are interrupted by Captain Parker’s order to dismiss. We’ve done enough. We’ve made enough of a statement. We won’t disarm but we’ll go home. You’re relieved beyond words but remain stone-faced as you turn your back on your “taxes at work”. But you only take three steps before you hear the report of a shot. You can’t tell where it came from and, looking up, see that no one else can either. But then a blazing poker tears through your thigh as you hear thunder erupt behind you. The Regulars have opened fire, shooting you and so many others in the back!
You fall as you try to bring your musket to bear, firing blindly at the onrushing troops, but your neighbor pulls you to your feet and you flee. You witness Captain Parker’s cousin, Jonas, fatally run through as he lay wounded on the ground. You are shocked and soon enraged. This did not have to be! You are no traitor but you owe no allegiance to a government that would allow this. Now, there can be no further compliance with unjust laws, nor can there be obedience to tyrants.
All you wanted was to be left alone, to live your life, raise your family, carry on the traditions and lifestyle you’ve always enjoyed. But if that is to be denied you, it will be stripped away by bloody force, not meekly surrendered. Captain Parker was right. If they mean to have a war, you will oblige them.
Of the eighty men assembled that day, ten were wounded and eight were killed, including Jonathon Harrington, dying on his own doorstep in front of his wife and children. Five of the nine sets of fathers and sons who had assembled that morning suffered a death. Most had been shot in the back. We often think of dry history or sanitized and romantic notions of chess-set battles. But this is not what gave us the nation or the rights we enjoy. It was the terror-filled suffering, the spilled blood, the death by the thousands of people exactly like us.
These were people who set out, not to form a new nation, but simply to have their wishes and rights respected by their government and they were often shocked to find themselves behind a musket – or at the point of a bayonet. Farmers and merchants, tavern owners and printers who believed they had the right to make their own choices in life and who were willing to face imprisonment and death to secure that right.
Two hundred and thirty-nine years has not diminished the debt we owe them. And no passage of time will absolve us from our responsibility to preserve the spark of liberty they struck that day.