Tuesday, April 18, 2017

242 years ago today

The hours from tonight through tomorrow morning mark the 242nd anniversary of Paul Revere’s “midnight ride” and the battles that ensued. It is one of the most significant anniversaries in American history -- perhaps the most significant, because it can be argued that if not for the events that took place on April 18th and 19th, 1775, the United States might never have come to be.

Tensions between colonists and the royal rulers from the other side of the Atlantic were running high in those days. Though this was true in all of the colonies that would become our first 13 states, it was especially true in Massachusetts, where the monarchy had effectively shut Boston off from the world by blockading its port and quartering large numbers of soldiers within the city.

It was believed that government forces (officially called "Regulars" and derisively called "redcoats") would invade the colony en masse, so residents in surrounding towns had been stockpiling munitions to defend themselves. The redcoats targeted Lexington and Concord, the former because revolutionaries John Hancock and Samuel Adams were thought to be there, and the latter because it hosted the Provincial Congress and was rumored to have a huge stash of munitions the government wanted to confiscate.

When redcoat forces were detected sneaking from Boston under cover of darkness on April 18th, Paul Revere and William Dawes mounted their horses and galloped into the countryside to warn their fellow citizens. Revere departed from Charlestown, across the Charles River from Boston proper, while Dawes left directly from the city. Revere’s route was the shortest to Lexington and Concord, and thus he was the first to warn their occupants of what was coming.

The next morning, Lexington’s village green was the site of the first skirmish between government forces and the citizen militia known as minutemen. The latter took the worst of it, with eight dead and ten wounded compared to just a single wounded redcoat.

The redcoats then marched on to their primary goal of Concord. After arriving and crossing the North Bridge, nearly half of them went about securing the bridge while the rest searched for weapons. When wooden cannon mounts were found, they were set afire and before long the flames engulfed a church.

Positioned on Punkatasset Hill some 300 yards from the bridge, Concord’s minutemen had been joined by minutemen from neighboring towns, giving them a numerical advantage the redcoats did not anticipate. When they saw the rising smoke, they believed their homes were being destroyed and responded by advancing.

Seeing them approach in such numbers, the redcoats retreated back across the bridge. A shot soon rang out, though no one knows who fired it, and within minutes a full-blown battle had transpired in which half of the officers from the government troops were wounded. Disoriented, they fled back toward Boston and along the way fell under fire from minutemen who had arrived from elsewhere and were hiding behind fences and walls. By the time they made it back to the city, they had sustained more than 200 casualties.

It was an indisputable defeat for the world’s most powerful military, delivered by ordinary people seeking simply to defend themselves against oppression. The example set by those people ignited the fuse of the American Revolution in such a way that it would not be extinguished.

But as with all mass "remembrances" of things that happened long ago, some of the things people assume to be true are not. In the case of Paul Revere's ride, the inaccuracies cut both ways and are of differing levels of importance.

Generations upon generations of American schoolchildren have been told that Revere warned farmers and villagers that "the British are coming!" Those schoolchildren have grown up and passed along that telling to their own kids. In reality, however, what Revere said that night was "the Regulars are coming out." That quote is from his own subsequent account, and from accounts of those he warned. It would never have occurred to him to say "the British are coming!" because he himself was British and so was everyone else in the 13 colonies.

For Revere to have warned people that "the British are coming" would be like me telling my neighbors that state troopers are entering the neighborhood by saying "the Floridians are coming." It would not have made sense. But by keeping the "British are coming" narrative alive for so long, and casually saying that the subsequent Revolutionary War was against "the British," we citizens of the United States have unwittingly distorted something important about our nation's genesis. Specifically, we have abetted a myth which holds that the idea of individual human beings having rights upon which government may not infringe was born on these shores, in the brains of our Founding Fathers. In reality, that idea -- which I fervently believe and which I do indeed "hold to be self-evident" -- was born not in American colonies of the 1700's but in southern England of the 1200's.

A full 558 years before the Boston Tea Party, 560 before Paul Revere's ride, and 561 before the Declaration of Independence, the outline of individual rights that would later serve as the basis for the United States was laid out in the Magna Carta, in the year 1215. Because human nature is human nature and political power abhors a vacuum, the British government infringed on those rights as the centuries passed, but the Magna Carta did not disappear from the British public conscience. In the 1500's an upsurge of interest in that document was kindled; and in the 1600's, Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke argued in favor of the freedom that was enshrined in it.

When our Founding Fathers pushed back against the monarchy of the 1700's, they did not do so with the belief that they were sailing uncharted philosophical waters. They did so because they believed, accurately, that their rights as British citizens had been violated by a British government that was acting counter to British ideals. They considered themselves the true Britons and the rulers from London the false Britons. The notion of a separate American identity decoupled from any British identity probably never entered their minds, yet a separate identity is what came to be. Most Americans living today wrongly believe that a separate identity was part of the plan.

I am not sure exactly how to build the bridge between the inaccuracy I just noted and the one I am about to note, so I won't even attempt to build it. However, the inaccuracy is worth noting and there may be no better time to do it than when talking about Paul Revere's ride, so here I go -- and it is related to, of all things, race.

I am a history buff who grew up in a house where history was frequently discussed, and I always did good in school, always taking advanced classes, so it says something bad about American schools that I never heard of Crispus Attucks or Peter Salem until I was grown. Rather than learn their names when I studied AP American History, I learned them by reading the text of a speech that was given by Duke Ellington in 1941, in which he passionately made the case that black Americans are historically loyal to and historically integral to the United States.

Opining that "although numerically but ten percent of the mammoth chorus that today, with an eye overseas, sings 'America' with fervor and thanksgiving, I say our ten percent is the very heart of the chorus," Ellington mentioned that "America is reminded of the feats of Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, black armies in the Revolution..." Realizing that those names had been mentioned with the assumption that listeners knew them (in the era of Jim Crow, no less) got me to researching, and I learned things that most Americans would have a hard time believing.

Crispus Attucks was born a slave, circa 1723 in the vicinity of Framingham, Massachusetts, which tells you that slavery was not just a Southern thing. Attucks was the son of a black man and Natick Indian woman, and at some point in his adult life became either a free man or a runaway slave who was not seriously pursued. What is known for sure is that he became a productive rope-maker, seaman, and goods-trader who was known and respected on the Boston docks.

On March 2, 1770, five years before Paul Revere's ride, a fight erupted between redcoats and Boston rope-makers. Three nights later, the dispute escalated when five Bostonians were killed by redcoats in an event that came to be known as the Boston Massacre. Many historians consider the massacre to be the first violent act that started history's train chugging toward the Revolutionary War, and because Attucks was the first colonist to die in the massacre, he -- a biracial man born a slave, hailing from the only two races that have experienced systemic legal racism in America -- is considered by many to be the first fatality of the American Revolution. Today you can visit his final resting place in Beantown's third-oldest cemetery.

Meanwhile, Peter Salem was also born a slave in the vicinity of Framingham. His original slave master, Jeremiah Belknap, at some point sold him to Lawson Buckminster. In 1775, when Salem was believed to be 25 years old, Buckminster granted him freedom and he enlisted in the Continental Army to combat the redcoats.

Salem was literally involved in Paul Revere's ride because he fought as a minuteman during the skirmish in Concord. One week later he enlisted with the 5th Massachusetts Regiment and went on to fight at the famous Battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Stony Point.

One of the colonists' main achievements at Bunker Hill was the killing of British Major John Pitcairn as the battle unfolded. It is known that Salem was one of the soldiers who shot Pitcairn, and generally believed that his shot was the first to strike him. Salem's role was publicly acknowledged as far back as 1786, when a famous painting by John Trumbull depicted him holding a musket as Pitcairn fell. In 1968, that portion of the painting (excluding the image of Pitcairn on the ground) was reproduced as this U.S. postage stamp.

After the war Salem built a cabin near Leicester, Massachusetts, where he lived most of his remaining days subsisting as a gardener and cane-weaver. He was reportedly well-liked by the townspeople and enjoyed regaling children by telling them stories of the war. Upon his death in 1816, he was laid to rest at the Old Burying Ground in his birth town of Framingham. In 1882 Framingham established an annual Peter Salem Day, and the town still observes his birthday each October 1st.

None of which is to deny that slavery was America's Original Sin, or that racial inequality in non-slave areas was American's Original Sin Part 1(b). These historical facts do, however, show that the racial jumble which existed at America's founding was not as cut-and-dry as most people assume. They show that the Revolution was supported by more people than just the rich and "lily white." These things need to be understood and taught in order for future generations to have a true, balanced understanding (and appreciation) of how America got to where it is.

The train of history does not follow an inevitable track. It changes direction over and over again based on the actions and inactions of men and women. If a bunch of ticked-off English property owners had not precipitated the drafting of the Magna Carta in 1215... if later encroachments by the British monarchy had not incited people to hold the Magna Carta dear to their hearts... if the likes of John Locke had not later written clearly about the ideals of liberty that were at its heart... if, later still, Adam Smith had not written about how those ideals apply to economics and lead to mutually beneficial free trade... if the Founding Fathers had not read the likes of Locke and Smith, and not sought to re-assert individual rights against the monarchy's despotic aims... if Crispus Attucks, by being murdered along with four other Bostonians in 1770, had not helped make commoners feel antipathy to the crown... if Paul Revere had not chosen to warn colonists with his midnight ride, so that the colonists could prevent the British Regulars from stealing their arms... if Peter Salem had not been at Bunker Hill to shoot Major Pitcairn and deprive the British military of one of its most creative leaders... if America's early abolitionists were not able to point to heroic actions by the likes of Peter Salem, in order to give some of their uncertain countrymen pause and thereby keep their movement alive... well, who knows what would have happened? Those are a lot of ifs, and every one of them was an important link in a very long chain that eventually led to freedom expanding its reach and slavery being abolished in North America.

Today is a day for reflection on our shared past, and a time for figuring out how we can learn from that past to decide what course we should take in today's extremely dangerous world. We must take pains to ensure that our national memory first gets strengthened, and that it then gets preserved, if we have any hope of being confident and self-assured as we face the future.

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