American Liberty Born Again — Patriots’ Day

  • Friday, April 19, 2024

“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, go from us in peace. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!” —Samuel Adams (1776)

Today, we celebrate the historical birth of American Liberty, the first Patriots’ Day in 1775. Notably, those first shots were fired in defiance of forces sent to disarm the first generation of Patriots. I invite you to take a brief stroll down the path that gave rise to our Republic when a band of radical right-wing Patriots stood in defiance of those representing the most powerful military force on earth.

The first battles of Lexington and Concord, were among the 10 most critical engagements of the Revolutionary War.

The conflict on Lexington Green was triggered by the events of Dec. 16, 1773, when “radicals” from Boston, members of a secret organization of American Patriots called the Sons of Liberty, boarded three East India Company ships under cover of darkness and threw 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor.

This iconic event, in protest of oppressive British taxation and tyrannical rule, became known as the Boston Tea Party.

Resistance to the Crown had been mounting over enforcement of the 1764 Sugar Act, 1765 Stamp Act, and 1767 Townshend Act, which led to the Boston Massacre in 1770 and gave rise to the slogan, “No taxation without representation.”

The 1773 Tea Act and the resulting Tea Party protest galvanized the colonial movement against British parliamentary acts that violated the colonists’ natural, charter, and constitutional rights.

In response to the rebellion, the British enacted additional punitive measures, labeled the “Intolerable Acts,” in hopes of suppressing the burgeoning insurrection. Far from accomplishing their desired outcome, however, the Crown’s countermeasures led colonists to convene the First Continental Congress on Sept. 5, 1774, in Philadelphia.

By the spring of 1775, civil discontent with royal rulers was growing, and American Patriots in Massachusetts and other colonies were preparing to cast off their masters. The spirit of the coming revolution was captured in Patrick Henry’s impassioned “Give me Liberty or give me death” speech.

On the evening of April 18, 1775, General Thomas Gage, acting as the Crown’s military governor of Massachusetts, dispatched a force of 700 British Army regulars with secret orders. These troops, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were to arrest 53-year-old Boston Tea Party leader Samuel Adams, Massachusetts Provincial Congress president John Hancock, and merchant fleet owner Jeremiah Lee.

But what directly tied Gage’s orders to the later enumeration in our Constitution’s Second Amendment assurance of the innate “right to keep and bear arms” was the primary mission of his Redcoat brigades. They were charged with undertaking a preemptive raid to confiscate arms and ammunition stored by Massachusetts Patriots in the town of Concord.

Patriot militia and minutemen, under the leadership of the Sons of Liberty, anticipated this raid, and the confrontations with British forces at Lexington and Concord proved to be the fuse that ignited the American Revolution.

Near midnight on April 18, 41-year-old Paul Revere, who had arranged for advance warning of British movements, departed Charlestown (near Boston) for Lexington and Concord in order to warn Hancock, Adams, and other Sons of Liberty that the British Army was marching to arrest them and seize their weapons caches.

Revere’s ride was immortalized by noted poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Listen my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere… Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch… One if by land, two if by sea… Through the gloom and the light, The fate of a nation was riding that night; And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight.”

After meeting with Hancock and Adams in Lexington, Revere was captured, but his Patriot ally, Samuel Prescott, continued to Concord and warned militiamen along the way.

The Patriots in Lexington and Concord, with other citizen militias in New England, were bound by “minute man” oaths to “stand at a minute’s warning with arms and ammunition.” The oath of the Lexington militia read thus: “We trust in God that, should the state of our affairs require it, we shall be ready to sacrifice our estates and everything dear in life, yea, and life itself, in support of the common cause.” That oath was the predecessor to our current oath “to support and defend.”

In the early dawn of April 19, their oaths would be tested with blood. Under the command of 46-year-old farmer and militia Captain John Parker, 77 militiamen assembled on the Town Green at Lexington, where they soon faced Smith’s overwhelming force of seasoned British regulars. Parker did not expect shots to be exchanged, but his orders were: “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Within close musket range from the Patriots’ column, British Major John Pitcairn swung his sword and ordered, “Lay down your arms, you d---ed rebels!”

Not willing to sacrifice his small band of Patriots on the Green, as Parker later wrote in a sworn deposition, “I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse, and not to fire.” But his Patriots did not lay down their arms. Then, under Pitcairn’s orders, as Parker testified, “Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon, and killed eight of our Party without receiving any Provocation therefor from us.” Ten other Patriots were wounded.

As the American militia retreated toward Concord with the British in pursuit, their ranks grew to more than 400.

In Concord, the British divided in order to search for armament stores. Before noon, the second confrontation between Redcoat regulars and militiamen occurred as 100 British light infantry from three companies faced the ranks of militia and minutemen at Concord’s Old North Bridge. From depositions on both sides, the British fired first, killing two and wounding four.

This time, however, the militia commander, Major John Buttrick, ordered, “Fire, for God’s sake, fellow soldiers, fire!”

And fire they did. The volley commenced with what poet Ralph Waldo Emerson later immortalized as “The Shot Heard Round the World.” With that shot, farmers, laborers, landowners, and statesmen alike brought upon themselves the sentence of death for treason. In the ensuing firefight, the British suffered heavy casualties. In discord, the Redcoats retreated to Concord proper and, after reinforcing their ranks, marched back toward Lexington.

During their retreat from Concord, the British took additional casualties in sporadic firefights. The most notable of those was an ambush by the reassembled ranks of John Parker’s militia, which became known as “Parker’s Revenge.” Despite reinforcements when they returned to Lexington, the King’s men were no match for the Patriot ranks. The militia and minutemen made the Redcoats pay dearly all along their 18-mile tactical retreat to Boston.

By day’s end, the Patriots suffered 49 killed, 39 wounded, and five missing. The British casualties totaled 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing.

Upon hearing of those first shots in what would become an eight-year struggle for American Liberty, Samuel Adams declared to fellow Patriot John Hancock, “What a glorious morning this is!” He added, “The People alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government and to reform, alter, or totally change the same when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it.”

Indeed it was, and the sunrise each April 19 has remained so ever since.

As George Washington declared, “Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!”

Thus began the great campaign to reject tyranny and embrace the enduring challenge of securing Republican Liberty and sustaining it for future generations.

Mark Caldwell


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