Written By: Joshua Charles
There is no better day than this one–April 19th–to reflect on the sources of our nation’s strength and to appreciate why–if the American people remain true to their past–our country will triumph over all present dangers.
Two hundred forty-six years ago today, the opening battles of what would become the American Revolution took place at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts.
On the night of April 18th, the British army set out to confiscate the arms and munitions of the local militia at Concord. But on their way, they were confronted by American colonists at Lexington. A British major yelled out to the gathered militia, “Throw down your arms! Ye villains, ye rebels!” The militiamen were heavily outnumbered, and their commander had just ordered them to disperse. That’s the instant when a shot rang out–what became known as “the shot heard round the world.” To this day, no one knows who fired it.
The British continued on to Concord, but by then, the munitions they had set out to destroy or confiscate had already been relocated, and militiamen from the surrounding areas had gathered to stop the British advance. Fire was exchanged at Concord Bridge, and all along the 18-mile route, the British took back to Boston. All in all, the battles were a draw. But the British had higher casualties, and the colonists proved they were a force to be reckoned with.
By the following summer, the thirteen colonies had declared their independence from Great Britain. The American Revolution had begun.
In 1843, sixty-eight years after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, a young scholar from Dartmouth college named Mellen Chamberlain had the opportunity to interview Captain Levi Preston, a veteran of the historic battle. Preston was then 91 years old, which meant he was 23 years old at the time of the battle.
“Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord fight?”
The old soldier was put off by the suggestion that someone had made him go, so he rephrased the question: “What did I go for?”
The interviewer switched his question: “Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?”
“I never saw any stamps, and I always understood that none were sold,” Preston replied.
“Well, what about the tea tax?” the interviewer asked.
“Tea tax? I never drank a drop of the stuff. The boys threw it all overboard.” [Referring to the “Boston Tea Party”]
“I suppose you had been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?”
“I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watt’s Psalms, and hymns and the almanacs,” Preston responded.
“Well, then, what was the matter?” the interviewer asked in apparent confusion.
Captain Preston’s answer can’t help but ring in our ears to this day: “Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free, and we meant to be free always. They didn’t mean we should.”
The tendency of intellectuals is to think that the great events of history can be explained by reason, syllogism, argument. “These were the thinkers that inspired this great event,” they say. But that’s not always the case. There is also what the Greeks called thumos to the events of history, a “spiritedness” that often has far more to do with the events themselves than the post-facto intellectual reconstruction of them. This is the more emotional, passionate, and instinctual side of history—what moves men to get up and actually do something. After all, most of the men who fought in the Revolutionary War were farmers, not philosophers, and virtually none of them had attended a university.
Captain Preston had not read the philosophers who are often identified as the intellectual foundations of the American Revolution—but he had read his Bibles, his Catechism, and Psalms and his hymns. And he knew that for generations, he and his ancestors had ruled themselves. They sensed that now the British were attempting to take that away.
This he would not abide.
Indeed, John Adams seems to confirm the basic truth of Captain Preston’s recollection in a letter to his revolutionary colleague and fellow former President, Thomas Jefferson, when both were in retirement. He reflected on what led to and informed the American Revolution, especially the young men who took to the battlefields in places like Lexington and Concord. “The general Principles, on which the Fathers Achieved Independence,” he reflected, “were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all those Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities Sufficient to assert and maintain her independence.”
He followed this observation with yet another of great relevance to our time:
Now I will avow, that I then believed, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God: and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles.
In other words, the principles which took men like Captain Preston to the battlefield on this day 246 years ago remain as true today as they were then, which means that now, through peaceful means, the fight goes on.
In a time when conservatives face a left-wing movement in control of the media, our education system, popular culture, and the bureaucratic gears of government, we can sympathize with the farmers of Lexington and Concord who faced the army of the most powerful nation on earth.
Our duty, like theirs, remains today. We, too, intend to be free always–and to rule ourselves.
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