On April 19, 1775, a group of ordinary, small-town Americans stood up in defense of their property, their community, and their ideas. First at Lexington and then at Concord, they put their very lives in danger. A new online program called “We The People” offers basic information about American principles and the pivotal events that forged our nation at a time when reconnecting with those principles is once again essential. It begins with the Battle of Lexington….
Most people were sound asleep when the alarm came. Men and women roused themselves and heard the news: British soldiers were marching toward their town. Each man and woman faced a decision. They could ignore the alarm, perhaps pretending not to hear, and remain under warm blankets safe from the cold and uncertain night. Or they could rise up, make their preparations, and step out into the misty darkness.
In the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, men and women rose up. They lit candles with shaky fingers and tried not to wake their children. John Parker—a farmer and the elected captain of the Lexington militia—dressed quickly, took his flintlock musket from the wall, and went out. He was older than his 45 years, frail and sick, and still a trusted and resolute man. He walked in the darkness to the triangle-shaped field, the town green, which sat beside the road from Boston to Concord.
Anna Harrington sent her husband, Daniel, to the green. She knew that her father, Robert Munroe, a veteran of the war against the French and Indians, would be there as well. At least eight Munroes and nine Harringtons assembled on the Lexington green. By 2 a.m., as many as 130 men were standing in the dark in the wet grass on the green.
The odds were against them. The soldiers were well armed and well trained; many were hardened veterans. The townspeople were the opposite—mostly ordinary men and women with small farms or businesses and large families. By offering any opposition to the soldiers, the people risked their lives, possessions, families—everything. Yet, hundreds and later thousands would step away from ordinary lives and decide that they, too, were willing to stand, to fight, even to die.
The people of Lexington had hurried, and now they waited. With no sign of approaching troops, Captain Parker released his men to wait indoors. They gathered in nearby homes and at Buckman’s Tavern adjacent to the green. It was 4:30 a.m. when one of Captain Parker’s lookouts frantically rode into town yelling that the soldiers were just behind him. Young William Diamond beat his drum to summon back the militia. Sergeant William Munroe hastily lined up the returning men in two ranks.
British light infantry—troops selected for their strength and stamina—entered Lexington at a double-quick march. Each infantryman carried the five-foot-long “Brown Bess” musket. Each musket was loaded with gunpowder and a .75 caliber lead ball and topped with a 17-inch steel bayonet. The soldiers were miserable—tired of sitting around in Boston, wet after wading ashore from boats at the beginning of the night’s march, and cold. But they were professional soldiers ready for a fight and convinced of their superiority against this rabble of farmers.
Three British officers on horseback rode forward yelling orders at the men of Lexington: “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, and disperse.” No more than 70 of Captain Parker’s men had reached the field; they faced several hundred red-coated light infantry with a thousand and more on the road behind them. Captain Parker decided it was futile to fight, but he and his men refused to surrender their arms. Just as the militia began to withdraw under a hail of British curses, there was a shot.
A few overeager British infantry fired randomly and to no effect. Then a massed volley of British fire ripped through the Lexington men. Jonas Parker, the Captain’s cousin, returned fire but he was already gravely wounded. He sunk to his knees frantically trying to reload; before he could raise his musket a second time he was stabbed to death with a bayonet.
Other militiamen fired, others were hit. Jonathan Harrington was shot in the chest as his wife, Ruth, and their eight-year-old son looked on from their home. As Jonathan staggered toward his front door, his wife rushed out to him. He fell and died before she reached him.
Seven men were killed and nine wounded on the Lexington green that morning. At least one more would be killed in fighting later that day. This was a quarter of the men who stood there—who stood up for their community and for what they believed.
As the British marched away from the bloodied town green, the Lexington fight appeared purposeless and inconsequential. Yet, the sacrifice at Lexington changed everything; it delayed the British and forged in a moment the resolve that would become manifest at Concord. There the unthinkable would happen—the British would turn, flee back through Lexington into Boston, and within a year surrender the city altogether.
Once again we hear the call for America to “return to her Founding principles.” The ideas that forged our heritage―like limited government, federalism, and religious liberty―matter only to the extent that we understand them and apply them to today’s challenges. The American story is a gripping story with real heroes—people who made choices, took risks, made mistakes, and, in the end, set the stage for the American nation. Today, ordinary Americans―many of whom have never been involved in politics―are getting involved in their local governments, taking a stand in their communities, and joining with their neighbors to defend their rights as Americans. The “We the People” project hopes to assist today’s patriots in defending those principles for America’s next generation of citizens.
Trent England is the vice president of policy at the Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.