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America's Other Independence Day

The British troops were 'like murderers and cut-throats.'

Tim Breen '64
Wall Street Journal

April 19, 2010

We ought to celebrate April 19 as the anniversary of the founding of our country. To be sure, a formal declaration of independence would come a year after the battles of Lexington and Concord. For ordinary men and women, however, those battles severed the ties that had bound the colonists to Great Britain for almost two centuries. The killing of militiamen at Lexington transformed the character of the brewing conflict. After that moment there could be no turning back.

We still recall Paul Revere's famous ride the night before. He set out to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams that the British Army, stationed in Boston following the Boston Tea Party, was on the move to Lexington to seize military supplies believed to be in Concord. But Revere's heroics have deflected attention from the thousands of farmers who rushed to the scene of action. One was Isaac Davis of Acton, a few miles from Concord.

Many decades later, Isaac's wife Hannah recounted the events of that day for curious neighbors. Isaac had been selected captain of the Acton Minutemen and, as Hannah explained in 1835, "Between him [and] his Company there was strong attachment [and] unlimited confidence." She added, "He well knew his danger, but was a stranger to fear."

At dawn, having been warned by a messenger from Concord, the local soldiers gathered at Isaac's house. They made cartridges and when the time came to move out Isaac paused. "As he led the company toward Concord," Hannah explained, "he turned round, and seemed to have something to communicate. He only said 'take good care of the children,' and was soon out of sight." British troops shot Isaac a few hours later. He died near the bridge at Concord. "In the afternoon," Hannah said, her husband "was brought home a corpse. He was placed in my bedroom till the funeral."

Whatever his thoughts may have been, we can imagine that he did in fact "have something to communicate." More than two centuries after the event, he asks us to reflect on how ordinary people — in families and small communities — became central figures in the overthrow of imperial rule. For them anger over what had occurred at Lexington and Concord infused political resistance with a surge of raw emotional energy. The British troops first appeared, Lexington's Reverend Jonas Clark would later say, "and more like murderers and cut-throats, than the troops of a Christian king, without provocation, without warning, they draw the sword of violence, upon the inhabitants of this town."

News of the battles spread rapidly and the accounts — often exaggerated — confirmed popular assumptions about the cruelty and insensitivity of a corrupt imperial power. According to a Connecticut writer on May 29, the attack revealed "this pretended mother [Great Britain] is a vile imposter — an old, abandoned prostitute — a robber, a murderer — crimsoned over with every abominable crime, shocking to humanity!" And writing to his friend William Small on May 7, Thomas Jefferson recognized how dramatically the political situation had changed. "This accident has cut off our last hope of reconciliation, and a phrenzy [sic] of revenge seems to have seized all ranks of people."

Dr. Joseph Warren, who several weeks later would die at Bunker Hill, marveled at the shift in popular opinion. "The people never seemed in earnest about the matter until after the engagement of the 19th . . . and I verily believe, that the night preceding that barbarous outrage committed by the soldiery at Lexington, Concord, &c., there were not fifty people in the whole colony [Massachusetts] that expected any blood would be shed in the contest between us and Great Britain."

The Continental Congress voted for independence on July 4, 1776. But ordinary people were ahead of their leaders. As a revolutionary committee in Charleston, S.C., declared on June 30, 1775, "Let it be delivered down to posterity, that the American civil war broke out on the 19th day of April, 1775. — An epoch that, in all probability, will mark the declension of the British empire!"


Mr. Breen is professor of history at Northwestern and is the author of American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People, due out in May from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.