Monday, April 15, 2013

Patriots Day

Colonial militiaman at Hancock-Clarke House, Lexington, Ma.
Patriots Day is under way here in New England.

It's a big deal up here. It probably should be a big deal everywhere in this country.

Unfortunately most of what I was taught in public schools about this nation's history is woefully inadequate, and some of it is outright wrong. I'm going to steer around that one for now.

Last night as the hour approached midnight, M and I went to the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington. The home, erected in the late 17th century, was the boyhood home of John Hancock.

Yes. That one.


Hostilities between the colonists and the British authorities had been running high for years, ratcheted ever higher by the so-called Boston "Massacre" of 1770 and the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

The Tea Party was the last straw. In 1774, the monarchy and parliament promptly passed punitive laws that came to be known as the Intolerable Acts. These attempted to smack down a lot of the rogue behavior going on in the colonies, but particularly in Massachusetts. These acts were iron-fisted:

* The Boston Port Act shut down Boston's seaport. Obviously, this was a huge economic blockade.
* The Massachusetts Government Act required almost all government officials to be hand-selected by the British, and sharply restricted smaller colonial government meetings.
* The Administration of Justice Act required all trials involving royal officials to be relocated to other colonies, or even to Great Britain. George Washington called this the "Murder Act" -- believing that courts under the British thumb were unlikely to impose harsh penalties against their colonial governors and military representatives.
* The Quartering Act required, under certain conditions, the British troops to be housed in privately owned colonial buildings. There is some dispute about the implementation of this Act; some historians argue that it is less onerous than it sounds, and that the Act promised not only reimbursement to the colonists, but that the quartering was only required of unused buildings (such as barns) and applied mostly to inns and lodgings regularly used for housing -- not private homes.
* The Quebec Act expanded the territory of the nearby Canadian province, but also invoked alarm among the Protestant New Englanders by allowing broader freedom to the "Papists" of Quebec. Using standard fear-mongering and timeless divisive tactics, the British authorities knew that favoring Catholicism would offend many colonists. And of course, the expansion of territories not only fenced in western borders, but effectively applied an "eminent domain" seizure of New World land that some colonists had either already laid claim to or otherwise eyed.

The stage was set.


Each year, volunteers dressed in Colonial gear take part in reenactments of historical events.

This isn't some nerdy "Renaissance Faire" trip, or worse, "Can't-Get-Over-It-You-Lost" Civil War battle replay. This is a re-creation of some of the crucial events that led to the birth of our democracy.

"Colonists" stand outside the Hancock-Clarke House in Lexington as citizens gather in the chilly April darkness. Dressed head-to-toe in period costumes, carrying long rifles, they share their knowledge of the historical events that led to the activities on April 18-19, 1775.

Despite the passage of the Intolerable Acts, resistance remained robust in Massachusetts. Loyalists increasingly found themselves outnumbered.

That imbalance was echoed in England. One of the actors outside the Hancock-Clarke House last night pointed out a fascinating statistic: In roughly 150 years since Jamestown was settled in 1607, the population in the 13 colonies had risen to close to 2.5 million people... about a third of what was back in Britain. Of course the British weren't interested in ceding representation to distant rabble-rousers whose mass numbers would seriously erode their own positions. Naturally, they were interested in the resources. But otherwise, they didn't want the bother of these uppity "Americans" across the Atlantic. How dare they!

Cecil Adams says the the middle-finger salute is thousands of years old. The Americans pretty much sustained this salute in the aftermath of the legal crackdowns. Their treasonous resistance continued in secret. Still, the identity of many active rebels such as Hancock and Samuel Adams were well-known to the British and Loyalist colonial citizens. It was an age of treachery. It was a dangerous time.

Paul Revere was a successful businessman, and also a key member of the insurrectionist Sons of Liberty, a group bent on gaining independence from the oppressive British thumb. Adams and Hancock were members. As such, all were wanted by British authorities.

So, Adams and Hancock were holed up in Lexington, several miles west of Boston, which was infested with British military. Having organized the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, a legislative body establishing self-governance, in the aftermath of the Intolerable Acts, the two were now traitors in the eyes of the Brits.

The rebels had also stashed weaponry in Concord, but fearing betrayal by Loyalists, had quietly gone about relocating their cannons and limited armory to different locations in early 1775. Nevertheless, the patriots were aware that the British soldiers would be coming some day.

Note: Longfellow's famous poem is known for its inaccuracy. For one thing, most of the colonials still considered themselves British, so saying "The British are coming" would have been kind of stupid. The soldiers were commonly identified as either "regulars," "redcoats" or even "lobsterbacks."

Boston was more or less locked down. And it was about to get worse. Spies kept an eye on troop movements, and an alert system was put in place. Lanterns strategically placed in the Old North Church  would reveal either a land crossing, or boats up the Charles River for a different tack -- "One if by land, two if by sea."

After 9 p.m. on April 18, the British troops mobilized from Boston Common. The alert was signaled. Revere hurriedly (and illegally) crossed the Charles to a waiting horse, then sped toward Lexington. Along the way he notified patriot sympathizers to prepare. From a different route, William Dawes set off with the same mission. Historians believe that these two in turn set loose dozens of horsemen warning patriots that trouble was on the way.

Revere arrived in Lexington before midnight; Dawes arrived soon thereafter.


The scene outside the historic home last night was fascinating... the old house awash in lights, but the typically black New England night swallowed everything else. Docents in period gear walked back and forth talking about the tenor of that time, taking questions and inviting conversation.

About 11:30, a column of militia arrived to stand guard. Actors portraying the defenders, as well as Adams, Hancock and Reverend Jonas Clarke, lent further perspective to set the scene.

The crowd of several hundred huddled together to take in this patriotic scene. Some held flags, and one young woman was draped in one.

Moments later, a distant shouting was heard from the direction of the Lexington Common several blocks west. The shouting grew louder, as did the sound of hooves as a rider approached. It was Revere, soon followed by Dawes!

Hours later, as the sun rose, a few hundred patriot defenders stood watch at the Common as the regulars marched through. The British forces numbered probably more than three times that of the fed-up Federalists; estimates are that the British would number about 1,700, the rebels 500.

As we left the re-enactment, already hundreds of people were assembling in the common at 1 a.m. There, at 5:30 a.m., they would re-stage the conflict that came hours after the British troop mobilization set in motion Revere's ride. On that morning of April 19, 1775, the "shot heard 'round the world" would be fired, setting off a conflict that came to be known as the American Revolution. The British scurried back to Boston, and the rebels had committed to the pursuit of liberty.


Being on the scene of these historic American events is chill-inducing, and not just because of the starry, moonlight mid-Spring temperature. Hancock and Adams were in this house... the one just feet away. Revere came to this house. Blocks away, a nation was being born. And you can walk and see where it all happened. It's not a movie. It's not a dream. It's real.


In the aftermath of this fascinating, amazing experience last night, I was struck by a few thoughts:

* I wish my knowledge of history was greater, but opportunities like this provide an opening to learn more. Click the links here and learn more, too, if you're so inspired.
* Warfare between the powerful and the less-powerful takes on similar qualities. The British had numbers, training, supplies and superior weapons. The upstarts in New England had to make do with cunning and determination. Outmanned and outgunned, they used guerilla tactics because otherwise they'd be slaughtered, and quickly. If they were in the same situation today, they'd be using IEDs and sneak-attacks. The American Patriots, to the British, were surely the terrorists of their age.
* People need to support these events. Standing in Colonial gear on a near-freezing night, trying to balance telling historical details to a crowd that includes ADD kids (parents, you need to step up) is an act of devotion that should be applauded.
* Freedom isn't free. The struggle to become sovereign was costly. M's lived all over the world; I've always lived here. She's been in war zones, cowering as missiles landed nearby. People here have had to wait in line at Disney World. I think we could benefit with a great deal more perspective.

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