“Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we had always governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
- Levi Preston, 1842, remembering the Battle of Lexington and Concord
First of all, thanks to anyone who read my post on the deleted clause of the Declaration of Independence. I see many more readers around today every year, and I think that it serves as a constant reminder that our Founders were not a uniform group of morally perfect heroes, but a cobbled-together meeting of disagreeable risk-takers who were all dedicated to ‘freedom’ but struggled to agree on what it meant.
However, as we all get fat and blind celebrating the bravery of the 56 men putting who put pen to paper, I also want to call out the oft-forgotten history of rebellion that preceded this auspicious day. July 4th, 1776 makes such a simple story of Independence that we often overlook the men and women who risked (and many who lost) their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to make that signing possible, and who kept the flame of rebellion alive when it was most likely to be snuffed out.
This inspired me to collate some of the most important early moments and individuals on whom fate turned. I’m deliberately skipping some well known icons and events (the Boston Massacre and Tea Party, the first shot on Lexington Green, etc.), but if you want to see the whole tapestry and not just the forgotten images, I recommend the following Founding Trilogy:
- Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer
- The Indispensables, Patrick K. O’Donnell
- Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fischer
I owe my knowledge and the stories below to these histories that truly put you among the tiny communities that fought before July 4th, and they have convinced me, there is no Declaration, no Revolution, and no United States of America without the independent actions and decisions of their central cast.
Part I: Before the Ride
Paul Revere’s ride is one of the most mythologized, and mis-cast, moments in history. As early as the day after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, local Whigs were intent on casting the battle as an unprovoked attack by the tyrannical British occupiers and their imperious leader in Boston, General (and Governor) Thomas Gage. That meant that they brushed possibly the most important aspect of the rebellion’s early success under the rug, and honored Revere for his rapid responsiveness on that very night. Since then, unfortunately, the ride has been the center of most messaging honoring or criticizing this patriot.
Revere’s ride would have been useless if, for several years, he had not been New England’s most active community organizer. The battle did not represent the first time Thomas Gage secretly marched on the powder stores of small New England towns (he had successfully done so to Somerville in 1774), or even the first time Boston’s suburbs were called to arms in response (in the Powder Alarm, thousands turned out to defend against a false-alarm gunpowder raid). Revere’s real contribution was that he was one of many go-betweens for small towns intent on protecting their freedom and their guns, and their link to the conspirators led by Sam Adams and John Hancock in Boston. He helped spawn a network of communication, intelligence, and purchase of arms that was built on New England’s uniquely localized community leadership, without which it would have been impossible for over 4,000 revolutionaries to show up, armed and organized, on the road from Concord to Boston, in less than 8 hours.
New England towns had some of the most uniquely localized leadership in the history of political organization. In these small, prosperous towns, with churches as their center of social organization, government was effectively limited to organizing defense, mostly in the purchase of cannon and gunpowder, both of which were rare in the colonies. The towns also mustered and drilled, and while most towns did not have centralized budgets, they honored wealthier citizens who would donate guns to those who could not afford their own. From town government to General Gage’s seizures to the early supply conflicts, then, guns and especially gunpowder (which was not manufactured anywhere in New England in 1775, and rapidly became the scarcest resource of the early Revolution) were literally the center of town government and the central reason underlying the spark and growth of Revolution.
The Whigs (or Patriots) could have, in fact, just as easily noted December 14th, 1774, as the kick-off of the Revolution, since it was the first military conflict between Patriots and British garrisons, centered around gunpowder and cannon. On that day, the ever-present Revere, having learned that Gage may attempt to seize the powder of Portsmouth, NH, rode to warn John Langdon, who organized several hundred men not only to defend the town’s powder but to seize Fort William and Mary. He led several hundred Patriots to the fort, on the strategic Newcastle Island at the mouth of the Portsmouth River, and after asking the six British soldiers garrisoning the fort to surrender, stormed it in the face of cannonfire. No deaths resulted, and more Patriots arrived the next day, stealing a march on Gage and driving him to see his Boston post as a tender toehold in a territory alight with spies, traitors, and rebels.
However, despite the fact that the British governor of New Hampshire fled and the British never regained the territory, December 14th is not our Independence Day. Even though it was a successful pre-Lexington battle, defending the same rights, and resulting from a ride of Paul Revere, it has been largely overshadowed. Is it because it was an attack by Patriots, undermining the ‘innocent townsfolk’ myth of Patriot propaganda? Because no one died for freedom? Because American historians like to remember symbolic signatures by fancy Congresses rather than the trigger fingers of rural nobodies? Either way, December 14th shows that the gunpowder-centric small town networks, and their greatest community organizer, were the kindling, the flint, and the steel of the Revolution, and were all ready to spark long before Lexington Green.
Even the events that led to that fateful battle center around a few key organizers and intelligence operatives. Hancock and Adams were only the most publicly known of hundreds of hidden leaders, and lacking the space to recognize all, I’ll just recognize Dr. Joseph Warren, who asked Revere to make his famous ride and who served as President of the Provincial Congress until he was killed in the desperate fighting on Bunker Hill, and Margaret Kemble Gage, who despite being married to General Gage favored the Whigs likely leaked his secret plans to march on Concord, and was subsequently forced to sail to Britain by her husband, probably to stop her role as the Revolution’s key spy.
These key figures put their lives on the line not for their country, nor for the political philosophies of classic liberalism, nor even because of the ‘oppressive’ Stamp Act or Intolerable Acts, but to defend their own and their community’s visceral freedoms from seizures and suppression by Gage’s men. They were joined by thousands of otherwise-nobodies who jumped out of bed to defend their neighbors, whose motivations are best captured by the quote above by Levi Preston, the longest-lived veteran of Lexington and Concord. The full quote, given to a historian asking about the context for the battle in 1842, is revealing:
Chamberlain (historian): “Captain Preston, why did you go to the Concord Fight, the 19th of April, 1775?”
Preston didn’t answer.
Chamberlain: “Was it because of the Intolerable Oppressions?”
Preston: “I never felt them.”
What of the Stamp Act?
Preston: “I never saw one of those stamps.” he responded.
Preston: “I never drank a drop of the stuff…The boys threw it all overboard.”
Chamberlain: “Maybe it was the words of Harrington, Sydney or Locke?”
Preston: “Never heard of ‘em,”
Chamberlain: “Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?”
Preston: “Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”
“And that, gentlemen,” Chamberlain resolved in his history, “is the ultimate philosophy of the American Revolution.”
- Thus ends Part I! Come back to see Part II: The Navy, where we go into the small band-of-brothers from Marblehead, Massachusetts who served as Washington’s personal navy in the race for gunpowder, the escape from New York, and the crucial Crossing of the Delaware.