April Morning

Here Once The Embattled Farmers Stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world…

Minute Man Concord MA

April 19, 1775

What made the farmers fight in 1775?

Judge Millen Chamberlain in 1842, when he was twenty-one, interviewed Captain Preston, a ninety-year-old veteran of the Concord fight: “Did you take up arms against intolerable oppression?” he asked.

“Oppression?” replied the old man. “I didn’t feel them.”

“What, were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?”

“I never saw one of those stamps. I certainly never paid a penny for one of them.”

“Well, what then about the tea tax?”

“I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.”

“Then I suppose you had been reading Harington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty?”

“Never heard of ’em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac.”

“Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?”

“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.”

Follow the links for the story of the people of that April morning with timelines, commentary, videos, and maps.

April 19th, 1775Patriots’ Day

Hour by HourDetails of the Day

The Old North ChurchOne If By Land, Two If By Sea

Paul Revere’s Ride

Hancock-Clarke HouseBuckman TavernHartwell Tavern

Battle RoadThe King’s Own

Lexington Battle GreenAn Eyewitness Account

Battle at Concord’s North BridgeConcord Battle Road

Meriam’s CornerParker’s RevengeMunroe Tavern

Blogging the RedcoatsBlogging the Revolution

Mapping The RidesMapping The RegionMapping The Revolution

“…for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world…”
John Winthrop, 1630

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Hover your cursor across the phrases, because a few have more than one link!
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Concord Hymn.
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, (Oxford University Press: 1965) 212-213. Emphasis added.

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Christmas Night 1776

“On the night of December 25, 1776, with the winter wind whipsawing the water, with waves ripping across the bows of their leaky boats, and sheets of ice impeding their path, American soldiers rowed across the merciless river, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The city of Trenton was their objective….”

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

Emanuel Leutze’s massive painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It’s approximately 12½ feet high by 21 feet wide. My daughter and has seen it, and reading the dimensions doesn’t measure the impact of the art. It has been scoffed at by those who like to point out various historical inaccuracies or implausibilities, but like all art it is symbolic. David Hackett Fisher writes that the debunkers:

“…rarely asked about the accuracy of its major themes. To do so is to discover that the larger ideas in Emanuel Leutze’s art are true to the history that inspired it. The artist was right in creating an atmosphere of high drama around the event, and a feeling of desperation among the soldiers in the boats. To search the writings of the men and women who were there (hundreds of firsthand accounts survive) is to find that they believe the American cause was very near collapse on Christmas night in 1776. In five months of heavy fighting after the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s army had suffered many disastrous defeats and gained no major victories. It had lost 90 percent of its strength. The small remnant who crossed the Delaware River were near the end of their resources, and they believe that another defeat could destroy the Cause, as they called it. The artist captured very accurately their sense of urgency, in what was truly a pivotal moment for American history.”1

For Christmas 2009 I was given a copy of Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fisher. Fisher’s story is a tale of courage and perseverance in the face of disaster. In the Editor’s Note at the beginning of the book, James McPherson writes:

“No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776…Of all the pivotal events in American history, none was more important than what happened on those nine days from December 25, 1776, through January 3, 1777.”2

This providential span of victories stemmed not only from the character and leadership of George Washington, but also “from the acts and choices of ordinary people.” Fisher says for those Americans:

“…Their greatest advantage was the moral strength of a just cause. They were fighting on their own ground, in defense of homes and families, for ideas of liberty and freedom. They had a different test of success. Their opponents had to conquer; the Americans needed only to survive. After the occupation of New Jersey, and British maltreatment of prisoners, Americans became highly motivated by the cruel experience of oppression.

“Another strength was their religion. The Americans were a deeply spiritual people, with an abiding faith that sustained them in adversity….

“In the dark days of 1776, Americans reached deep into this reservoir of strength and improvised a new way of managing a war…”3

As Americans lived through those dark days of 1776, they had no future perspective of their times. Neither do we as we live through these days of coercion and usurpation of power. Do we have “the advantage of the moral strength of a just cause”? We do. Should we call on God to give us an abiding faith in Him that will sustain us in adversity? We should. Fisher writes, “This is a story of real choices that living people actually made.”4 We can make those choices.
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1,2,3,4David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, New York) 4-5, ix, 368, 364.

“…the acts and choices of ordinary people…”

One reason I love history so much is its stories of courage and perseverance by men and women in the face of disaster. When you read the history of our country, you see this again and again. You also see something else. You see timings and deliverances that can only be called miraculous—when the disaster of one day is turned around by events of the next.

In Washington’s Crossing David Hackett Fischer gives us the circumstances of the writing and impact of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The American Crisis. After George Washington’s debilitating military defeats in New York from August to November 1776, described by Fischer as a “A Cataract of Disaster,” Washington retreated across New Jersey into Pennsylvania as Cornwallis pursued him. Thomas Paine had previously joined the army in July of that year. In his chapter, “The Crisis: Thomas Paine and the Black Times of 1776,” Fischer writes:

“…The army was shrinking before his eyes, and the people of New Jersey were not turning out to support it. Paine concluded that something had to be done. “It was necessary,” he decided, that “the country should be strongly animated.”

“On November 22, when the army was crossing the Passaic River, Paine came to a decision. He resolved to write another pamphlet, like Common Sense but with a different message….

“A rough draft was more or less complete by the time he crossed the Delaware River. He carried it to Philadelphia, but when he reached the city, he was shocked to find the houses shuttered, the streets deserted….The air of panic in the town increased Thomas Paine’s sense of urgency. He remembered, “I sat down and in what I may call a passion of patriotism, wrote the first number” of his new pamphlet in a final draft.

“He called it The American Crisis. The first sentence had the cadence of a drumbeat. Even after two hundred years, its opening phrases still have the power to lift a reader out of his seat. “There are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine began. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

“…Such was the panic and chaos in Philadelphia that it took Thomas Paine ten days to get his essay into print. Finally, the first number of The American Crisis appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19, 1776. Four days later it was published as a pamphlet. Paine insisted that it be sold for two pennies, just enough to pay the printer’s expenses. The author asked nothing for himself and encouraged printers everywhere to copy it freely. It traveled through the country as fast as galloping horses could carry it.

“Within a day of its first publication it was circulating in the camp of the Continental army along the Delaware River. Even Paine’s bitter political rival James Cheetham testified to its impact. Cheetham wrote that The Crisis was “read in the camp, to every corporal’s guard, and in the army, and out of it had more than the intended effect.” The troops used its first sentence as a watchword and later as a battle cry….

“There is an old American folk tale about George Washington and the Crossing of the Delaware. It tells us that the new American republic nearly failed in the winter of 1776, that George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, and that his victory at Trenton revived the Revolution. All of this story is true, but it is not the whole truth. There was more to it. The great revival did not follow the battles of Trenton and Princeton, important as they were. It preceded them, and made those events possible (though not inevitable). Further, the revival did not rise solely from the leadership of George Washington himself, great as he was a general and a man…it emerged from the efforts of many soldiers and civilians, merchants and farmers, leaders in the army and members of Congress. Most of all it rose from the acts and choices of ordinary people in the valley of the Delaware, as Thomas Paine’s American Crisis began to circulate among them.

“This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible. “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity,” Rush wrote “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.””1

On December 18, 1776, George Washington had written to his brother, John A. Washington, and to another relative, Samuel Washington. This is the letter to his brother. The bracketed phrase within it was part of his letter to Samuel Washington.

“I have no doubt but that General Howe will still make an attempt upon Philadelphia this Winter. I see nothing to oppose him a fortnight hence, as the time of all the Troops, except those of Virginia (reduced almost to nothing,) and Smallwood’s Regiment of Maryland, (equally as bad) will expire in less than that time. In a word my dear Sir, if every nerve is not strain’d to recruit the New Army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up, owing, in a great measure, to the insidious Arts of the Enemy, and disaffection of the Colonies before mentioned, but principally to the accursed policy of short Inlistments, and placing too great a dependence on the Militia the Evil consequences of which were foretold 15 Months ago with a spirit almost Prophetick….

“You can form no Idea of the perplexity of my Situation. No Man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them. However under a full persuasion of the justice of our Cause I cannot [but think the prospect will brighten, although for a wise purpose it is, at present hid under a cloud] entertain an Idea that it will finally sink tho’ it may remain for some time under a Cloud.”2

Those letters were written the day before The American Crisis was published in the Pennsylvania Journal and five days before it was printed as a pamphlet for widespread distribution. Washington did not know the events that would follow in the days after he wrote those bleak words. But that great man persevered.

Paine opened his December Crisis by writing, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Today again our souls are tried and tested, and who will we discover that we are? I don’t know. I cannot tell you the extent or depth of the character of our country or if the acts and choices of ordinary people of today will fare well. Our souls are tried individually, but our acts and choices always affect and influence others.

Is the game pretty near up for us? Again, I don’t know. But I encourage and exhort you not to mire yourself or others in cynicism or contempt, but within your own realm of influence to speak the truth, to build up others, and to consider the task that with your soul and your skill you should do.

Remember what I wrote earlier about timings and deliverances in our nation’s history that can only be called miraculous—when the disaster of one day was turned around by events of the next? I would also encourage and exhort you to pray. Some of you who read this may not share my faith, but for those who do, remember to seek God’s mercy and help for our nation.

When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of prayer and fasting in 1863, he wrote, “We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own…3 Read Lincoln’s words. May God grant us to turn back to Him, for the results of the poverty of our lack of a deep and abiding faith in God is seen everywhere.

These are the days of the acts and choices of ordinary people. Of grit and endurance. Of everyday exasperation and depressing setbacks. Whether the game is up for us or not, remember the courage and faith of those who preceded us. Be worthy of them, and leave the results in the hands of God.
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Thomas Paine, The American Crisis: The first page of the original printing of the first volume. {{PD-US}} – published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.
1David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, New York): 80, 127, 138, 140-143.
2The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799: Library of Congress. Thanks to Stacey McCain for his post, ‘I think the game is pretty near up,’ that I found after my initial writing of this post. The phrase caught my eye, and I tracked it down to these letters of Washington.
3Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day: Abraham Lincoln Online.