Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 4 · no. 1 · October 2003
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Robert A. Gross is James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He is the author of The Minutemen and Their World, 25th anniversary ed. (New York, 2001) and The Transcendentalists and Their World (forthcoming). In 2002-03 he was Mellon Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the American Antiquarian Society, where this essay was first presented.

 

 

"It may seem natural to us that in 1825 the children and grandchildren of minutemen would commemorate the fight at the North Bridge. It was not."

Commemorating Concord
Robert A. Gross

Part I | II

Concord, Massachusetts, is often portrayed as the quintessential New England town, and it is easy to understand why. Founded in 1635 as the first Puritan settlement above tidewater, the town appears connected to its past, even after nearly 370 years of growth and change. The historic center, which has evolved from the nucleated village planted by the original English settlers, still anchors the town. Colonial and early nineteenth-century houses line the same road that the king’s troops took into the village on the fateful nineteenth of April 1775. Visitors today pass many of the sights–the Greek Revival Unitarian Meetinghouse, the hill burial ground, the Wright Tavern, the Colonial Inn, the Town Hall, the cluster of shops and offices around the common and the milldam–that were familiar in the era of the Transcendentalists. Walk a mile or so in any direction, and you can enjoy the natural beauty of a landscape that seems miraculously to have escaped the ravages of suburban development. Early in the morning or in midwinter at Walden Pond, you can imagine yourself as solitary as Thoreau in his cabin. Concord encourages such illusions. It suggests rootedness, authenticity, an organic sense of place rarely found in the contemporary United States. No wonder the New York Times recently recommended the town for a weekend getaway: "Concord," it declared, "is no Colonial Williamsburg."

In these adulatory terms, Concord has been celebrated for a century and a half. It was, said the Boston Globe in 1909, "an ideal town," which, in its tradition of "plain living and high thinking," offered an alternative to an America dominated by the "commercial spirit." Founded on Puritan rectitude, the town focused on "destiny rather than dollars," cultivated a heritage of liberty and conscience, and brought forth two American revolutions. The first was the opening battle of the War of Independence, when minutemen confronted British regulars at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775; the second the movement for intellectual independence associated with the Transcendentalist writers and residents Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. "It is a model of what a New England town should be," observed the Globe. "Concord, one of the oldest towns in the commonwealth, has retained through all the stress and strain of 275 years much of her pristine purity and most of her Puritan ideals." As the home of Puritans, minutemen, and Transcendentalists, Concord symbolized the New England tradition at its best.

Concord
Fig. 1. A view of Concord taken from The Massachusetts Magazine, July 1794. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Few places enjoy so enviable an image. But such reputations do not arise spontaneously in a culture. They are consciously crafted by interested parties to shape the present and the future. Concord’s identity in the public mind was the work of several generations, inside and outside the town, and for all its apparent seamlessness, it gathers together strands of thought that were once incompatible. Who invented this pristine, revolutionary Concord, and why?

I.

Concord staked its claim to be the birthplace of Independence during the celebration of "America’s jubilee" on April 19, 1825, the fiftieth anniversary of Concord Fight. Concord was then an expansive town of nineteen hundred inhabitants, thriving with crafts and trade in the village and surrounded by farms prospering on demand from rising urban centers in the long boom that accompanied the opening phase of the Industrial Revolution in the Northeast. It also occupied a prominent place on the political landscape; as a shire town, where the county courts convened, it had risen into a leading center of Middlesex County, and its politicians were major players on that stage. Economic and political ambitions, as well as pride in the past, drove the insistence that Concord was the "first site of forcible resistance to British aggression."

It may seem natural to us that in 1825 the children and grandchildren of minutemen would commemorate the fight at the North Bridge. It was not. Concord had, in fact, done little to mark the occasion since April 19, 1776, when the town minister, the Reverend William Emerson, preached an anniversary sermon in honor of the "memorable Day that . . . marked in plain though crimson Lines the Path of Duty for those to tread, that nobly scorned to wear the british Yoke." Like his colleague, the Reverend Jonas Clark of Lexington, who also gave a public address that day "to commemorate the murder, blood-shed and commencement of hostilities, between Great-Britain and America" in his town, Emerson meant to shore up patriot morale. He was soon off to serve and die as chaplain to an ill-fated military expedition to Ticonderoga; the annual anniversary sermon ended with him. Still, civic pride remained strong, and townspeople never lost an opportunity to remind others of their indispensable role in the Revolution. Twice–once in 1792 and again in 1813-14–they sought aid from the state legislature to erect a monument to the battle, only to be foiled by alert representatives from Boston, jealous lest Concord gain greater prominence and thereby strengthen its recurrent bid to become the capital of Massachusetts. In 1798, as war with France appeared imminent, a group of fervent Federalists held a public meeting and vowed "in holy remembrance of those who bled" on "the memorable 19th of April" to "defend by our valor, what they won by their blood." The beleaguered President Adams appreciated Concord’s support, but advised his supporters to drop all that talk about April 19. This was no time to stir up old resentments against British "cruelty": "If Concord drank the first blood of martyred freemen, Concord should be the first to forget the injury when it is no longer useful to remember it."

Whatever the reason, the inhabitants made few public displays of local patriotism. Training days for the militia were rarely scheduled for the nineteenth of April, and when the citizens assembled to celebrate American Independence, it was on the Fourth of July. Such commemorations were invariably held in the village, not at the battlefield. Back in 1792, the North Bridge had been torn down and the main road over the Concord River rerouted; the adjoining land fell into the hands of the Reverend Ezra Ripley, Emerson’s successor in the pulpit and the Old Manse, who incorporated it into his back pasture. It was no longer possible to travel to the site of "the shot heard ’round the world." Then again, with so many veterans of Concord Fight still living in town, trading reminiscences in the taverns and telling tales of military glory to eager young boys, there was no special need to do so.

All that changed with the approach of the jubilee. On April 19, 1824, the two volunteer military companies, the Concord Artillery and the Light Infantry, drilled on the common, enjoyed a public dinner, then marched to the battle site, where their host, the Reverend Ripley, delivered "an instructive address." Five months later, the aging Marquis de Lafayette came to town, near the start of his year-long procession through the republic as "the nation’s Guest." That gala occasion certainly burnished local pride; George Washington’s old comrade in arms was delighted to be "at the place where the first resistance was made to British invasion in 1775," regretting only that he could not personally visit the exact spot. But the affair was also something of a public relations disaster. The official reception was held in a tent on the common, which had room only for town officials, the welcoming committee, a few veterans, and the ladies who served the cake and punch; everybody else had to glimpse the festivities from behind the ropes that cordoned off the tent and were patrolled by soldiers. In their eagerness to see the general, many inhabitants pressed against the barriers, the guards pushed back, and tempers rose. Some people began to complain aloud at the favoritism: "although they were not as well dressed nor as educated in society . . . as those within . . . their fathers had served the country, some had fought with Lafayette in the battles of the Revolution, and they were as grateful for his services." Luckily, the town escaped a riot. Ten years later, resentment was still simmering as Concord prepared to celebrate its bicentennial. One resident dubbed the birthday party "Another Lafayette Celebration!" and vowed to boycott the event. "Well do I remember the insulting treatment I received when, among others, I attempted to look at Lafayette; we had to stand back then at the point of the bayonet, whilst the great folks sat and drank at our expense."

Concord
Fig. 2. Central Part of Concord, Massachusetts, taken from Historical Collections by John Warner Barber, 1839. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Despite such complaints, Concord’s leaders moved forward with plans for a large-scale commemoration of the April 19 jubilee. At the initiative of ten inhabitants, including the father of Henry David Thoreau, the town meeting voted in March 1825 to hold a public celebration of the "Concord Battle, in which the enemies of freedom were first met and forcibly repulsed by brave Americans." This was to be more than a local affair. Six months earlier, the newly formed Bunker Hill Monument Association had launched a public campaign to raise money for erecting its proposed memorial to the Charlestown battle that broke British military power in Massachusetts. In a bid to win support from Concord, the association pledged part of its funds to build a smaller monument in the town "where the first conflict was had." Not surprisingly, Concord seized on the proposal and joined its commemoration to the Bunker Hill scheme. Two events dominated the ceremonies on April 19, 1825: the laying of a cornerstone for the monument in the village center and the delivery of a formal address at the meetinghouse by Edward Everett, the Harvard professor who had parlayed his role as secretary of the Bunker Hill Monument Association into a successful candidacy for the Middlesex County seat in Congress at the recent November 1824 elections. With these decisions, Concord highlighted the agenda of the BHMA, whose conservative leaders, drawn from Boston’s elite, aspired to impose their Federalist vision of society on New England. Commemorating the past was a key instrument of that purpose; through public observation of such landmark events as Forefathers’ Day, when the Pilgrims supposedly stepped onto Plymouth Rock, and of the Concord Fight, the elite hoped to gather a deferential populace behind its leadership, in shared "patriotic feelings" on "sacred ground."

That agenda certainly suited the leading figures in Concord, such as the lawyer Samuel Hoar, who was designated "president of the day" by the committee of arrangements for the April 19 celebration. Back in 1820-21, Hoar had represented Concord at the state constitutional convention, and he had worked closely with Daniel Webster and other Federalist leaders to preserve those twin pillars of the social order: tax support for ministers and churches and property qualifications for suffrage and office. His Concord colleague at that conclave was the lawyer John Keyes, a Republican who pushed for the expansion of voting rights but had no objections to the establishment of religion. The two men were archrivals, who, within a decade, would end up as fellow travelers in the Whig Party. On April 19, 1825, both were overshadowed by Everett, who, as it happened, had soundly defeated Keyes for his congressional seat. Keyes was reduced to offering a toast at the public dinner following Everett’s address. Hoar, who was inexplicably replaced at the last minute as president of the day, made no mark in the official records.

Everett’s two-hour address to a "crowded audience" enhanced his reputation for eloquence and won him equal standing to Daniel Webster as the leading orator of New England’s "Age of Commemoration." He surely flattered his listeners, who included veterans of the fight wearing special badges of honor, by lifting events of April 19, 1775, to the plane of universal history. "It was one of those great days, one of those elemental occasions in the world’s affairs, when the people arise, and act for themselves." In this rehearsal of events, it was not the murderous advance of British troops on Lexington Common or the two-minute skirmish at Concord Bridge that seized Everett’s attention. The longest part of the narrative recounted the rallying of "the indignant yeomanry" in response to the Concord alarm: "unprepared husbandmen, without concert, discipline, or leaders," drove the "picked men" of the British army back to Boston in defeat. With this theme, Everett deftly got himself out of a sticky situation. In the months leading up to the jubilee, spokesmen for Lexington and Concord had conducted a public feud over which town deserved credit for mounting the first resistance to the British assault and thus for starting the Revolutionary War. Concord mocked the sudden effort by Lexington to turn a "massacre" into a "battle." Lexington replied by charging Concord, a bigger and richer town, with trying to steal the laurels from "the little village . . . that reared this Spartan band." This petty quarrel, which bemused outsiders, would occupy the champions of both towns for decades. Everett sidestepped the controversy: when visitors ask where "the first battle of that great and glorious contest was fought," we can "with honest complacency" direct them "to the plains of Lexington and Concord." He showered his praise on the yeomanry who poured out from every Middlesex village and farm to vindicate the character of American freemen. Conveniently, those same Middlesex citizens had just elected him to Congress.

If Everett neglected to flatter Concord’s ego sufficiently, the Bunker Hill Monument Association managed to ruffle a good many feathers. Its pledge of financial aid for Concord’s monument came with two strings attached: first, the structure had to be a smaller scale version of the obelisk designed by Solomon Willard to ornament Bunker Hill–a provincial chip off the metropolitan block; second, it had to be located in the village center. Nobody, to my knowledge, objected to the style requirement, but the site provoked disagreement. In principle, there was a good case for the village; the British had, after all, spent more time in the center on their search-and-destroy mission than at the North Bridge. The proposed location would also be good for business, attracting visitors to nearby taverns and shops. These arguments proved persuasive; by an overwhelming margin, 65 to 25, the citizens endorsed the site by the town pump. And so, at the start of the April 19 celebration, the local Corinthian Lodge of Masons laid the cornerstone of the monument with "great solemnity . . . calculated to make a deep impression on the mind." Beneath that "huge granite block, some four feet cube," they buried a lead box containing various documents, including newspapers of the day and descriptions of the government of the United States and of Massachusetts, and a plate inscribed with an unambiguous statement of Concord’s priority in the Revolution: "Here on the 19th April 1775, began the war of that Revolution which gave Independence to America."

Who could complain? Evidently, a fair number of inhabitants remained unreconciled. One morning in the winter of 1825-26 the villagers awakened to discover an unusual formation atop the cornerstone: a pile of tar barrels and boards, twenty feet high, raised in mockery of the site. "This monument is erected here," explained the inscription, "to commemorate the battle which took place at the North Bridge." The satirical display didn't last long. The following night "some of the rowdy element," aggressively defending village honor, set the sham monument on fire. It was a "great illumination," one witness recalled years later. Unluckily for the assailants, their action proved self-defeating. The cornerstone was ruined. No shaft ever rose above the base.

Nobody took credit for the mock monument or its destruction. Neither did the wits elaborate on their joke; for them, the absurdity of the village site was self-evident. How could anybody think to place a monument in the center, the very scene of the successful British occupation, rather than at the North Bridge, where the Concord and Acton militiamen had been the first to oppose that aggression? All those polemics on Concord’s behalf had done their work. But something greater was at stake than mere local pride. Time and again, commemorative speakers called attention not just to the armed resistance at the North Bridge but to the shedding of British and American blood. One toast at the celebratory banquet hailed "The town of Concord–Consecrated by the blood of the first martyrs to American liberty." Another, given by the representative of Lexington, tactfully paid tribute to "The Genius of Liberty," who "rose from the blood-stained field of Lexington, and waved her celestial banner over the land, the chains of tyranny were broken asunder, the nation was disenthraled." It was, indeed, to preserve the memory of those sacrifices that Edward Everett dedicated his ceremonial address: "Above all, their blood calls to us from the soil which we tread; it beats in our veins; it cries to us . . . ‘My sons, forget not your fathers.’" In short, through the spilling of blood, the "embattled farmers" consecrated the ground, and only on the site of their martyrdom should a monument be raised. The farmers’ fields, bordering the ruins of the bridge, were sacred space.

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