Outnumbering the Lexington militia nearly ten to one, the British easily won the skirmish. But, symbolically, they lost. For at the moment the first Lexingtonian died, the American Republic was born.
British Major Pitcarne took six companies of an advance team to scout out Lexington, Massachusetts, early morning, April 19, 1775. Behind him marched nearly 6,000 troops with orders arriving from London to capture any New England leaders of the so-called rebellion.
Hours before British troops arrived, the Boston silversmith Paul Revere knocked on the front door of the home of the most prominent citizen, Reverend Clarke. “About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested, that they might not be disturbed by a noise about the house. ‘Noise!’ said he, ‘you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.’”
The militia began assembling about two in the morning, but only after much debate and discussion as to a proper response in Buckman’s tavern, just across the green, right where the main road from Boston split, one fork going on the north side of the green, the other—the road to Concord—on the south side. Directly across from Buckman’s tavern, right at the split in the road, stood the local Congregationalist meeting house.
One local resident, Elijah Sanderson, remembered the evening well: “I went to the [Buckman’s] tavern. The citizens were coming and going; some went down to find whether the British were coming; some came back and said there was no truth in it. I went into the tavern, and, after a while, went to sleep in my chair by the fire. In a short time after, the drum beat, and I ran out to the common, where the militia were parading. The captain ordered them to fall in. I then fell in. ‘Twas all in the utmost haste.”
Captain Parker, a veteran of the French and Indian War, told the local militia to stand their ground on the Lexington village green. They wouldn’t attack, but they would stand at ready (not aiming) and in battle formation (three ranks deep). It was a show of respect—toward the British as well as toward themselves. This was, after all, their village; they were willing to defend it.
The men of Lexington were not thinking the British would fight, it should be noted. The road formed a Y around the green, and the militia would have well been out of the reach of the British, should the British soldiers merely continue to march toward Concord and western Massachusetts. Indeed, the Lexington militia stood as far from where they predicted the British troops would march as possible.
In their decision to stand at ready, not aiming or preparing for battle, the Massachusetts men demonstrated their very English qualities. After all, from pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon times through the present, villages often assembled in a show of arms to protect their rights from the higher political authorities. This was not seen as rebellion or secession, but merely as a part of the Anglo-Saxon rights of localities in the long history of the English constitutional order. Real men stood. Indeed, in the West as a whole, they had from Marathon to, though still in the future, to Waterloo.
While the Americans did not consider themselves in rebellion—they were merely exercising their English rights as men—the British crown and parliament had already proclaimed New England in revolt. “The New England governments are in a state of rebellion, blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent,” George III said on November 18, 1774, to Lord North. In early February, 1775, Parliament confirmed this.
Each was wrong; the American colonies did not declare themselves independent until the spring of 1776, with the Continental Congress affirming this on July 2 and 4, 1776. Prior to the shots fired at Lexington, Americans still considered themselves traditional and patriotic Englishmen. It’s worth repeating—what the Lexington men did on the morning of April 19th, was what they believed Anglo-Saxon and western men had always done.
If anything, the men of Lexington were more English than those living in England.
As with many of his fellow Protestant ministers of the century, Rev. Clarke had become deeply fascinated with the ideas of Natural Law and Natural Rights in the 1750s and 1760s.
In 1765, he stated his core belief: “And it is a truth, which the history of the ages and the common experiences of mankind have fully confirmed, that a people can never be divested of those invaluable rights and liberties which are necessary to the happiness of individuals, to the well-being of communities or to a well regulated state, but by their own negligence, imprudence, timidity or rashness. They are seldom lost, but when foolishly or tamely resigned.”
Clarke had served as minister—the third in the village history—since the 1750s. Clearly, his people were listening to him when they assembled on the village green, April 19, 1775.
The British troops, however, interpreted the act as one of unnecessary bravado. Crossing the green—and thus away from their intended goal of Concord, Major Pitcairne rather crudely told the militia to disperse.
Various testimonies have been offered about those few seconds that changed the course of the history of the world:
“The British troops were then coming on in full sight….Several mounted British officers were forward; I think, five. The commander rode up, with his pistol in his hand, on a canter, the others following, to about eight or ten rods from the company, perhaps nearer, and ordered them to disperse. The words he used were harsh. I cannot remember them exactly. He then said, ‘Fire!’ and he fired his own pistol, and the other officers soon fired, and with that the main body came up and fired, but did not take sight. They loaded again as soon as possible.” –Elijah Sanderson
“When the British troops had arrived within about a hundred rods [about 16-17 feet] of the meeting-house, as I was afterwards told by a prisoner, which we took, ‘they heard the drum, and supposing it to be a challenge they were ordered to load their muskets, and to move at double quick time.’ They came up almost upon a run. Col. Smith and Maj. Pitcairn rode up some rods in advance of their troops, and within a few rods of our company, and exclaimed, ‘Lay down your arms, you rebels, and disperse!’ and immediately fired his pistol. Pitcairn then advanced, and, after a moment’s conversation with Col. Smith, he advanced with his troops, and, finding we did not disperse, they being within four rods of us, he brought his sword down with great force, and said to his men, ‘Fire, damn you, fire!’ The front platoon, consisting of eight or nine, then fired, without killing or wounding any of our men. They immediately gave a second fire, when our company began to retreat, and, as I left the field, I saw a persons firing at the British troops from Buckman’s back door, which was near our left, where I was parading the men when I retreated. I was afterward told, of the truth of which I have no doubt, that the same persons, after firing from the back door, went to the front door of Buckman’s house, and fired there. How many of our company fired before they retreated, I cannot say; but I am confident some of them did. When the British troops came up, I saw Jonas Parker standing in ranks, with his balls and flints in his hat, on the ground, between his feet, and heard him declare, that he would never run. He was shot down at the second fire of the British, and, when I left, I saw him struggling on the ground, attempting to load his gun, which I have no doubt he had once discharged at the British. As he lay on the ground, they run him through with his bayonet.”—William Munroe
“They continued to March within eight rods of us, when an officer on horseback, Lt. Col. Smith, who rode in front of the troops, exclaimed, ‘Lay down your arms, and disperse, you rebels!’ Finding our company kept their ground, Col. Smith ordered his troops to fire. This order not being obeyed, the then said to them, ‘G-d damn you, fire!’….After the second fire from the British troops, I distinctly saw Jonas Parker struggling on the ground, with his gun in his hand, apparently attempting to load it. In this situation the British came up, run him through with the bayonet, and killed him on the spot.”—John Munroe
“About seventy of our company had assembled when the British troops appeared. Some of our men went into the meeting-house, where the town’s powder was kept, for the purpose of replenishing their stock of ammunition. When the regulars had arrived within eighty or one hundred rods, hearing our drum beat, halted, charged their guns, and  doubled their ranks, and marched up at quick step. Capt. Parker, ordered his men to stand their ground and not to molest the regulars, unless they meddled with us. The British troops came up directly in our front. The commanding officer advanced within a few rods of us and exclaimed, ‘Disperse, you damned rebels! You dogs, run!–Rush on my boys!’ and fired his pistol. The fire from their front ranks soon followed. After the first fire, I received a wound in my arm, and then, as I turned to run, I discharged my gun into the main body of the enemy. As I fired, my face being toward them, one ball cut of a part of one of my ear-locks, which was then pinned up. Another ball passed between my arm and my body, and just marked my clothes. The first fire of the British was regular; after that, they fired promiscuously.”–Ebenezer Munroe
During all of this, another local, Joshua Simonds, “was in the upper gallery [of the Congregationalist meeting house], an open cask of powder standing near him, and he afterward told me, that he cocked his gun and placed the muzzle of it close to the cask of powder, and determined to ‘touch it off,’ in case the troops had come into the gallery.”
Outnumbering the Lexington militia, nearly ten to one, as noted above, the British easily won this skirmish. But, symbolically, they lost. For at the moment the first Lexingtonian died, the American Republic was born.
Clarke’s words were as true in 1765 as they are today. They are worth repeating:
“And it is a truth, which the history of the ages and the common experiences of mankind have fully confirmed, that a people can never be divested of those invaluable rights and liberties which are necessary to the happiness of individuals, to the well-being of communities or to a well regulated state, but by their own negligence, imprudence, timidity or rashness. They are seldom lost, but when foolishly or tamely resigned.”
A profound thank you to all of the men and women who have served the American cause of Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the dignity of the human person since April 19, 1775.
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The featured image is “Stand Your Ground” by Don Troiani and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.