It is altogether right and fitting that the quintessential and perhaps most perfect American poem – Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” – celebrates the beginning of the American Revolution, and that it ends with a fervent prayer. You may wish, this coming Patriots Day, to recite this poem (and prayer) aloud to and with your family. And if you haven’t already done so – indeed, even if you have – you may wish to read one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, David Hackett Fisher’s Paul Revere’s Ride.
The bloody battles at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 are among the most mythologized and therefore least fully understood events in our history. Central to the myth is the expedition throughout the previous night of one extraordinary individual, Paul Revere, with the narrow intent of warning Samuel Adams and John Hancock that a large force of British regulars had left Boston intent on capturing large stores of munitions and, if at all possible, them.
Revere’s larger mission was to set in motion an established network of other riders to rouse well-organized patriot militias all up and down Massachusetts, and to summon them to confront the regulars. This he did, not at all alone but with the cooperation of numberless other actors who had been well-organized, well-trained and well-drilled, and who fought with a clear understanding of the fateful step they were taking.
Fisher makes clear that, even as the battles set off a new thing in the world – the first and only successful rebellion of a major colony against its mother country to that time – they were the culmination of a long and ultimately tragic chain of misunderstanding forged over many years between Britain and its fiercely independent-minded colonists.
Paul Revere’s Ride is that exquisitely rare thing in literature: at once a definitive work of original scholarship and what Ronald Reagan might have called a crackling good yarn. It takes us back not merely to the emotions but to the powerful beliefs about the rights of the individual which fueled the Revolution, and which drove us on to the creation of an entirely new kind of republic.
This is, lamentably, a story and even a belief system that is rapidly being lost in American universities, where – as Fisher notes – there is a broad prejudice against patriotic events, and the only creature less fashionable than a dead white male is a dead white male on horseback.
The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has said, “History is medicine. It has nothing whatever to do with the past. It has everything to do with the present.” On April 19, let’s all remember to take our medicine, from Emerson and particularly from David Hackett Fisher.
© 2014 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. Nick highlights new books, articles and research findings in the “Resources” feature of his newsletter, Nick Murray Interactive. To download the new 2014 sample issue, visit www.nickmurray.com and click on “Newsletter.”