RICHMOND — Lexington and Concord each wants to be first in the hearts of Americans for their roles in starting the American Revolution.
The first shot — which Ralph Waldo Emerson immortalized with “the shot heard round the world” — was certainly fired in Lexington shortly after dawn on April 19, 1775. And it’s fairly certain it was not a British soldier who fired it.
But, the Lexington militia fell back, and the Brits moved on to Concord, their mission: to find and confiscate military supplies that supposedly were stored there. On the famous North Bridge — still there — 400 farmers and other members of the local militias turned them back. The Revolution had begun. The little guys had won. And that’s why we celebrate Patriot’s Day on April 19, a statewide holiday in Massachusetts, Maine, Wisconsin and, added a couple of years ago, Connecticut. In the rest of the nation, when you announce you’re on vacation because of Patriot’s Day, you’re likely to be greeted with, “Huh? What’s that?”
It’s almost a sure bet that shirt-sleeves Jim Jordan of Ohio, rudely argumentative on American freedoms, has no idea where or when the lasting urge for liberty was born. Anyway, Lexington and Concord may not have discussed their rivalry every day, but it was there. One indication was that each town commissioned handsome sculptures of a Minuteman, commemorating the day colonial militias sent the Redcoats back to Boston.
The Concord sculpture was created by Daniel Chester French, later a longtime summer resident of the Berkshires at what is now Chesterwood. French was 22, and “The Minuteman” was his first important commission. The towns’ need for recognition must have simmered on. More than a hundred years after the start of the American Revolution, the Lexington Historical Society petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature to proclaim April 19 as “Lexington Day.” When Concord came back with “Concord Day,” the governor intervened with a compromise: Patriot’s Day. Oddly, in terms of what most of us know — or don’t know — of history, the biggest battle that day was fought in Menotomy, now known as Arlington. More than 5,000 militiamen answered the call and, in and around houses, concealed behind stone walls and barns, waited for the British to come by on their way to Boston. The largest number of casualties on both sides on the first day of the Revolution occurred at Menotomy. A win for the colonists. This year, Patriot’s Day was celebrated on its proper day — April 19 — simply because that date landed on a Monday. Purists would prefer that dates worth serious attention be celebrated on the actual occurrence of whatever mattered on that day. But, in 1968, to give people long weekends, Congress passed the Monday Holiday Bill, affecting four holidays, and while that didn’t cover our state holiday of Patriot’s Day, the state adopted the Monday rule in 1969.
Today, in Massachusetts, the day brings throngs to Boston for the Boston Marathon, with a Red Sox game at Fenway played in the morning while marathoners run through Kenmore Square. The year that Rosie Ruiz fraudulently accepted the winner’s laurels at the marathon, we cheered that marvelous doubleheader in person: American baseball and a race dating back to Greek democracy. Patriot’s Day: New England’s day to plant peas, greet spring and celebrate freedom.