April 19 marks the 248th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the first armed combat between British troops and colonists, in this case in Massachusetts.
The day has long been a state holiday, Patriots’ Day, now observed on the nearest Monday, the 17th the year, which also features the running of the Boston Marathon.
Some in Massachusetts consider this battle the start of the American Revolution, and April 19th its true commemoration. The battle does predate the Declaration of Independence by fifteen months. Those fifteen months saw another bloody battle in Charlestown, MA, the creation by the Continental Congress of an army, and a siege of British troops in Boston. So – when did the American Revolution start? The fighting was not news in 1776, though the colonies voiced no definitive intent to separate from Britain in 1775.
Does that separation mark the real revolution? Then again, does a secession of “one people from another” necessarily mark a revolution? Was the Confederate secession a revolution? Was the 1581 Dutch rejection of Spanish rule?
Revolution, which in the day actually carried a reference to restoration of some earlier condition – as in a full revolution of the earth – is generally taken now to imply a massive discontinuity, a break in history that ushers in a whole new world.
Certainly Lexington and Concord marked a definitive step in Massachusetts’ revolt against British government. And the quick support from the other colonies, effected through the Continental Congress, marked the action of a new unified body. These were huge changes in the political order to be sure. They might even be considered revolutionary.
But any revolutionary nature of those actions pales in comparison to the Declaration of Independence. Which may, ultimately, be the reason we celebrate the Fourth of July nationally and Patriots’ Day is a floating state holiday.
Most of the Declaration’s text names specific grievances to justify the revolt, unification of the colonies, and decision to secede from Britain. But the document added an additional feature. This feature was captured in its second sentence once this “People” determined we would dissolve our bonds with “another,” that sentence stated the “We” hold certain truths – and offered no other definition of this new “People.” The expression excludes ethnic ties – the signers in fact “alienated” ethnic identity in distinguishing themselves from people of Britain. It asserts rights as endowed by a Creator, and not, per normal usage of many centuries, as privileges granted by rulers and custom. We stipulated that government, while necessary to secure rights, was ipso facto legitimated by consent of the governed – again contravening normal usage. We based this “we” on nothing but principle, an abstract one, that upended all existing norms. In that new base lies our revolution.
Life had always been a matter of securing tangible needs, with family, clan, and tradition defining any “us.” These forms grew directly from primal instinct, and served the tangible needs just as kinship still does for so many other species. That is nature, and human growth from the state of nature still, in 1776, remained within the traces of natural needs. Human ingenuity was used mainly as a tool to secure survival and material well being.
Now a people declared itself, not just as independent of another, but as holders of a principled creed. To be sure, many still lived as creatures of material ends; many owned slaves, in contradiction to the Declaration’s creed. Natives, women, even non-propertied persons, were excluded from participation in the polity that followed the Declaration. Yet the signers singed the words as written, and those words set the bones of a new entity, the framework to which living flesh of norms and institutional would have to adapt, by this self conception of this nw people.
Even today, most nation-states are ethnic entities, or confederations – or mash ups – of ethnic groups. A whole school of thought, Realism, still prevails in many minds, that people in fact do only pursue self-interest, and of the most fundamental kind when push comes to shove. “Common sense” for so many in the world still says this, and further classifies people by race, tongue, territory, church, and tribe. If the United States is now one of the oldest nations in continuous existence, our creed remains anomalously separate from the old ways.
So the American Revolution started with the Declaration’s creed. It continues – we call ourselves an experiment because the nation conceived itself in a still–novel idea and is perpetually tested to see if such a nation “can long endure.” In other words, this revolution is revolutionary like few others, and remains ongoing. Yes, the idea for our creed grew out of prior philosophizing and yes, cultural legacies shaped the signers’ actions and still shape everyday life. But we define ourselves by our creed, which gives us a purpose, to validate that creed and pull real life and our tenets of freedom into living convergence.
April 19 started an armed revolt. The politics and battles of 1775 and early 1776 upended the political order. But the American Revolution started in July 1776 and continues today.