Last week, I introduced readers to William Diamond's drum in both the historical and present-day contexts.
I have been working behind the scenes with folks who are planning armed civil disobedience actions against all of the various state and federal "intolerable acts" that have been already enacted or are coming down the pike. This has been the subject of some thought as I contemplate the odds of participating in these actions (which I certainly will) and still seeing my 61st birthday in July.
As always, I return this week to the Founders, who still have much to teach those of us who would be faithful to their intentions for this Republic and who have sworn to resist the collectivist usurpers who are bent upon overthrowing it.
Again, from William Diamond's drum by Arthur Bernon Tourtellot:
Lexington, April 25, 1775I, John Parker, of lawful age and commander of the Militia in Lexington, do testify and declare, that on the nineteenth instant, in the morning, about one of the clock, being informed that there were a number of Regular Officers riding up and down the road, stopping and insulting people as they passed the road, and also was informed that a number of Regular Troops were on their march from Boston, in order to take the Province Stores at Concord, ordered our militia to meet on the common in said Lexington, to consult what to do and concluded not to be discovered, nor meddle or make with said Regular Troops (if they should approach) unless they should insult us; and upon their sudden approach, I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse and not to fire. Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon and killed eight of our party, with out receiving any provocation therefor from us.John ParkerMiddlesex, April 25, 1775The above named John Parker personally appeared^ and after being duly cautioned to declare the whole truth, made solemn oath to the truth of the above deposition., by him subscribed. Before us,Wm. ReedJosiah JohnsonWm. StickneyJUSTICES OF THE PEACE
This is all that Captain John Parker ever said of the affair, and it all leads up to a giant contradiction. He telescopes time a little bit; it was "one of the clock 33 when he got the news and, shortly after that when he ordered the muster of the minutemen on the Common "to consult what to do," and then he dismissed the company. Three hours, at least, passed before he mustered them again three hours during which he had time to talk with Hancock, Adams, and Clarke. His first instinct not to act like an authoritative military commander but to "consult" with his neighbors and friends "what to do" was a perfectly natural one. The minutemen were not easy men to order around. They were less a military company than a voluntary, self-governing unit resourceful, responsible, unafraid, but a collection of men who had no bosses in their ordinary daily lives and who did not lend themselves very readily to the mechanical response to orders snapped at them by someone else. If Parker hadn't known this, they would never have elected him their captain. They knew that he was the kind of man who would, in an emergency involving them as much as him, "consult what to do."For his part, Parker, having lived all his life in Lexington, knew these men who constituted his little militia well. He had gone to school with them, went to church with them, fought alongside some of them in the French and Indian wars, and was related either directly or by marriage to many of them. The last thing that would have occurred to him was that the relationship between him as their captain and them as members of Ms company could be as brisk and cold and automatic as that between a regular officer and his troops. And Parker knew enough also about war in the still heavily wooded American countryside to understand that, if war came, the cause of the colonies would be less dependent upon the parade ground discipline of the militia than upon those very characteristics of individualism, independence, and resourcefulness that made them unlikely exhibits on a parade ground but hard men to beat in country warfare.So John Parker consulted with these men, this varied assortment who had paid him the compliment of electing him their captain. They concluded not to make themselves conspicuous or to "meddle" with the British troops; and then they went home, or dozed around Buckman's, until they were called again. Parker obviously kept busy. He sent one messenger after another to find out and report to him whether the British troops were on the Lexington-Cambridge road and how far away. Dorothy Quincy remembered that Hancock went down to the Common. It can be taken as certain that, if he went, so did Samuel Adams, who would never have let him out of sight in the midst of such promising events ; and Clarke would have guided them down the road from the parsonage, around the corner of the Common to Buckman's. The captain of the militia would have discussed the night's affairs with the President of the Provincial Congress and with the Delegate to the Continental Congress and with his own pastor. And it was concluded, from the evidence of what happened afterward, that the minutemen would make a show of strength on the open Common, but that they would not fire. Apparently they would just stand there, as seven hundred British soldiers, on their first expedition after a year's dreary occupation of an isolated peninsular port town, marched harmlessly by a few feet away. Whatever anyone else thought of this placid picture, Samuel Adams, who had a profound understanding of the abrasive qualities inherent in such a situation, knew better. All his ten years' experience with the Boston mobs, all his careful manipulation and channeling of the prides and prejudices, strengths and weaknesses, capacities and limitations of human beings as parts of a group would have gone for nothing if he hadn't known better. And, what was worse, so would have the unbelievably single-handed success of Samuel Adams, thus far, in keeping the issue of revolt against Great Britain alive in the colonies.Parker's men took a suicidal stand, and the issue burst fully into life. When the approach of the British was unmistakable, he had sent young William Diamond to beat the call to arms. He met the assembling men on the Common and told Sergeant Munroe to draw them up in the two long thin lines to make them look more formidable in numbers than they really were. Having perhaps twenty minutes from the time that Thaddeus Bowman came to him with the last intelligence of the morning until the British were upon him, he made no effort to get his men into the readily available positions in adjacent pastures and woodlands from which they could have both observed the British and had the advantage of surprise and mobility in case of conflict. But he lined them up on the Common, with orders not to fire.All this was as it should be if one understood Adams' growing problem of unifying the colonies behind some incontrovertible event that would make it clear to any American colonist that life under the British was utterly impossible. Adams, of course, was familiar with all the rabble-rouser charges against him and knew also that many of the Middle Atlantic and Southern colonists, sympathetic and active in the colonial cause, regarded him as an inciter of mob actions when it suited his political purposes. But this time he had something to go on. He was fresh from a meeting of the Provincial Congress that had just decided, not without his guidance, "that should any body of troop with artillery and baggage, march out of Boston, the country should instantly be alarmed, and called together to oppose their march to the last extremity. Adams would be willing to take a chance on the expeditionary forces of the nineteenth having artillery or baggage with them.If after his original consultation with his minutemen on the Common at the first alarm Parker was advised by the high leadership concentrated by chance in Lexington that night, not having any other authority over him and no military superior present, he would have seen it as appropriate and fitting to acquiesce. His own military experience would have made him realize that a company captain is not a general or a strategical staff. But once the British started to move toward his men, from the road on to the Common, he felt as any company commander and ranking officer present would: the situation, including their safety, was entirely his responsibility. And he ordered them, not to stand their ground and not to fire, but to disperse. It was the only battle order that he said he gave; and it was the only one that any officer in his situation could have given. As it turned out, it served Adams' cause just as well. - Tourtellot, pp. 124 127
Adams, Tourtellot concludes, changed Parker's original orders, intending the demonstration to be one of armed civil disobedience, daring the British to do anything about it.
Full of bloated intelligence that had from five hundred to a thousand militia concentrated in Lexington to mow them down, the five British advanced light infantry companies, with Major Pitcairn in command, moved into the straight stretch of the road from which the Common was in sight. Their guns were primed and loaded. They expected a fight. Pitcairn, with some of his mounted officers, rode up to the head of the column. . .As he saw this group on the Common, Major Pitcairn, a man of quick and sound judgment, saw clearly enough how to handle it. He ordered his soldiers not to fire but to surround the motley group and disarm it. He did not even want to capture them. In the first place, he regarded the whole thing as a civil action, involving not an army but British subjects in violation of the government's laws; in the second place, there were specific orders not to molest the inhabitants; third, the purpose of the expedition was to destroy the stores at Concord and to get back to Boston; finally, no provision was made for the taking or transporting of prisoners. On the other hand, he could not just let them go away with their arms, possibly to follow his line of march to Concord, taking potshots at his troops on the way. So he did what had to be done: "I instantly called to the soldiers not to fire but to surround and disarm them." By this time some of Parker's men had heard their own captain's almost simultaneous order to disperse : "I immediately ordered our troops to disperse and not to fire."There were then, so far as the testimony of both commanding officers go, only two orders given. Both included the directive "not to fire." That these were the orders given was confirmed on both sides. Lieutenant Sutherland, who was one of the mounted officers close to Pitcairn, wrote: "I heard Major Pitcaim's voice call out, 'Soldiers, don't fire, keep your ranks, form and surround them." And Ensign de Berniere, in the first company of light infantry: "He ordered our light infantry to advance and disarm them." As the light infantry moved to the right of the meetinghouse and between it and Buckman's Tavern, toward the militia, somewhat behind the meetinghouse. Major Pitcairn and his group of mounted officers galloped their horses around the left of the meetinghouse. This was a sensible tactic for Pitcaim, because it would put him to one side of both forces, in ready hearing range of either, it still being a point of some consequence to him that the colonists were as much subjects of the King as the troops were. There he repeated his order to his own troops, and he told the colonists to lay down their arms.Those of Captain Parker's company who were on the Common had heard his order to disperse, and they started to break ranks. But they did not disperse in a very orderly or uniformly prompt manner "many of them not so speedily as they might have done," said Jonas Clarke. Men like these were not apt by training or by nature to react instantly or uniformly. Besides, some of them who had grown up with John Parker would be much more apt to consider an order from him a strong suggestion than an absolute directive. A few would do as they pleased. . . Others of the company drifted slowly toward the edges of the Common, taking their muskets with them. Some hurried away at Parker's order, but they also took their guns. No one followed Pitcairn's order to lay down his arms.While this somewhat straggling performance was going on, the British light infantry, in the custom of the day, started shouting as they charged forward. Someone, possibly one of the provincials off the Common, fired a shot. Perhaps it was meant to be an additional alarm a common practice since the days of Indian raids. Or perhaps a British soldier, carried away by the excitement, fired at the minutemen. Or else a young officer backed up an order to the minutemen to lay down their arms with a warning shot from his pistol. Or possibly someone's musket flashed in the pan by accident. -- Tourtellot, pp. 127-133.
Sam Adams, Tourtellot concludes, then had his war. Whatever the truth of the matter as to who fired first, it was the Colonists' narrative (delivered first to London aboard a fast ship, beating Gate's report by a couple of weeks) which prevailed.
I agree with Tourtellot's view, that the Lexington militia company was deliberately drawn up in a demonstration of armed civil disobedience aimed at giving the British the chance to fire first and concede the moral high ground. If it was Sam Adam's idea, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Just as he had succeeded in manipulating the Boston Sons of Liberty in mob actions since the Stamp Act almost ten years before.
That's the history lesson. Here's how it applies today. When these intolerable acts -- state or federal -- are enacted, we have the duty to defy them in armed civil disobedience. Those who do so should remember 19 April 1775 as a perfect example of what can happen when you defy a tyranny. History may not exactly repeat itself, but we darned well had better be ready to respond if it does.