Were the shopkeepers and farmers who took up arms at Lexington and Concord to fire “the shot heard ’round the world” out to turn their society upside down, they way the French peasantry would attempt a decade or so later? No, in fact the opposite. They were endeavoring to keep what they already had. They fired upon troops sent by a king and his minions who had forgotten that despite being “colonials” they were Englishmen first and foremost, with all the rights and privileges thereunto belonging. (As an aside, this is why Paul Revere never rode through towns yelling “The British are coming! The British are coming!” His hearers all considered themselves British.)

The Declaration of Independence asserted that the bonds with the mother country are severed, but it goes on to extensively list all that this king had done that had already severed those bonds. How old were these bonds? They go back at least to Alfred the Great (the only British monarch to be called that) who set up a shire and borough system, so that his people could rise up and support him and one another. They go though the Magna Carta of 1215, to the common bowmen who stood beside their King Henry V at Agincourt as his “band of brothers,” whilst “Gentlemen in England” were “abed.”

Beyond the common history shared with all English speaking peoples, Americans had, for the most part, come here to seek and expansion of their liberty and their opportunity. New Englanders had governed themselves through town meetings ever since the Mayflower Compact was signed 150 years before those shots rang out. Unlike his counterpart in the mother country, the average Massachusetts militiaman owned land and was quite literate. In most houses, there were at least two books – the King James Bible and Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. For better or worse there were plenty of lawyers amongst them, and as Burke warned Parliament, most of the rest were at least “smatterers in law” who “could “auger misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

So when after a long series of usurpations over many years the crown closed the Port of Boston, revoked the charter under which they had ruled themselves, sent an army once again to live amongst them, and sought to confiscate their arms and arrest their leaders, the various militias turned out. These local militia organizations were themselves as old as the Mayflower Compact, Myles Standish having trained the first of them.

After having won their independence after many years of blood, toil and lost wealth, the founders had to form a new government. In doing so, they understood the nature of human frailty and the limits of understanding. Therefore political power must be limited and separated, and must be answerable to the people, who retain all the rights and power not granted. For even the wisest and just among us cannot be allowed to rule by decree alone. Power corrupts like salt on iron, and even if a leader could be completely omniscient at any given moment, the skill would be useless, since the moment keeps changing.

Contrast all this with the French Revolution, born of Rousseau’s tabula rasa and “positive liberty.” As I’ve written before, the French peasant was desperate, starving and mostly illiterate. He sought not to preserve what he had, for he had nothing. He intended to take from those who have. His ever-changing leaders were masters of manipulation and recognized no moral, religious, legal or customary boundaries. All must be swept away, even the calendar. Mankind is to be made anew, not in the image of God, but in the image of whomever can hold the reigns of power before being eaten by his own. All of the evil “isms” of the 20th century – Marxism, fascism, Nazism and communism are the bastard children of this pernicious and twisted ideology.

Let us end by returning to our Yankee militiaman. I am fond of quoting one of them who lived to a very ripe old age. When asked decades later why he turned out on that long ago April morning, this was his reply: “Young man,” he said, “what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We had always governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean that we should.”

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Photo by The U.S. National Archives

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