In the divisive, tensely political years
when ungrateful colonists destroyed private property of the Boston Tea Party, when mobs attacked His Majesty troops the Boston Massacre and unruly subjects took up arms against a legitimate Parliamentary government and the American Revolution, public commemorations were a tool used by advocates of American rights to increase commitment to their cause. The revolting Americans celebrated the anniversaries of the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and April 19th – the day a political struggle turned into war at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. These celebrations were not holidays; they were pro-Independence political rallies. In 1777 the Fourth of July joined them as one more pretext to rally the sometimes fading enthusiasm of ordinary men and women to support the fight for independence.
After independence was won and the Treaty of Paris signed, Americans lost interest in celebrating the Fourth of July. The holiday was revived to by political activists fighting for and against a proposed Constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation with a stronger federal government. New York and Rhode Island were implacably opposed to a federal constitution. If you read the Constitution carefully, you will find that it says, “Done… by unanimous consent of the states present” at the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787. What is actually means is: done without Rhode Island and New York.
The fight over ratification was famously bitter in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, South Carolina and New York. (Rhode Island didn’t have enough pro-Federalists to stage a debate.) By mid-June 1788, nine states including Massachusetts, New Hampshire and South Carolina had ratified. Formally, 9 was enough. But it was clear to everyone that with New York saying ‘nay’, if Virginia also refused to ratify the new federal government would be too weak to function. By June everything hung on Virginia. Virginia ratified on June 26.
This was the eighteenth century. The telegraph had not yet been invented. News of Virginia’s ratification did not reach Albany until the July 3. On the morning of the Glorious Fourth, feelings were running high as the Anti-Federalists fired the customary 13 salutes, and ignited when they burned a copy of the Constitution. Federalists – who had drunk more than was good for them – fired 10 salutes in honor of the 10 states that had ratified and were marching home when they met anti-Federalists – who were also three sheets to the wind. The anti-Federalists were mad as hops over the politically-motivated firing of 10 salutes instead of 13; and they were armed with clubs, stones, and a field-piece. The battle lasted 20 minutes. The Federalists won. Several men were wounded, one killed. (Appelbaum, The Glorious Fourth, pp. 30-32.)
That, however, was as violent as the battle over the Constitution got. The fight was bitter. Federalists and anti-Federalists formed two opposing political parties and refused to sit down together for dinner on the Fourth of July. Towns had two speeches, two dinners, two celebrations. The invective of Federal-era politics can make today’s scurrilous tweeting sound downright genteel. But before 1860 and since 1865, the fiercely held differences of opinion over how this country should be governed have been settled by persuasion, compromise and vote. Not by violence.
Holidays are part of that debate, subject to being used as political tools the way both pro- and anti-Federalists once used the Fourth of July. Columbus Day, for example, was created as part of the Italian American political struggle to gain recognition as “real” Americans. It became so popular that Amerindian activists now use it to stake their claim for redress of the grievances of conquest. Politics is noisy and messy and groups that enlist holidays to enhance their message may or may not carry their point.
A right-wing group has attempted to appropriate Patriots Day by inverting the nature of the American Revolution, particularly the role of the minute men at Lexington and Concord.
Far from being a set of rugged individualists, the men who stood up to the British Army at Lexington Green were the democratically organized male population of the town of Lexington. And Lexington was not unique. In Massachusetts a political consensus was reached long before anyone picked up a musket. A decade of intense political debate, rallies, marches, Liberty Trees, lithographs, and provocations like the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party had resulted in a population democratically committed to standing up to the Crown in defense of their right to self-government.
Gun powder was stored in church towers at a time when the congregation and the citizenry in most Massachusetts towns were virtually identical, the citizen militia of the Commonwealth was pledged to act together should the British attempt to impose the imperial will by armed force, and almost the entire membership of the Massachusetts legislature had convened in Concord, not in the capital at Boston. Moving the Massachusetts legislature to Concord was not exactly secret, it was clandestine, against the will of the Crown, and done with the full backing of the great majority of the citizens. The battle, when it came, was not an act of individuals, it was the consensus decision of the people and government of Massachusetts.
If the modern movement that calls itself a militia and claims to stand on Patriots Day in the footsteps of the men on Lexington Green really believe that they know how America should be governed, they should do what Sam Adams did and devote themselves to the hard, political work of persuading their fellow citizens to agree with them.