We welcome to the blog a guest post by Robert G. Parkinson, author of The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, which is being published in association with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia. When the Revolutionary War began, the odds of a united, continental effort to resist the British seemed nearly impossible. Few on either side of the Atlantic expected thirteen colonies to stick together in a war against their cultural cousins. In this pathbreaking book, Parkinson argues that to unify the patriot side, political and communications leaders linked British tyranny to colonial prejudices, stereotypes, and fears about insurrectionary slaves and violent Indians. Manipulating newspaper networks, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and their fellow agitators broadcast stories of British agents inciting African Americans and Indians to take up arms against the American rebellion. Using rhetoric like “domestic insurrectionists” and “merciless savages,” the founding fathers rallied the people around a common enemy and made racial prejudice a cornerstone of the new Republic.
In today’s post, Parkinson sheds new light on one of the most legendary events in U.S. history, focusing on how “the shot heard round the world” affected the racial tensions in America.
Sixty years after the battle, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a triumphant hymn to the “embattled farmers” of Concord, Massachusetts, who gathered at the “rude bridge that arched the flood” underneath “their flag to April’s breeze unfurled” and “fired the shot heard round the world.” Emerson solemnized the “spirit that made those heroes dare / to die, or leave their children free.” Emerson’s imagery added to the already thick layers of mythology surrounding the events of April 19, 1775, fusing together nature and nation to craft an American pastoral patriotism. Ever since, when Americans think about the start of the Revolution, it is Emerson’s chorus—of heroic white colonists fighting to preserve their liberty—that plays in the background of this nationalist legend.
But that wasn’t how some people thought about the events of that night. In fact, race played a role in how people reacted to the Lexington Alarm. Even in Massachusetts.
Josiah Temple, a native of Framingham, Massachusetts (about fifteen miles south of Concord), published a book in 1887 on the town’s history. His recounting of what people remembered about the night of the Alarm was so different from the legend that he found it impossible to believe.
For four generations, the local story of the night of April 19, 1775, was that, as soon as the town’s militia marched north toward Lexington Green, a “strange panic” spread through Framingham. But that’s not what surprised the town historian, nor should it us. But what they said next certainly seems odd: “The Negroes were coming to massacre them all!” Some in the town, Temple noted, “brought the axes and pitchforks and clubs into the house, and securely bolted the doors, and passed the day and night in anxious suspense.”
It wasn’t the redcoats that scared people in Framingham, apparently, but even more terrifying African Americans in their midst that were plotting to fall upon them. Temple himself dismissed this as impossible. But he was wrong. People in Framingham were afraid of what might happen to them with the astonishing news that they were at war with Britain.
How do we know?
Starting in the spring of 1775, as the imperial crisis approached a boiling point, lots of people in the American colonies could feel the unease. In March, stories about slaves plotting to rise against their masters in New York, Virginia, and New Jersey began to appear in New England newspapers. But, though unnerving, such stories certainly would not induce Framingham’s “strange panic.” A similar scene in the town right next door, however, would.
Six weeks before the battle, a Connecticut newspaper reported a story that multiple free black men had actually been arrested in Natick, Massachusetts, under charges of conspiracy. “It appeared that said Fellow has for some Time past been employed in forming a Plot to destroy the white People,” and, having recruited some co-conspirators, “only waited until some Disturbance should happen that might occasion the Militia to turn out, and in their Absence it was proposed to Murder the defenceless Inhabitants.”
How far was Natick from Framingham? Less than five miles. When Abel Prescott rode into town at 4:00 AM a month later with the shocking news that just such a “Disturbance” was now upon them, Temple should not have doubted this was part of the town’s panic. Apparently not all of the “colored people” were patriots after all, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the colonies.
So what? Why should this matter?
The Lexington Alarm has a central place in the founding mythology of the United States. But there was much more to the “shot heard round the world” than just Emerson’s embattled farmers. Further, we have ennobled those men as the only ones who had the “spirit that made those heroes dare.” Those who made different decisions were not eligible to the fruits of American liberty. By the time Emerson wrote his hymn, this was coded as white men; they were the only ones entrusted with such a “spirit.”
But what about the black men who were arrested at Natick, accused of perpetuating conspiracy? They were very likely at Concord too. The newspapers reported that “after examination,” the suspects were “committed to the Concord Gaol.” So, while those Massachusetts farmers gathered where Emerson would later beatify them, there were probably* at least two black men locked in the Concord jail. Perhaps they watched the battle through the bars. If they could, they certainly did so with great interest. The presence of those incarcerated men should change how we think about the start of the American Revolution.
Emerson’s myth-making left no room for them. They were part of “April’s breeze” of liberty too, but the Natick plotters planned to strike to redress racial wrongs, not constitutional ones. What they sought was indeed an intrepid fight for liberation, but this was not a welcome one.
The true story of the Concord fight was more complicated than an organic expression of an American “spirit.” What the townspeople of Framingham remembered for more than one hundred years, however, tells a different story, one that exposes how essential race would be to the Revolutionary War. When we narrate this more complicated story of the American Revolution, one that gives space for the men at Concord’s bridge and the ones in its jail, we can fully understand—and appreciate—the centrality of race at the founding of the United States.
*I say probably because the records for the Concord jail are not extant. I cannot say definitively that they were still there on April 19, 1775, but it seems likely.
Robert G. Parkinson is assistant professor of history at Binghamton University. His book The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution will be published June 2016.