Today marks the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the first engagements in the war for independence of the North American colonies of Great Britain. As ever, I’m not interested in hailing the battles per se, nor in offering detailed analysis of the battles. There are plenty of other sources for that. I do want to point out 2 issues, however: one minor, one major. First the minor one. July 4th 1776 is celebrated as Independence Day in the US, but celebrating independence on ONE DAY – especially that date – is beguiling in the extreme. The war for independence lasted from 1775 to 1783, and the fate of the colonies hung in the balance for most of that time. A simple declaration of independence was important politically, of course, but it did not do anything to further the actual cause of independence. July 4th is a token and the year 1776 was no more, or less, important than any other year in the late 18th century for the United States. For me, 1791 is a far more important year in US history, which brings me to my major issue.
On 30th December 1791 George Washington informed Congress that Amendments 1 to 10 to the Constitution (of 12 proposed) had been ratified by the requisite number of states and were enshrined as the Bill of Rights. Of these 10 the 2nd is the one I want to focus on, and I do it on this date because it is pertinent to what happened at Lexington and Concord. The Battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War fought on April 19, 1775, in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy (present-day Arlington), and Cambridge, near Boston and marked the outbreak of open armed conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen of its colonies on the mainland of British America.
In late 1774 the Suffolk Resolves were adopted to resist the enforcement of the alterations made to the Massachusetts colonial government by the British parliament following the Boston Tea Party. The colonial assembly responded by forming a Patriot provisional government known as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and calling for local militias to train for possible hostilities. The rebel government exercised effective control of the colony outside of British-controlled Boston. In response, the British government in February 1775 declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.
About 700 British Army regulars in Boston, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy rebel military supplies reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot colonials had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations. They also received details about British plans on the night before the battle and were able to rapidly notify the area militias of the British expedition.
The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. The militia were outnumbered and fell back, and the regulars proceeded on to Concord, where they broke apart into companies to search for the supplies. At the North Bridge in Concord, approximately 400 militiamen engaged 100 regulars from three companies of the King’s troops at about 11:00 am, resulting in casualties on both sides. The outnumbered regulars fell back from the bridge and rejoined the main body of British forces in Concord.
The British forces began their return march to Boston after completing their search for military supplies, and more militiamen continued to arrive from neighboring towns. Gunfire erupted again between the two sides and continued throughout the day as the regulars marched back towards Boston. Upon returning to Lexington, Lt. Col. Smith’s expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Brigadier General Hugh Percy, a future duke of Northumberland known as Earl Percy. The combined force, now of about 1,700 men, marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown. The accumulated militias blockaded the narrow land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, starting the Siege of Boston. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his “Concord Hymn”, described the first shot fired by the Patriots at the North Bridge as the “shot heard round the world”.
The shot was, indeed, heard round the world. Peoples both in European colonies in the Americas, notably South America, and in European nations themselves, took heed and commenced armed struggles against their monarchic rulers that continued throughout the 19th century. The spirit of republicanism was born. Ironically, the British monarchy is one of the few to have survived into the 21st century but only in radically weakened form. The British monarch is now no more than a figurehead, although a vital one. The importance of Lexington and Concord for me lies in the fact that the North American rebellion was carried out by militias. This brings me back to the 2nd Amendment. Its full text reads:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
(click to enlarge)
Both the people of the US and the Supreme Court argue endlessly about the wording of the Amendment, but the intent seems quite clear to me. The initial clause about militias tends to be treated as a useless frill by those who want to walk around the streets armed to the teeth, but to my mind it is monumentally important. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were framed in the shadow of a war for independence that could not have begun without armed militias – as at Lexington and Concord. The 2nd Amendment was, in part, modelled on legislation enacted in Britain in the wake of the Glorious Revolution.
The English Bill of Rights of 1689 emerged from a tempestuous period in English politics during which two issues were major sources of conflict: the authority of the King to govern without the consent of Parliament and the role of Catholics in a country that was becoming ever more Protestant. Ultimately, the Catholic James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution, and his successors, the Protestants William III and Mary II, accepted the conditions that were codified in the Bill. One of the issues the Bill resolved was the authority of the King to disarm its subjects, after James II had attempted to disarm many Protestants, and had argued with Parliament over his desire to maintain a standing (i.e. permanent) army. The bill states that it is acting to restore “ancient rights” trampled upon by James II, though some have argued that the English Bill of Rights created a new right to have arms, which developed out of a duty to have arms
I know, I know, this all gets murky quickly and I am not a lawyer. The Supreme Court goes over this ground repeatedly. Many argue that the “ancient right” to possess a weapon stems from the Right to Life which allows people the right to self defense, that is, the right to own a weapon to defend yourself against mortal attack. I get it. But the text of the 2nd Amendment is crystal clear. The right to bear arms exists in the context of militias raised to defend against tyranny. Furthermore, the Amendment speaks of the right to BEAR arms, not to OWN them. This is not some semantic quibble; it’s a critical point. There’s a vast difference between being able to go to a well-stocked armory in the town to pick up a weapon to assist a militia and having a private arsenal in one’s home. I won’t belabor the point. It’s been made numerous times before to no avail. I’ll pick up pots and pans instead.
Prior to the Revolutionary War cookbooks in the North American colonies were reprints of British originals such as Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, first published in 1747, and reprinted numerous times. American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons was the first truly North American cookbook, using local ingredients, such as cornmeal, and recommending pearl ash (potassium carbonate) as a leavening ingredient for the first time in print. It is an important window into distinctively American cooking in the late 18th century. Recipes like this one amuse me greatly:
To make a fine Syllabub from the Cow.
Sweeten a quart of cyder with double refined sugar, grate nutmeg into it, then milk your cow into your liquor, when you have thus added what quantity of milk you think proper, pour half a pint or more, in proportion to the quantity of syllabub you make, of the sweetest cream you can get all over it.
Sure, I’ll just hop out to the barn and milk Betsy into my cooking pot. Or . . . how about the quantities for puff pastry number 2?
Puff Pastes for Tarts.
No. 1. Rub one pound of butter into one pound of flour, whip 2 whites and add with cold water and one yolk; make into paste, roll in in six or seven times one pound of butter, flowring it each roll. This is good for any small thing.
No. 2. Rub six pound of butter into fourteen pound of flour, eight eggs, add cold water, make a stiff paste.
That’ll do the trick when I’m feeding a militia. You can dip into the whole text here: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/12815/pg12815-images.html It will give you plenty of ideas for a colonial dinner party. This recipe especially appeals to me because I think turkey and oysters go well together (even though I’m not a huge fan of cooked oysters):
To smother a Fowl in Oysters.
Fill the bird with dry Oysters, and sew up and boil in water just sufficient to cover the bird, salt and season to your taste—when done tender, put into a deep dish and pour over it a pint of stewed oysters, well buttered and peppered, garnish a turkey with sprigs of parsley or leaves of cellery: a fowl is best with a parsley sauce.
I can’t provide a modern recipe right now because I can’t get hold of either turkey or oysters at present. Oyster stuffing for roast turkey is still a staple in the rural South, but this recipe is more basic – just turkey and oysters. I’ll try it out when I get the chance.