The Roots of the First American Revolution
“The ultimate authority … resides in the people alone. … The advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation … forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any…” —James Madison (Federalist No. 46)
On April 19th, we honor the anniversary of Patriots’ Day and the legacy of Liberty launched that day, which is our inspiration to this day. In doing so, we mark the opening salvo of the first American Revolution in 1775, and the first step toward the establishment of an eternal declaration of the unalienable Rights of Man — the rights of all people, subordinating the rule of men to our Creator-inspired Rule of Law, the basis for our Republic’s Constitution.
On December 16th, 1773, “radicals” in Boston, members of a secret organization of American Patriots called the Sons of Liberty, boarded three East India Company ships at Griffin’s Wharf and threw 342 chests of British East India Company tea into Boston Harbor. This iconic event, which foretold the revolution to come against oppressive taxation and tyrannical rule, is immortalized as “The Boston Tea Party.”
Resistance to the British Crown had been mounting since King George imposed the Writs of Assistance, giving British authorities power to arrest and detain colonists for any reason. He also imposed oppressive bills of attainder and authorized troops to “quarter” in the homes of his colonial subjects. Protests intensified over enactment of heavy taxes, including the 1764 Sugar Act, 1765 Stamp Act, and 1767 Townshend Acts.
The growing unrest came to bloodshed in March of 1770, when British troops fired on civilians in Boston, killing five colonists. This event, which became known as the Boston Massacre, gave credence to the slogan, “No taxation without representation.”
But it was the 1773 Tea Act, under which the Crown collected a three-pence tax on each pound of tea imported to the colonies, that instigated many Tea Party protests and seeded the American Revolution. Indeed, as James Madison reflected in 1823, “The people of the U.S. owe their Independence and their Liberty, to the wisdom of descrying in the minute tax of 3 pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent.”
News of the Tea Party protest in Boston galvanized the colonial movement opposing onerous British parliamentary acts that were a violation of the natural, charter, and constitutional rights of the British colonists.
In response to the rising colonial unrest, the British enacted measures to punish the citizens of Massachusetts and to reverse the trend of resistance to the Crown’s authority. These were labeled “The Intolerable Acts,” the first of which was the 1774 Boston Port Bill that blockaded the harbor in an effort to starve Bostonians into submission.
Among the Patriots who broke the blockade to supply food to the people of Boston was William Prescott, who would later prove himself a heroic military leader at Bunker Hill and Saratoga. To his fellow Patriots in Boston, Prescott wrote, “We heartily sympathize with you, and are always ready to do all in our power for your support, comfort and relief; knowing that Providence has placed you where you must stand the first shock. … Our forefathers passed the vast Atlantic, spent their blood and treasure, that they might enjoy their liberties, both civil and religious, and transmit them to their posterity. … Now if we should give them up, can our children rise up and call us blessed?”
The Boston blockade was followed by the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quartering Act. But far from accomplishing their desired outcome, the Crown’s oppressive countermeasures hardened colonial resistance and led to the convention of the First Continental Congress on September 5th, 1774, in Philadelphia.
By March of 1775, civil discontent was at its tipping point, and American Patriots in Massachusetts and other colonies were preparing to cast off their masters. The spirit of the coming Revolution was captured in Patrick Henry’s impassioned “Give me Liberty or give me death” speech.
That month, Dr. Joseph Warren delivered a fiery oration in Boston, warning of complacency and instilling courage among his fellow Patriots: “The man who meanly will submit to wear a shackle, contemns the noblest gift of heaven, and impiously affronts the God that made him free. … Ease and prosperity (though pleasing for a day) have often sunk a people into effeminacy and sloth. … Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful; but we have many friends, determining to be free, and heaven and earth will aid the resolution. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rest the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”
On the evening of April 18, 1775, General Thomas Gage, acting as the Crown’s military governor of Massachusetts, dispatched a force of 700 British Army regulars with secret orders. These troops, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were to arrest 53-year-old Boston Tea Party leader Samuel Adams, Massachusetts Provincial Congress President John Hancock, and merchant fleet owner Jeremiah Lee.
But what directly tied Gage’s orders to the later enumeration in our Constitution’s Second Amendment assurance of the innate “right to keep and bear arms” was the primary mission of his Redcoat brigades. They were charged with undertaking a preemptive raid to confiscate arms and ammunition stored by Massachusetts Patriots in the town of Concord.
Patriot militia and minutemen, under the leadership of the “radical” Sons of Liberty, anticipated this raid, and the confrontations with British regulars at Lexington and Concord proved to be the fuse that ignited the American Revolution.
Near midnight on April 18th, 41-year-old Paul Revere, who had arranged for advance warning of British movements, departed Charlestown (near Boston) for Lexington and Concord in order to warn John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and other Sons of Liberty that the British Army was marching to arrest them and seize their weapons caches. After meeting with Hancock and Adams in Lexington, Revere was captured, but his Patriot ally, Samuel Prescott, continued to Concord and warned militiamen along the way.
The Patriots in Lexington and Concord, with other citizen militias in New England, were bound by “minute man” oaths to “stand at a minute’s warning with arms and ammunition.” The oath of the Lexington militia read thus: “We trust in God that, should the state of our affairs require it, we shall be ready to sacrifice our estates and everything dear in life, yea, and life itself, in support of the common cause.”
In the early dawn of April 19, their oaths would be tested with blood. Under the command of 46-year-old farmer and militia Captain John Parker, 77 militiamen assembled on the town green at Lexington, where they soon faced Smith’s overwhelming force of seasoned British regulars. Parker did not expect shots to be exchanged, but his orders were: “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
Within close musket range from the Patriots’ column, British Major John Pitcairn swung his sword and ordered, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!”
Not willing to sacrifice his small band of Patriots on the green, as Parker later wrote in a sworn deposition, “I immediately ordered our Militia to disperse, and not to fire.” But his Patriots did not lay down their arms. Then under Pitcairn’s orders, as Parker testified, “Immediately said Troops made their appearance and rushed furiously, fired upon, and killed eight of our Party without receiving any Provocation therefor from us.” Ten other Patriots were wounded.
As the American militia retreated toward Concord with the British in pursuit, their ranks grew to more than 400.
In Concord, the British divided in order to search for armament stores. Before noon, the second confrontation between regulars and militiamen occurred as 100 British light infantry from three companies faced the ranks of militia and minutemen at Concord’s Old North Bridge. From depositions on both sides, the British fired first, killing two and wounding four.
This time, however, the militia commander, Major John Buttrick, ordered, “Fire, for God’s sake, fellow soldiers, fire!”
And fire they did. The volley commenced with what poet Ralph Waldo Emerson later immortalized as “The Shot Heard Round the World.” With that shot, farmers, laborers, landowners, and statesmen alike brought upon themselves the sentence of death for treason. In the ensuing firefight, the British suffered heavy casualties. In discord, the Redcoats retreated to Concord proper and, after reinforcing their ranks, marched back toward Lexington.
During their Concord retreat, British regulars took additional casualties in sporadic firefights. The most notable of those was an ambush by the reassembled ranks of John Parker’s militia, which became known as Parker’s Revenge. Despite reinforcements when they returned to Lexington, the King’s men were no match for the Patriot ranks. The militia and minutemen inflicted heavy casualties upon the Redcoats along their 18-mile tactical retreat to Boston.
By day’s end, the Patriots suffered 49 killed, 39 wounded, and five missing. The British casualties totaled 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing.
Upon hearing of those first shots fired in what would become an eight-year struggle for American Liberty, Samuel Adams declared to fellow Patriot John Hancock, “What a glorious morning this is!”
Indeed it was, and remains with every sunrise over our nation since.
Two months after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress, under President John Hancock, declared, June 12, 1775: “Congress … considering the present critical, alarming and calamitous state … do earnestly recommend, that Thursday, the 12th of July next, be observed by the inhabitants of all the English Colonies on this Continent, as a Day of Public Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer, that we may with united hearts and voices, unfeignedly confess and deplore our many sins and offer up our joint supplications to the All-wise, Omnipotent and merciful Disposer of all Events, humbly beseeching Him to forgive our iniquities. … It is recommended to Christians of all denominations to assemble for public worship and to abstain from servile labor and recreations of said day.”
Why would the first generation of American Patriots forgo, in the inimitable words of Sam Adams, “the tranquility of servitude” for “the animating contest of freedom”?
The answer to that question — Liberty or Death — defined the spirit of American Patriotism then, as it defines the spirit of American Patriots today. The ideological descendants of those who once pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor today pledge “to support and defend” Liberty as enshrined in our United States Constitution.
In 1776, George Washington wrote in his General Orders, “The time is now near at hand which must determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.”
Of that resolve, President Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Indeed, the time is always at hand when American Patriots must reaffirm whether we are to be freemen or slaves.
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“Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us.” —Thomas Jefferson (1775)
Note: For an excellent resource on nation’s founding, read Mark Alexander’s essay on American Liberty. You can also purchase our highly acclaimed pocket size Patriot Primers on American Liberty in bulk for distribution to students, grassroots organizations, civic clubs, political gatherings, military and public service personnel, professional associations, and others.