Friday, April 24, 2009

The Shot Heard 'round the World

Two hundred thirty-four years ago this past weekend (April 19th) a group of militiamen commanded by Capt. John Parker fought a brief, confused action with British regulars under the command of Major John Pitcairn on Lexington Green, a few miles north of Boston. The colonials beat a retreat. Later that day, some miles further West, at North Bridge, having been reinforced with other companies of militiamen, the colonials reformed and fought fought a pitched battle, repelling the British regulars.

Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the British retired from the field after an intense exchange of fire, and were harassed by militiamen all along the march back to Boston.

Though no one knew it, a new chapter of world history had opened in fire and blood.

Six decades later, when the youngest sons of the men who fought that day were already passing into old age, a memorial was erected and a song sung:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
The song is Concord Hymn, and it was composed by Ralph Waldo Emerson to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence.

This is telling: the skirmishes of '75 were joined by colonials who were jealous of their rights as Englishmen, though their posterity rightly viewed their actions that day as the first in a series of events that ended with the colonies' final separation from the British Empire. The momentous changes that separation wrought in the world could not have been even dimply glimpsed by the farmers who fought that day.

There is a simple object lesson in this: our actions have consequences more far reaching than we can possibly know, and the beginnings of the virtue of prudence are in the constant and unstinting acknowledgment of this.

There is another lesson: the Divine Providence informs all that we do - so to do well now is always an expression of our desire for happiness in eternity.

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