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The spark of revolution: Thoughts for Patriots’ Day, 2014

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This reproduction shows George Washington in full dress uniform on horseback preparing his troops for the final battle of the Revolutionary War in Yorktown, Virginia. (Library of Congress)

A single spark, sometimes as small as a shot of unknown origin, can explode long-simmering friction into open revolution. 

Sometimes the spark comes with the rumble of tanks, as has happened this spring in Crimea and may still happen throughout the rest of Ukraine. 

Whether the tanks came into Crimea in response to a local popular vote, which Moscow would have all believe, or whether they came to snuff out the progressions of a broader Ukrainian election cycle that appeared to be turning Ukraine more toward Europe and away from Russia, only time will tell.

Americans are no strangers to the spark of revolution or the uncertainty it brings. Early on the morning of April 19, 1775, a thin line of colonial militia stretched across the damp grass of Lexington Green. 

Silhouetted by the rising sun, hundreds of red-coated regulars of the British army marched toward the position from two angles. But for steely resolve, the locals in homespun clothes might well have melted away back to their homes and farms. Except for confusion over a choice of roads, the regulars might have marched past them with no more insult than the tramp of boots.

America’s national experience is proof that it takes time to judge whether a revolution has been both successful and to the popular good.

Then a single shot rang out. History has long debated the party responsible. Companies of regulars quickly unleashed deafening volleys, while the militia – at first shocked that the troops were firing lead ball instead of bluff powder charges – reacted with sporadic return fire. In seconds, eight of their fellow townsmen lay dead or dying. The Redcoats gave three cheers and continued on toward Concord.

While there were many throughout the Thirteen Colonies that morning who had already decided which side they were on, the large percentage in the middle was suddenly forced to make a choice. But which was the “right” side? 

To many, the government of King George III had been economically oppressive and unrepresentative of their interests, but it had not yet sought to suspend civil law or crush their dissent with mass murder. 

Who was on the “right” side? The rebels who demanded a change in political structure or the loyalists who stood by the existing government of the king?

Advancing beyond Lexington, the British regulars encountered larger numbers of hastily assembled militia at a bridge north of Concord. Another skirmish occurred, provoked by a second shot of unknown origin. 

The rebel spin later spoke of local defensive measures taken against the king’s troops because the intent of their actions was uncertain. But in a matter of minutes, as the British column marched back to Boston, the woods on either side filled with rebels and exploded with an offensive fury. 

A tipping point had been reached. This was no defensive action; this was all-out war. Moderates on both sides spoke out for peace and reconciliation, but the dye had been cast.

The final judgment of the events set in motion on Lexington Green took some time to be rendered. The fighting continued for six and a half years. The political infighting over what the governmental results of that revolution would be continued for decades. Some might argue it continues still.

Who was “right” that morning? The “rebels” of that day – and, indeed, that is what they were called – became “patriots” only in hindsight. Had the American experience in representative government faltered – perhaps even failed with a despot in charge instead of an unselfish George Washington – history’s verdict might be different about who were “the good guys” on Lexington Green.

America’s national experience is proof that it takes time to judge whether a revolution has been both successful and to the popular good. 

Sometimes the spark of popular revolution is snuffed out. Overwhelming military force crushed popular uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. A single act of courage in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 became the face of a million protesters, but it met with a similar fate.

History still awaits a verdict on the Arab Spring of 2011. Some countries, such as Tunisia, where it all started with the spark of a street vendor setting himself on fire, have made strides toward democracy. 

Others have stumbled. 

Egypt attempted a democratic leap, fell backward under military rule and now once again contemplates elections. Syria is the worst-case result of the Arab Spring, a horrid civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead or maimed and millions of others displaced. What does the spring hold for the people of Crimea and Ukraine?

On Monday, April 21, Patriots’ Day, we celebrate not only the resolve shown on Lexington Green – the determination to stand up for one’s beliefs, no matter the cost – but also the result of that revolution 239 years later. 

If we are as determined as those patriots of 1775, that result is not a finished product, but a continuing evolution of hope, opportunity and equality. 

We have only to look to the Boston Marathon bombing on Patriots’ Day last year for evidence that the price of liberty is an account never fully paid. 

We must work at it every day. Let our celebration also be encouragement to other revolutions in progress with uncertain outcomes or those about to be ignited by a single spark.

Historian Walter R. Borneman’s books include "American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution" (Little, Brown, May 6, 2014).  "The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King"; and "Iron Horses: America’s Race to Bring the Railroads West," to be published November 18th in paperback by Back Bay Books.