J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Federal recognition for Freedom's Way?

Last month the Boston Globe reported on how the National Park Service has suggested it be allowed to designate National Heritage Areas without waiting for congressional approval of each, the way National Monuments and National Historical Parks must be designated by law.

One of the areas under consideration, which provided the hook for the Globe article, is the "Freedom's Way" , promoted by the Freedom's Way Heritage Association. Alan Wirzbicki's Globe dispatch describes the situation this way:

The proposed "Freedom's Way" region in New England covers an area of 45 towns in Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire that were hotbeds of support for Patriot forces against the British during the American Revolution, as well as for the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage during the 19th century.

Plans for Freedom's Way include sites in the Boston suburbs of Concord, Lexington, and Arlington, and extends as far west to the towns of Winchendon and north to Amherst, N.H. . . .

The Massachusetts communities that would be included in the Heritage Area are: Winchendon, Ashburnham, Ashby, Townsend,Pepperell, Dunstable, Gardner, Westminster, Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Shirley, Ayer, Groton, Leominster, Lancaster, Harvard, Littleton, Westford, Princeton, Sterling, Boxborough, Acton, Carlisle, Clinton, Bolton, Stow, Maynard, Concord, Bedford, Hudson, Sudbury, Lincoln, Lexington, Woburn, Arlington, Medford, and Malden.
The advocacy group has a map to show the area's scope.

Why, some of us from communities south of this area might ask, is this the "Freedom's Way Heritage Area" and other Middlesex villages and towns not? As far as the Revolutionary connection goes, the answer may lie in the actions of Paul Revere and William Dawes, Jr., the two men who came out of Boston on 18 April 1775 with news that the army regulars were marching west. Dawes followed his instructions from Dr. Joseph Warren and rode straight toward Lexington to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that they might be in danger; with good intelligence from sympathizers in London, the Boston radicals probably knew that the London government had advised Gage to make arrests. (Gage didn't do so because he had other things uppermost on his mind, but that's another story.)

Revere, in contrast to Dawes, stopped at towns along his route to share his news with local militia leaders. As David Hackett Fischer documents in Paul Revere's Ride, Revere was well-networked; he knew lots of men in the movement. The officers Revere talked to in turn sent alarm riders further away from Boston with the news. The towns that Dawes rode through didn't hear about the regulars until that chain of communication had circled west and back down to them, or until news of the shootings at Lexington arrived.

The result is that the "Middlesex Alarm" spread north and northwest more quickly than it spread south and southwest. The town militia units that responded in time to participate in the Battle of Lexington & Concord (or, more accurately, the counterattack on the returning British column) came disproportionately from the northern half of the province. Most towns in the southern half also mobilized, but not in time to have as big an effect. The town of Waltham never seems to have heard the alarm at all.

Now are those historical circumstances really what define the "Freedom's Way National Heritage Area"? Or do the guiding concerns have to do more with the current environment, controlled economic development, and the legacy of nineteenth-century reform movements? I suspect the Revolutionary history is influential, not definitive. But Revolutionary heritage and "freedom" always play better in Washington.


Chris Hurley said...

Okay now, were such an area designated, would I, as a citizen of Woburn, really take any pride in saying "I live in Freedom's Way!"?

J. L. Bell said...

You might even find yourself standing in Freedom’s Way.