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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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Capt. John Parker’s Words on Lexington Green

A few weeks back, tour guide and author Ben Edwards asked me about the words ascribed to John Parker on Lexington common as the British regulars approached.

Did Parker say, “if they want to have a war, let it begin here,” or, “if they mean to have a war…”? Some authors quote the first version, others (and a carved boulder on the green) quote the second.

It appears that our first printed source for either quote dates from 1855, or a full eighty years after the event. The Rev. Theodore Parker was then on trial in Boston for resisting the Fugitive Slave Act. In his defense, he told an anecdote about the confrontation in Lexington that included the quotation:
One raw morning in spring—it will be eighty years the 19th of this month—Hancock and Adams, the Moses and Aaron of that Great Deliverance, were both at Lexington; they also had “obstructed an officer” with brave words. British soldiers, a thousand strong, came to seize them and carry them over sea for trial, and so nip the bud of Freedom auspiciously opening in that early spring.

The town militia came together before daylight “for training.” A great, tall man, with a large head and a high, wide brow, their Captain,—one who “had seen service,”—marshalled them into line, numbering but seventy, and bad “every man load his piece with powder and ball.”

“I will order the first man shot that runs away,” said he, when some faltered; “Do n’t fire unless fired upon, but if they want to have a war,—let it begin here.” Gentlemen, you know what followed: those farmers and mechanics “fired the shot heard round the world.”
Parker didn’t state outright that the militia captain he described so intently, John Parker, was his own grandfather.

Some details of Parker’s story were off. He was mistaken about the aim of the British march—Gen. Thomas Gage had given no orders to seek out and arrest Hancock and Adams. There were probably about 700 regulars, not “a thousand.” Parker promulgated a fiction in saying that the Lexington militia was out at night “for training” rather than in response to news of the British march. And Ralph Waldo Emerson coined the phrase “shot heard round the world” about the fight at his home town of Concord, not in Parker’s home town of Lexington.

Three years later, Parker wrote down the story again in a letter to the historian George Bancroft, eventually published in 1863:
One fact or two let me give. At the battle of Lexington, when Capt. P. drew up his men as the British were nearing, he ordered “every man to load” his piece with powder and ball. “Don’t fire unless fired upon; but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!” I think these significant words ought to be preserved. They were kept as the family tradition of the day, and when the battle was re-enacted in 1820 (or thereabout), his orderly sergeant took the Captain’s place, and repeated the words, adding, “For them is the very words Captain Parker said.” Besides, some of the soldiers, when they saw the flash of the British guns, turned to run: he drew his sword, and said, “I will order the first man shot that offers to run!” Nobody ran till he told them, “Disperse, and take care of yourselves.”
As you can see, Theodore Parker wrote “want to have a war” in 1855 and “mean to have a war” in 1858. Both versions of the quotation thus rest on the same man’s memory.

Theodore Parker was born in 1810, thirty-five years after his grandfather had died. He based on his quotation on “family tradition” and an affirmation by the captain’s former orderly sergeant, speaking in a folksy manner: “For them is the very words Captain Parker said.”

TOMORROW: What did that orderly sergeant himself tell us?

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