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So Where, Exactly, Is the Cradle of Liberty?

So Where, Exactly, Is the Cradle of Liberty?
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Welcome to the April 2008 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

So Where, Exactly, Is the Cradle of Liberty?

Concord, Massachusetts, has always claimed that distinction. But then so has neighboring Lexington …

The official first battle of the American Revolution is often referred to as “the Battle of Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775.” That doesn’t set particularly well with either Lexington or Concord. Each of those two Massachusetts towns considers itself alone to be the specific cradle of American liberty. But in the minds of Americans in general, Concord has the edge, thanks in large part to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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.

That first stanza of Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” is carved (without credit to Emerson) on one side of the pedestal of the Daniel Chester French statue The Minuteman, which stands near the “rude bridge” in Concord where the three-minute battle occurred. It was unveiled on April 19, 1875 — 100 years later — with President Ulysses S. Grant in attendance. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, Emerson’s stirring lines “made Concord’s reputation” for all time.

Lexington, however, has a Minuteman statue, too. Its version, sculpted by H. H. Kitson, was dedicated in 1900 and was, ironically enough, modeled after an Englishman by the name of Arthur A. Mather. (Mather later became a U.S. citizen, settled in Medford, Massachusetts, and was, of all things, both the national heavyweight wrestling champion and the national canoe-paddling champion.)

At the base of a flagpole near Lexington’s Minuteman is an engraved line proclaiming Lexington the “Birthplace of American Liberty.” Nice … but somehow it lacks that special ring that Emerson provided Concord.

Several artists have contributed to the somewhat-inaccurate “legendary” impression of the Lexington battle. The first drawing of it, by artist Amos Doolittle, is probably accurate because Doolittle sketched it only a few days after the battle. If “battle” is the right word.

It shows well-organized British soldiers lined up in combat formation, firing a volley at a motley group of scattered colonials, who are not firing back. Those not already lying dead or wounded are hightailing it — a perception of that particular historic event not compatible with popular legend.

By 1830, artistic renditions of the Lexington battle show a few Minutemen firing at the British, while a Hammett Billings painting of 1868 depicts almost all of the Minutemen engaged in battle. However, it is the heroic 1886 Henry Sandham oil painting that forms the basis for the modern version of the Battle of Lexington. The Minutemen and the British are all toe to toe, blasting away at one another.

All this points up the important element of time in the making of legends. For instance, most of the impressive memorials standing today in both Lexington and Concord were never viewed by anyone who was alive on April 19, 1775.

But I should add that it’s not only New Englanders who are apt to let legends develop for years before officially recognizing their historic (and tourist) value. For instance, Texans let the Alamo remain in a heap of rubble for almost 80 years after it fell to Santa Anna in 1836. How ’bout that?

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So Where, Exactly, Is the Cradle of Liberty?

Updated Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

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