What is America about? Where can we find it? What is the root of our commitment to self-government? To individual liberty? Are we connected with our forebears?
These are large questions, and I don’t have large answers. But I do have an experience that brought me a lot closer to them.
About a year ago, I moved from New York to Massachusetts. My wife and I chose to live in Concord, even though we are not working there. That wasn’t the most practical decision, but still, it made some sense.
Concord is breathtakingly beautiful. It is also historic. It’s where the Revolutionary War started on April 19, 1775, when about seven hundred British soldiers were given what they thought were secret orders—to destroy colonial military supplies being held in Concord. That’s where our nation started to be born.
Know the phrase, “the shot heard ’round the world”? If you’d asked me before 2017, I would have said, with complete confidence, that it referred to Bobby Thomson’s game-winning home run in 1951, which won the pennant for the New York Giants. Wrong answer.
The phrase is a lot older than that. Here’s an excerpt from the “Concord Hymn,” written in 1836 by Concord’s Ralph Waldo Emerson for the dedication of the Obelisk, a monument commemorating the Battle of Concord. You might focus on the fourth line (though I confess it is the third that really gets to me):
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.
Emerson wrote that sixty-one years after the event. No single shot is known to have started the Revolutionary War, but it was in Concord that British soldiers confronted the American militia on North Bridge. The Americans were under strict orders not to shoot unless the British shot first. The British began by firing two or three shots into the Concord River; the Americans interpreted those shots as mere warnings. Consistent with their orders, they did not respond. But the British soon followed with a volley, killing two Americans, including one of their leaders, Captain Isaac Davis, who was shot in the heart—the first American officer to lose his life in the Revolution.
Seeing this, Major John Buttrick, a leader of the Concord militia, immediately leaped up from the ground and exclaimed, “Fire, fellow soldiers, for God’s sake, fire.” According to those who were actually there, “the word fire ran like electricity through the whole line of Americans… and for a few seconds, the word, fire, fire was heard from hundreds of mouths.” Acting as one, Concord’s embattled farmers followed Buttrick’s order. (That, I like to think, was the famous shot—the first battle in which the Americans defended themselves.) Two British soldiers were killed. The rest immediately retreated. To their own surprise, the Americans won the first engagement. The war was on.
Having a sense of Concord’s role in America’s birth, my wife and I had to decide among possible houses there, for us and our two young children. There were two finalists. The first had been completed just a few months before we visited. It was perfect—gorgeous, sunlit, shining, functional, clean, with a new air-conditioning system, a kitchen to die for, and all the modern amenities. You had to love it. I certainly did.
The second finalist was built in 1763, by an active participant in the American Revolution named Ephraim Wood, Jr. According to the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the Wood house, as it is called, is “one of the most important of Concord’s early farmhouses.” The house played a role in the Revolutionary War. It stood proud at the inception. Actually, it helped precipitate the fighting. It was one of the places where munitions were being held, prompting the initial British expedition.
Hours before shots were fired, the British forces went to Wood’s farm, looking for the munitions and also for Wood. They didn’t find him. Wood spotted them while coming home, and he managed to escape, carrying munitions on his back.
On that fateful day, British soldiers destroyed a lot of property, including every public store that they could find. But they didn’t burn down or even damage the house. As the fighting moved on, got terrible, and then worse, the house remained intact. It was there before the United States turned into a country, and it was there when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. It was there when the Articles of Confederation ruled the land, and it was there when the Federalist papers were written and when the Constitution was ratified.
But in the twenty-first century, the Wood house had been on the market for a long time. Nobody wanted to buy it. It isn’t close to perfect. Its eighteenth-century origins show. Upstairs, some of the old floors tilt; you feel as if you’re dizzy, or in some kind of fun house. People used to be a lot shorter, and as you enter the front door, you have to bend down. For the same reason, the original ceilings are uncomfortably low. The master bedroom seemed built for people under five feet tall.
The basement was a mess, full of crazy wires from various decades. We asked a friend of ours, an architect, to have a close look and to give us an evaluation. When he did so, his face was grim. He didn’t have a nice word to say about the house.
But still: Whenever you enter the front door, and bend down, you know that you are where the Revolution started, and where Americans hid arms, ready to fight for their liberty.
Reader, I bought it.
Adapted from IMPEACHMENT: A CITIZEN’S GUIDE by Cass R. Sunstein, published by Harvard University Press.