The Shot Heard Round the World

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Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Kate Gruber.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Ralph Waldo Emerson. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When American colonists reached for their newspapers on the morning of April 20, 1775—the day after the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord—they did not see the words “The Shot Heard Round The World!” emblazoned across the front page. Today, we use this phrase to describe the legendary first gunshot fired on Lexington Green, the gunshot that began the 8-year war for American independence from Britain. The words “the shot heard round the world” are as omnipresent in our collective memories as “one if by land, two if by sea,” and even “I have not yet begun to fight!” But did you know that this phrase did not exist during the American Revolution? In fact, the words “the shot heard round the world” were not penned until sixty years after the event, and were written not by an eyewitness to the action at Lexington and Concord, but by famed American poet (and Civil War contemporary) Ralph Waldo Emerson.

American colonists were hard-pressed to find news of the first shot of the American Revolution on the front page of their daily paper—only two out of 37 documented colonial papers, the New Hampshire Gazette and the Georgia Gazette, put the events of April 19, 1775 on the front page (newspapers of the 18th century routinely reserved the front page for international news or royal addresses, while regional and local news was to be found in the pages that followed). Colonial papers used terms such as “Bloody News,” “this unhappy Affair,” and later, “A Bloody Butchery By the British” to describe the action. The words “the shot heard round the world” are nowhere to be found in 18th-century reports.[1]

The origin of this beloved phrase is Emerson’s 16-line poem, Concord Hymn. Emerson completed the poem for the dedication of Concord’s Battle Monument, which still stands today on the grounds of Minute Man National Historic Park. Emerson, by then a nationally-recognized literary, was a logical choice for the town to solicit to dedicate their monument, because he had taken up residence in Concord in 1835 with his second wife, Lydia Jackson.[2] The citizens of Concord scheduled a dedication for the monument on April 19, 1836, but the festivities, including a parade and the unveiling of Emerson’s poem, were delayed until July 4, 1837. Emerson’s mother Ruth wrote on June 27, 1837 that on “the 4th of July, the good citizens of Concord talk of celebrating by having a little parade on account of the erection of the Monument…Waldo has written a hymn, to be sung to the tune of old hundred…”[3]

Battle monument at Concord. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Battle monument at Concord. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

The words of Emerson’s poem were set to the tune of a familiar hymn, “Old Hundred,” and were sung “by all who could join in full chorus.” John Shepard Keyes further remembered the day the world first heard the words “the shot heard round the world:”

It was a very hot, sunny, July day. After the noon salute and bell ringing the village became as    quiet as of a Sunday. About three o’clock the procession, escorted by the military companies, but a straggling advance, consisting mainly of the townspeople, men, women, and children, came slowly along the Common and passed up the road to the old North Bridge. There were assembled about the Monument two or three hundred, seated on the grass…Mr. Emerson’s hymn was sung by all who could join in full chorus. The hymn was printed on slips of paper about six inches square and plentifully supplied to the audience…[4]

Keyes was just one of the hundreds of Concord citizens who were present to hear Emerson’s now immortal words, which now live in as much infamy as the day they commemorate.

“Concord Hymn,” 1837

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.

The foe long since in silence slept,
Alike the Conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone,
That memory may their deed redeem,
When like our sires our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, or leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and Thee

[1] Frank Luther Mott, “The Newspaper Coverage of Lexington and Concord,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Dec., 1944), pp.489-505.

[2] The Poetry Foundation, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” accessed online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/ralph-waldo-emerson.

[3] Concord Library, “The Concord Hymn, 1837” accessed online at http://www.concordlibrary.org/scollect/Emerson_Celebration/Em_Con_50.html

[4] Social Circle in Concord, Memoirs (Boston, 1882-1940), V, 77-8; reprinted in Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1965), 48.

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