In honor of April being National Poetry Month, we share the connection of the literary icons of Concord (MA) and its American Revolution heritage. Concord historian Jayne Gordon wrote about these connections in an appendix in our recent release “A Single Blow.” Below is part of that text.
None of the eighteenth-century Concord authors lived through the American Revolution, yet reminders of that eighteenth-century war abounded in Concord in their lifetimes. Their neighbors were the grandchildren of the minutemen; veterans of the war were still among the townsfolk. Buildings, gravestones, old roads, and other landmarks evoked that part of the past, and they were surrounded by the stories of the fateful day of April 19, 1775. They each drew on their interpretations of the Revolution’s symbolic meaning, and incorporated those ideas into both their private and public writings.
In the case of RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1803-1882), there was a direct historical link to a grandfather who had played a significant role in the beginnings of the Revolution. Sixty years after colonial militiamen confronted the British troops at the North Bridge within sight of the Old Manse, the grandson of patriot minister Reverend William Emerson would come to his ancestral home to stay, writing in his journal, “Hail to the quiet fields of my fathers! . . . Henceforth I design not to utter any speech, poem, or book that is not entirely & peculiarly my work.”
At a desk overlooking the site of the brief but bloody engagement, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the first draft of “Nature” in 1835. That essay would play a seminal role in another revolution with deep roots in Concord: one that saw America establish cultural and intellectual independence from the Old World. “The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”
At the same time that Emerson was firing his own ‘shot heard ’round the world’—not with a musket, but a pen—he honored those who stood at the Bridge in 1775. His “Concord Hymn,” written just months after “Nature” was published, was sung at the dedication of the obelisk (1837) that stands at the site.
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! who made those freemen dare
To die, or leave their children free,
Bid time and nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and Thee.
Emerson remained in Concord for the rest of his life, nearly another half century, in the white house (Emerson House) at the intersection of Lexington Road and the Cambridge Turnpike. That home served as a magnet for writers and reformers who came to this town for deep and thought-provoking conversations in Emerson’s study.
Thirty years after the monument was dedicated at the Bridge, Concord erected a new
memorial to the “War of the Rebellion” with an address by Ralph Waldo Emerson. This Civil War Monument has a piece of the stone abutment from the North Bridge embedded in its foundation to symbolize the connection of the American Revolution and the four year conflict that had so recently ended. Emerson’s words, spoken on April 19, 1867, make that connection clear. The Civil War was the second part of the Revolution that needed to finish what the first had not achieved: the eradication of slavery, the “poison” that had threatened the very underpinnings of democracy.
The old Monument, a short half-mile from this house, stands to signalize the first Revolution, where the people resisted offensive usurpations, offensive taxes of the British Parliament, claiming that there should be no tax without representation.
Instructed by events, after the quarrel began, the Americans took higher ground, and stood for political independence. In the necessities of the hour, they overlooked the moral law, and winked at a practical exception to the Bill of Rights they had drawn up. They winked at the exception, believing it insignificant, but the moral law, the nature of things, did not wink at it, but kept its eye wide open. It turned out that this one violation was a subtle poison, which in eighty years corrupted the whole overgrown body politic, and brought the alternative of extirpation of the poison or ruin to the Republic.
This new Monument is built to mark the arrival of the nation at the new principle,—say, rather, at its new acknowledgment, for the principle is as old as Heaven,—that only that state can live, in which injury to the least member is recognized as damage to the whole.
In 1842, NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE (1804-1864) came to Concord to rent the Old Manse with his bride Sophia Peabody just seven years after Emerson left for his new home a little over a mile away. Hawthorne was drawn to the old parsonage, an eyewitness to history. He did his writing in the same room Emerson had used, with the same view over the fields to the site of the North Bridge. In the introduction to his short story collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, Hawthorne imagined the scene on the first day of the American Revolution:
The study had three windows, set with little, old-fashioned panes of glass, each with a crack across it. The two on the western side looked, or rather peeped, between the willow-branches, down into the orchard, with glimpses of the river through the trees. The third, facing northward, commanded a broader view of the river, at a spot where its hitherto obscure waters gleam forth into the light of history. It was at this window that the clergyman, who then dwelt in the Manse, stood watching the outbreak of a long and deadly struggle between two nations; he saw the irregular array of his parishioners on the farther side of the river, and the glittering line of the British, on the hither bank. He awaited, in an agony of suspense, the rattle of the musketry. It came—and there needed but a gentle wind to sweep the battle-smoke around this house.
Several of Hawthorne’s fictional works took place in the period of the Revolution: notably “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” and the unfinished “Septimius Felton.” That story was written and set at the Wayside in Concord, the last home where Hawthorne lived and the only one he ever owned, now part of Minute Man National Historical Park.
The legacy of the Revolution was alive and burning for HENRY THOREAU (1817-1862). Born in what is now called the Thoreau Farm, mentored by his neighbor Emerson, he joined a chorus of townspeople to sing the “Concord Hymn” during the 1837 dedication of the monument at the Bridge. Yet this author of Walden and “Walking” saw that war for American independence was a jolting reminder of how far from freedom this nation truly was. In 1851, Concordians celebrated the heroism of April 19, 1775 with town festivities (as they still do). Just one week before in Boston, a fugitive named Thomas Sims had been captured on his flight to freedom, and was being returned to slavery with the help of local officials. Thoreau noted the cruel irony of that juxtaposition of events in his journal, and in 1854 published the slightly-reworked passage in his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts”:
Three years ago, also, just a week after the authorities of Boston assembled to carry back a perfectly innocent man, and one whom they knew to be innocent, into slavery, the inhabitants of Concord caused the bells to be rung and the cannons to be fired, to celebrate their liberty — and the courage and love of liberty of their ancestors who fought at the bridge. As if those three millions had fought for the right to be free themselves, but to hold in slavery three million others. Nowadays, men wear a fool’s-cap, and call it a liberty-cap. I do not know but there are some who, if they were tied to a whipping-post, and could but get one hand free, would use it to ring the bells and fire the cannons to celebrate their liberty. So some of my townsmen took the liberty to ring and fire. That was the extent of their freedom; and when the sound of the bells died away, their liberty died away also; when the powder was all expended, their liberty went off with the smoke…. Every humane and intelligent inhabitant of Concord, when he or she heard those bells and those cannons, thought not with pride of the events of the 19th of April, 1775, but with shame of the events of the 12th of April, 1851.
‘Shots heard ‘round the world’: the legacy of the American Revolution continued to echo in the words of these four authors who called Concord home for much of their lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson helped to begin a revolution in literature and thought in the same place where his minister-grandfather had helped to shape the convictions and stir the courage of the “embattled farmers” who fired those first shots. In nearby Lexington, the grandson of another hero of April 19, 1775 was equally moved by the actions of his Revolutionary War ancestor. In this case, it was the grandson who was the clergyman. Rev. Theodore Parker, the fiery abolitionist and supporter of John Brown, was the descendant of Capt. John Parker, who led the Lexington militia. When he vowed to fight slavery with every ounce of his being, he reflected, “. . . what could I do? I was born in the little town where the fight and the bloodshed of the Revolution began. . .”
For Parker, as for Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, the Revolution continued as a powerful inheritance from the past and inspiration for the future. It threaded through their surroundings, their thoughts, and their writings; examined and re-examined–and ever-present.