In the Concord Hymn, Emerson wrote a moving and effective memorial for the citizen militia who a generation or so before had defended the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts and repulsed multiple assaults by larger British forces to delay those soldiers so that their efforts to seize colonial armories could be thwarted. Emerson isn't my favorite poet, but his connection to that place and time gave him a special perspective on the events at Concord and the first verse of the hymn is particularly good at summing up the commitment and accomplishment of those few, brave men.
|The Concord Hymn
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
The foe long since in silence slept;
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
Those 'embattled farmers' were just the common men of the time, willing to take up arms and defend their homes and their rights against an oppressive enemy with superior forces, superior training and superior firepower. Outgunned and outmanned, they could not be outfought. The very land they stood on gave them strength because they fought to defend their homes and for no gain or glory or king's coin.
The 'shot heard round the world' which was fired by their rifles in defiance of the British government was truly remarkable, because armies around the world had fallen before those supremely disciplined troops in their red uniforms and yet driven primarily by issues of principle, these simple men were willing to stand up to the lead wall of the volleys of trained British muskets and offer their lives if necessary 'to die, and leave their children free'.
Others in America and around the world heard that shot and answered its call and came to offer themselves to the cause of freedom. Some came great distances to fight for principle on behalf of people they had never met, like Casimir Pulaski and Wilhelm von Steuben — enemies in the continental wars of Frederick the Great who fought on the same side for America. Others came to share their ideas and leadership, like Thomas Paine who served best with his pen rather than his sword.
The idea of liberty and the willingness of individuals to fight for it is an enormously powerful force which still draws people to America 230 years later, willing to make their own sacrifices in order to be free. Unfortunately, those who have enjoyed the benefits of liberty for generations often forget the sacrifices their forefathers made to attain that precious liberty and are seduced into leading complacent lives where they take their liberties for granted and may not notice as they slip away bit by bit through the incremental erosion of greed and ambition and well-intentioned folly.
Every July 4th we light off fireworks and they're loud and bright, but while they may grab our attention for a moment, they don't have the power to direct it towards the truth which the date of the Declaration of Independence ought to remind us of. That Declaration was the written expression of the beliefs which inspired the Minutemen who fought at Concord and for the rest of the War of Independence. What those fireworks ought to be telling us is that freedom is not free, that it must be paid for in blood and that we're never done spilling that blood and paying that price. Liberty is like a subscription and it has to be renewed periodically and each generation has to pay for that renewal or the subscription expires and becomes something less than what we signed on for in the first place.
Each of us in some way can act to keep liberty alive in our times. We can volunteer to help out in our community. We can change our habits to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We can keep watch on our government and our leaders and on the forces abroad which threaten us. We can embrace and support those who love liberty and resist and oppose those who would destroy it. At the very least we can be informed on the issues and vote. We owe it to their great sacrifice to make our own smaller sacrifices to preserve the legacy of liberty which they entrusted to us.
This was originally written on July 4th of 2006, but it seems even more relevant today on the 235th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord.