“…and if they mean to have a war, let it begin here” ?? —The Real Words of Captain John Parker

Lexington Minutemen Monument, Lexington, MA

Lexington Minutemen Monument, Lexington, MA

Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the events in Boston leading up to the American Revolution. The History program called “Sons of Liberty” brought a modern “spin” to the historic events of 1775. Though this will not dive into the deep debate on what was real history and what was fiction, the series is part of an ongoing historiography of myths associated with April 19, 1775. Many of the legends told today were begun as soon as the smoke settled on the Lexington green.

Located today on the Lexington green is a monument to the minutemen who stood on the green on the morning of April 19, 1775. On the monument is inscribed words attributed to the minuteman commander Captain John Parker – “Stand your ground, don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” But did Parker really say these words?

An early description of the events in Lexington was provided by none other than Paul Revere in a deposition to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1775. Revere was in Lexington that morning returning from his capture by a British patrol.   Revere was released from capture and was making his way to Lexington to try to catch up with Sam Adams and John Hancock. As the British advanced, Revere and John Lowell left nearby Buckman’s Tavern with a trunk belonging to John Hancock. As they approached the green Revere wrote:

“{I} had to pass through our militia, who were on a green behind the Meeting House, to the number as I supposed, about 50 or 60, I went through them; as I passed I heard the commanding officer speak to his men to this purpose; ”Let the troops pass by, and don’t molest them, without they begin first.”

Last page of Paul Revere's testimony of the events of April 19, 1775

Last page of Paul Revere’s testimony of the events of April 19, 1775

Revere wrote later in his account that as the firing began he was up the road from the green and his view was obstructed by several buildings. Revere’s account does not match the more heroic quote that has been attributed to Parker, but it does coincide with the passive stance that many said Parker was making that day towards the British. There is no mention of letting the British begin a “war” here in Lexington.

The more known heroic quote attributed to Parker comes from his grandson, Theodore Parker. Though not present in 1775 Theodore Parker  was proud of his family’s role in the beginning of the Revolution.  While on trial in 1855 he told the story of John Parker and the minutemen at Lexington, he quoted Captain Parker:

““I will order the first man shot that runs away,” said he, when some faltered; “Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they want to have a war,—let it begin here.”

Years later, Parker would attribute the family legend of Capt. John Parker’s words to the company’s Sergeant William Munroe. At a 1822 reenactment of the skirmish at Lexington, Theodore Parker quoted Munroe as to attributing those famous words to Captain Parker. Though Theodore Parker was a young child at that time, he used his memory from that event to build the legend. Theodore Parker would later tell historian George Bancroft the famous quote but would interject the word “mean to have a war” where he had before said “want to have a war.”

Other aspects of Parker’s story do not match historic fact that was corroborated by many other firsthand witness accounts. Men such as Ebenezer Munroe wrote “Capt. Parker ordered his men to stand their ground and not to molest the regulars, unless they meddled with us.” None of the accounts mention the heroic quote on the monument today.

Succumbing to tuberculosis soon after the events that spring, John Parker did not live long enough to make a lasting impression on his role that April morning.  Parker’s only comments on the events that April day were made a few days later in a short statement to the Justice of the Peace. He described the events in a matter of fact way and said he ordered “…our Militia to disperse and not to fire.” We will never know for sure what Parker said that fateful morning, but we can say with some certainty his words were probably not planned for posterity, but were for necessity of the situation he was facing.

Firing on Lexington Common by Ralph Earl, Connecticut Historical Society

Firing on Lexington Common by Ralph Earl, Connecticut Historical Society

The quote that is now displayed on the boulder on the Lexington green marking the position of Parker’s Minutemen inspires patriotism. It coincides with our notion of farmers, tradesmen and clerks standing up to the British in the early morning of April 19th. But the actual event was probably witness to few stirring speeches and more anxiety with orders by a qualified militia Captain. Ordering his men to not fire and to not molest the British is feasible giving the situation and is also corroborated by many other accounts of men who there that morning. It does not make what Parker and his men did any less important or patriotic.

Next, Part II – Who Fired First at Lexington?

Sources/Suggested Reading

Secondary:

American Spring, by Walter R. Borneman (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)

Lexington and Concord, by Arthur B. Tourtellot (W.W. Norton, 1959)

Primary:

History of the Battle of Lexington: On the Morning of the 19th April, 1775, by Elias Phinney (1825)

The Trial of Theodore Parker: For the “Misdemeanor” of a Speech in Faneuil Hall Against Kidnapping – April 3, 1855, Boston, MA

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3 Responses to “…and if they mean to have a war, let it begin here” ?? —The Real Words of Captain John Parker

  1. Bob Huddleston says:

    Thanks for an interesting discussion. And I did not realize John Parker’s grandson was the noted abolitionist Theodore Parker!

  2. Donald Logue says:

    Very educational reading. Thanks.

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