By Bradley J. Birzer, August 10, 2009 in Outside the Classroom

On the last Thursday morning in July, I stood on the Lexington green with my beautiful and sagacious wife, my five very active and somewhat mischievous children, the talented Ben Cohen (acting as Paul Revere; and who also turned out to be a supporter of Hillsdale College), the vivacious Malana Salyer of Gary Gregg’s McConnell Center, and roughly twenty-seven teachers from Kentucky.

As “Paul Revere” described the battle on the commons that morning—the Lexingtonians greatly outnumbered by the advancing British—I felt immensely humbled.

“Revere” pointed out the buildings, oriented us, described the troop movements, explained the ideas the Lexingtonians held as they stood at ready, and the consequences of the actions taken in April 1775. One Lexingtonian, shot on the green, even crawled back to his house, literally across the street, and into his wife’s arms to die.

That Thursday, I stood at the very birthplace of America.

Despite the rain, despite the photos being taken, and despite the restless children, I could only think of that moment, 234 years earlier. A moment touched by honor, touched by manhood, touched by virtue, touched by patriotism, and, most importantly, touched by sacrifice. Indeed, one might even write, saturated with sacrifice.

A moment—in which an untold number of decisions were made by free and dignified individual human persons—that would change the world. A choice here, a choice there, a consequence here, a consequence there. I was reminded that there is no real “progress” in history; only remembrance; only heroic action; and only sins of omission or commission. I was also reminded of the power of liberty and the virtues and vices it presents.

As Arthur B. Tourtellot wrote in his excellent work of history, Lexington and Concord, the decisions made on the green had nothing to do with economic advantage, economic disadvantage, or structures of political power. The ideas that drove the Lexingtonians to resist were deeply cultural and religious. They were the ideas of Protestant non-conformists and men rooted in the western and Anglo-Saxon traditions of rights and common law. “And it is a truth, which the history of the ages and the common experiences of mankind have fully confirmed, that a people can never be divested of those invaluable rights and liberties which are necessary to the happiness of individuals, to the well-being of communities or to a well regulated state, but by their own negligence, imprudence, timidity or rashness,” the most prominent individual and leader of Lexington, the Reverend Jonas Clarke, said during the Stamp Act crisis. Ten years later in his own community, his sermons and political writings both explained and inspired. Liberties “are seldom lost, but [more often] foolishly or tamely resigned,” Clarke concluded.

As I awoke last Tuesday morning in southern Michigan to find yet another stunning, cool, dry summer day (the finest of my ten Michigan summers, to be sure), I also awoke to an even more disturbing than usual headline in the New York Times: Russian submarines patrolling off the coast of America; the Navy dumbfounded.

What a summer. The governor of South Carolina, by all accounts a fascinating and imaginative man, traveling to Latin America to meet with a mistress. Bailouts beyond the dreams of avarice to spend our way out of trouble. Cash for clunkers—seemingly more environmentally destructive than anything the original cars and car owners were capable of—which merely transfers wealth from the taxpayer to the car dealer and the automobile company. And, now the Russians are demonstrating their bravado off of our coasts?

Is this what Rev. Clarke fought for? Is this why the men of Lexington were willing to die, even as their wives and children watched from the windows and doors of their homes? Where is liberty, where is virtue, and where is character in our modern and postmodern America? Where is the willingness to sacrifice everything—including life itself—for the legitimate defense of one’s family, one’s community, and one’s faith?

Well, for a brief moment that Thursday morning, the sacrifice of those men became manifest and tangible. For a very brief moment, I could remember their moment, reach toward their decisions, and feel the consequences of their actions.

Now, if I can only find the words to pass on those remembrances to my students, to my children, and to my friends.

Liberties “are seldom lost, but . . . foolishly or tamely resigned.”

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about the author

Bradley J. Birzer
Bradley J. Birzer

Bradley J. Birzer holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History and is Director of the American Studies Program at Hillsdale College, Michigan. He earned his B.A. from the University of Notre Dame (1990) and his Ph.D. from Indiana University (1999). He is author of American Cicero: Charles Carroll and the American Founding (forthcoming, February 2010); The Shattering of the Republic: Abraham Lincoln and the Crisis of Fort Sumter (forthcoming); Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson (2007), J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth (2003), co-editor of The American Democrat and Other Political Writings by James Fenimore Cooper (2000), and co-author of The American West (2002). Birzer is Chairman of the Board of Academic Advisors for the Center for the American Idea in Houston; a Fellow with the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville; and a board member of Ave Maria University's Sapientia Press and of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He and his wife, Dedra, have six children: Nathaniel, Gretchen, Maria Grace; Harold Kenneth; Cecilia Rose (†); and John Augustine.