Harold Murdock’s “The Nineteenth Of April 1775”

Few episodes in American history lend themselves more easily to romanticizing than the stand of the embattled patriots on Lexington Common. It has all the necessary ingredients: good American farmers shot down, virtually on their doorsteps, by bloodthirsty British troops outnumbering them fourteen to one; farrnhouses burned; a civilian population involved. For six generations our desire to think well of ourselves worked on the episode, softening the hard outlines of fact with the haze of romance.

But forty years ago a voice was raised against the chorus of national self-exaltation. It belonged to a Boston banker named Harold Murdoch, a descendant of the original settlers, a man of wit, of insight, of scholarly persistence in tracking down details, and of a judicious temperament. Not an academic historian, Murdoch had collected his own library of books and original manuscripts, which over the years had become particularly rich in early American history and eighteenth-century English history and Johnsoniana. In 1910, then vice-president of the National Shawmut Bank, he was elected to resident membership in the Massachusetts Historical Society—an honor that is conferred upon only 100 living people. Six years later he read his first paper, called “Historic Doubts on Lexington,” before the society. Later it was published as the first essay in his book. The Nineteenth of April 1775.

Murdock was the first fully to explore and then explode the traditional version of what had happened on that memorable day, but in the three decades since he wrote, new evidence has come to light which reinforces his skeptical, though tentative, conclusions. The significance of Murdoch’s achievement as a triumph of American historiography has been confirmed. “Historic Doubts.” somewhat shortened but with all its major assertions intact, is here reprinted for the first time since 1025. The, text is interrupted from time to time lor editorial comment. —A. B. T.

On the 2nd of September, 1824, Lafayette was a visitor in Concord, and the Honorable Samuel Hoar took occasion to remind him, in a public address, that he stood upon the spot where “the first forcible resistance” was made to the British arms. This simple assertion proved in a measure epoch-making. A half-century had passed since the great events to which Mr. Hoar referred, but his claim for Concord roused a storm of protest in Lexington. A bitter controversy ensued, and local pride and local historians were stirred to an extent that imperilled historic truth. The Town of Lexington took official cognizance of the Concord claim, and Elias Phinney, Esq., was charged with the task of demonstrating to all impartial minds that it was at Lexington, and not at Concord, that the embattled farmer fired that far-echoing shot that heralded American independence.

To assist Phinney in his work, depositions were extracted from ten aged citizens of Lexington, some of whom, fifty years before, had attended that early morning roll-call on the Common. Those venerable men, whose comrades in 1775 had been anxious to prove the peaceful intent and behavior of the minutemen, were now summoned to lend color to quite a contradictory theory.... Phinney’s pamphlet on the battle appeared in 1825. Concord had old men of her own, and they were summoned into the lists to support contentions put forth by the Reverend Ezra Ripley, who published his anti-Lexington tract in 1827....

Two results of this controversy are worth noting: the first, a development of local interest and enthusiasm in the subject, which remains unimpaired as bitterness has waned; the second, the accumulation of a mass of questionable evidence, which in exaggerated forms has gradually become accepted as history.... “Tradition, legend, tune, and song” all played their part in the reconstruction of the Lexington story, until the schoolboy of my generation, however dull in history, knew for facts that Revere rode into Concord before dawn with news that the regulars were out, and that Major Pitcairn stirred his whiskey in the Concord Tavern, with blood-curdling threats that would have done credit to a pirate king.…

By way of clarifying what I have said concerning the evolution of the Lexington story, let us refer to the accompanying illustrations, four reproduced from old prints, and one from Sandham’s painting, which belongs to the Lexington Historical Society and hangs in the Town Hall. The earliest print to be examined is that of Doolittle, engraved in the fall of 1775; and it is to be noted that Pendleton, Billings, and Sandham all portray the scene from the same spot, giving the same landscape that Doolittle depicted.…