April Morning: Essay Q&A

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  1. What is the historical background of the Battle of Lexington and Concord?

The Battle of Lexington and Concord also included the villages of Lincoln, Menotomy (now Arlington), and Cambridge, all near Boston. This was the beginning of armed conflict between Great Britain and its thirteen American colonies.

The British General Gage sent 700 British army regulars under Lt. Col. Francis Smith with secret orders to capture and destroy the military supplies of the Massachusetts militia at Concord. The colonials found out their intention through their intelligence network and had already moved most of the supplies. Though they heard the night before the battle, they could rapidly notify the towns because of the Minuteman network of riders like Paul Revere. Three such riders set out from Boston to warn the towns along the Concord path. Paul Revere made it as far as Lexington. Only Sam Prescott made it to Concord. In case the riders failed, there was a backup signal system with the colonials lighting lanterns in the Old North Church in Boston: “one if by land; two if by sea.” The British troops crossed the Charles River, so two lanterns were lit and seen in Charlestown across the river.

The first shots were fired at dawn in Lexington. Howard Fast plays up the innocence of the colonial militia in their intention not to start a war or fire on the British. However, historically it has never been determined who started the conflict. The British officers also claimed it was not their intent or orders to fire on the Americans. Probably it was a random shot from a hothead on one side or the other, and then chaos ensued. The British officers lost control of the men, who were not informed of their mission. They are portrayed as ignorant in the novel, and it is true that many British recruits were taken from prisons or the London streets.

It was British Major Pitcairn who led the troops into Lexington with his superior officer, Smith, behind him on the road. He faced John Parker, a war veteran in Lexington and head of the local militia. In the book, this role is given to Parker’s cousin, Jonas, who was killed in the confrontation. Parker also had no intention of firing on the other side. Both Parker and Pitcairn had told their men to hold their fire. Each side claimed the other side shot first.

Adam Cooper says that though witnesses were asked what happened that day, “I doubt that the clear and absolute truth will ever be known” (p. 168). Adam tells Ruth that war is not what he expected; it is confused and chaotic. He remembers that there was no battle plan; everything was “the result of some sudden notion of this or that Committeeman; and the only reason the battle went on hour after hour was that no one was in any position to halt it or direct it” (p. 150). Adam tells of an incident where a British soldier bearing a white flag of surrender was accidentally shot dead because the colonial men didn’t understand what the flag meant. He explains the men were “in the grip of a force outside ourselves” (p. 149). Historical accounts bear this out.

Adam laments after the death of his father: “We had made a mistake. We were stupid people. We were narrow people. We were provincial people. But over and above everything, we were civilized people” (p. 97). Fast takes the point of view of the colonial patriots, putting the blame on the British. He also shows, however, both mercy and violence on both sides, a realistic assessment of war. Eight men were killed on the Lexington green as bystanders watched. The troops then moved toward Concord where they were surprised by armed resistance at the Old North Bridge. The British got reinforcements at Concord but were still defeated by several hundred colonial militiamen. There were 1700 British marching back to Boston, but the militia blocked them on the road.

There is mention at the end of April Morning of a siege in Boston. Fifteen thousand colonial militia marched to Boston the very day after the Concord Battle. They laid siege to Boston for eleven months and liberated the city. That militia became the Continental Army under George Washington. Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Concord Hymn” celebrates the first shot fired on the British at Old North Bridge in Concord as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” The American Revolution and its ideals of freedom gave hope to people around the world

2. What does it mean when Moses Cooper says they are people of the Book?

Cooper means that the Protestants who left the Catholic Church and Church of England wanted to have direct contact with God by reading the Bible for themselves instead of having priests in a church interpret it for them. The various Protestant religious sects who fled Europe for America in the sixteenth century were called by various names as a group—dissenters because they objected to official religious practice and set up their own church; Puritans, because they wanted to purify the corruptions of the established church; separatists because they wanted to separate from the established church and state of England.

Puritanism in America was both a political and religious movement and refers to the various groups, such as the Presbyterians that were the Coopers’s family tradition. Most Puritans saw themselves as living by the Bible and living out Biblical history in the present time. For instance, they identified with Moses taking the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt as parallel to their leaving Europe. Wandering for forty years in the wilderness was like the Puritans coming to wild America and having to survive in the wilderness. Finding the promised land became the founding of their own towns and homesteads. America was literally their promised land, as far as they were concerned. The Christian settlers did not consider they were taking away Indian land but being led to what was rightfully theirs as a people of the Book. They were the true believers, like the Israelites. Note that all the characters have Biblical names, such as Moses, Adam, Ruth, Levi, and Sarah.

There were many political implications of Puritanism that led to a climate ripe for democracy. Puritans believed in the equality of all true believers; they did not like hierarchies. Thus, the village of Lexington is simple in its layout and rule. Most families mind their own business except when they need to make common decisions. Town meetings or the Revolutionary Committee meetings were places men could speak their mind without fear. They decide policies through discussion and vote. In April Morning, the Committee votes on whether or not to have a newspaper, and whether to drill on the green. Men like Moses who could persuade others through reason were the natural leaders. These practices naturally translated into the later formation of a democratic government.

3. Explain the role of Samuel Adams and The Committees of Correspondence in the American Revolution.

Samuel Adams (1722-1803) and John Hancock (1737-1793) are mentioned in April Morning because they were national leaders of the American Revolution, and they were actually present in Lexington a few hours before the British came. Adams was the cousin of the future president John Adams, and he himself became the fourth governor of Massachusetts. He had a political career in colonial America, opposing and helping to repeal the Stamp Act of 1765. He was a member of the Massachusetts legislature and also defended Massachusetts radical, John Hancock, a Boston merchant and statesman, and the first signer of the American Constitution. Adams wrote during the 1760s and 1770s against British policies. He felt that the British government was violating the British constitution in terms of forcing the colonists to pay taxes without their consent or representation in Parliament. In 1772, he organized the Committees of Correspondence throughout the colonies, a network to respond against the British policies. At first the Committees addressed opposition to specific issues, and later, they became the revolutionary network. The Committees were sponsored by local colonial governments, such as the town of Lexington. The letters were hand-written and sent out by courier. In 1774 Adams was sent as a Massachusetts delegate to the first Congress of the colonies, the First Continental Congress. Adams worked behind the scenes as a parliamentary whip.

Paul Revere’s ride to the towns about the British march from Boston was not only about the British quest for colonial munitions, but also a warning that they were seeking Adams and Hancock. In April Morning, the Reverend tells Moses and Adam that he had sent Sam Adams and John Hancock away that very night, as they were secretly staying in his house. This is an historical fact. Adams and Hancock were part of the secret organization called the Sons of Liberty (see the novel, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes). They had been to a meeting in Concord, but because it was unsafe to go back to Boston, Adams and Hancock stopped at Lexington, Hancock’s boyhood home, with Reverend Jonas Clarke. They left before the British got there. It is true, as depicted in the book, that each local Committee was supposed to draft a statement on the rights of man in terms of the colonists’ interests and publish them locally and send them on to Boston as well. The Committees were a ready-made network by the time the war started and were important not only for communication but for military strategy. The militia was organized from there, and the Minutemen, the couriers and soldiers on call, were selected from the Committees.

4. What was the philosophy behind the American Revolution?

Granny calls Sam Adams an atheist when Adam Cooper refers to the men in Boston, the leaders of the Revolution. She and grandson Adam are arguing over the newer secular ideas coming into popularity. These radical ideas were the philosophical underpinning of the American Revolution, and later, the scientific revolution. The independent and democratic lifestyle carved out by the Puritans in New England for 150 years was augmented by a new belief in the power of rational thought. Such Enlightenment philosophers as the Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) provided the foundation for the American rebellion with the notion that the purpose of government is to protect the liberties of the people. If the government violates its contract, then the reason to obey the government is destroyed. The British Empire was reorganizing its administration of its colonies in the 1760s and 1770s, resulting in what Americans considered to be unfair taxes and trade practices. They argued they had no representation in the British parliament to protest the higher taxes being levied to support the British troops protecting them.

The idea of the rights of man, that people had natural liberties that could not be violated, was a potent idea circulated in Common Sense, a pamphlet by journalist Thomas Paine (1737-1809) that sold half a million copies in 1776. He made an appeal for the reasonableness of the Revolutionary cause. He explained the abuses of British rule (in the novel summarized by the Reverend as they wait on the green) and asserts that the colonies no longer owe allegiance to the crown. The colonies have grown up, he says, and need independence to preserve their liberty. Paine, Sam Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson were geniuses with the written word and with their arguments to persuade for the revolution. Jefferson, for instance, succinctly puts Locke’s philosophy of government in the Declaration of Independence (1776), explaining that government must have “the consent of the governed.” Moses Cooper admired such eloquence and uses his own power of reason to rouse the village of Lexington.

As Granny could be seen as a stubborn old Puritan, Moses is the type of the new intellectual in the same vein as Benjamin Franklin or Samuel Adams, both of whom came from Puritan stock as Moses did.  They were not true atheists and did not repudiate their religious roots, but felt free to question them and evaluate them in the light of reason. This is what Adam is doing in the first chapter. He is examining his experience and trying to see whether or not he believes what he is told in church when he argues with Granny about the existence of God. Granny is shocked because in her day one accepted religious doctrine, but Adam says he has heard the highest good is to doubt, or question. This is a humanist position--that truth must be sifted out from competing facts and points of view. The rational mind should review all the evidence and then choose the best solution. This philosophy is empowering, because it is up to the individual or groups of individuals to recognize whether or not someone else has the authority to make laws concerning them. The Revolution was based on the colonists believing they had the natural right to say no to an unreasonable government, and they backed that up with action.

5. What details of colonial life in April Morning help to explain how the Americans could win the battle despite the odds?

The British had been lax with the American colonies, having no real colonial policy. Because of the expense of the French and Indian War (1754-1763) in which the English won Canada from the French, the British levied higher taxes to pay for their troops stationed in America. The colonies were little autonomous commonwealths, used to running their own affairs, and resented the British attempt to control trade and impose what were felt as unjust laws and taxes.

There was a tradition of public discussion, even before the establishment of newspapers. Town meetings, the pulpit, clubs, were all means of self-expression. The Puritan sects were highly literate since they, both men and women, read the Bible and discussed it. They were used to having religious freedom in their own hands, as well as the rule of their towns.

Many scholars feel it was journalism (pamphlets and newspapers) that won the war for the Americans since it shaped public opinion and spread news of the British abuses. In April Morning, Samuel Adams is said to be pressing the towns to establish newspapers, and Moses Cooper favors this idea. He wants to be a newspaper editor. He knows the power of shaping opinions through discussion and longs for a larger forum.

Other Puritan traits in colonial life were the dedication to education and the work ethic, both of which are shown in the novel. Moses tells how he was raised as an intellectual, and he wants his son Adam to go to college. The villagers work hard and expect their children to work hard for their livelihood. Adam is expected to do the chores and to spend his spare time improving his mind. By contrast, the British recruits are depicted as jailbirds and street bums forced to serve in the British army. They are too ignorant and beat down to know anything but how to follow orders, and they don’t even do that well.  Their forced march down the Menotomy Road while the villagers take pot shots at them illustrates their position in the army where they have no say. The villagers, on the other hand, have no fixed orders and wander around their own familiar land, improvising battles as they go with great flexibility. They become a team working together. Adam says, “All around me were friends and neighbors . . . everyone warm and nervous and bound together by a thousand invisible threads” (p. 66).  Their homes are at stake, and they fight a kind of guerilla war the British are unused to. Once the first shots are fired, the colonists are committed to see rebellion through to the end, for they could be hanged for treason, unless they set up their own government. Even in the first battle, the colonials do not quit even when the British want to surrender. This determination helps to counter the superior number on the other side.

The colonial women are depicted as hardy, intellectual, and fearless in holding their homes together. Adam believes Granny could outtalk Moses if she wanted to. Granny is not afraid of the British but spits in their faces when they kill her son. Ruth is shown to be the same type, knowing her own mind, and wanting to be Adam’s equal partner. Women are there in the midst of battle, making food, nursing the men, holding on to the land. They even use food to make a patriotic statement, refusing to make pudding the English way; instead using yellow maize from America.

Moses Cooper gives both intellectual and practical reasons for their rebellion. By the time of the Revolution, the prosperity of a rising middle class formed a strong motivation for American self-determination. Moses speaks of his Uncle Cyrus who wants to make money through free trade so much that he is willing to put his life on the line by smuggling rum. Cousin Simmons says that when it comes down to it, a man will die to defend his home. Though outnumbered, the colonists had more reason to persevere in their cause.

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