Massachusetts: Lexington and Concord

These towns are sites of the first battles of the American Revolutionary War and the homes of the nineteenth century writers Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.

Site Office

Minute Man National Historical Park

174 Liberty Street

Concord, MA 01742

ph.: (978) 369-6993; (781) 862-7753

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Concord and Lexington share the distinction of being the places where on one day in 1775 the American Revolution moved from debate and protest about British rule to armed opposition to British troops. Concord has the additional distinction of having been the home of some of the greatest American writers of the nineteenth century.

Early History

Neither of these features of the area’s later history could have been imagined in 1635, when Concord, the first English settlement in Massachusetts away from the Atlantic coast, was founded at a place known to Native Americans as Musketaquid. It prospered as the shire town (capital) of Middlesex County and as a center for trade with the rest of Massachusetts and for expeditions against the French and Native Americans, its population rising to about 1,500 by 1775. In 1752 and again in 1764 it was even the temporary capital of Massachusetts, when smallpox frightened the lawmakers away from Boston.

In 1774 life in Concord was changed once again by events in Boston. In January, a month after the Boston Tea Party, persons attending the town meeting voted unanimously to join in the boycott of British tea. When the British government ordered the military occupation of Boston, closed the port to shipping, and appointed General Thomas Gage, the commander in chief of the army in North America, as governor of the Massachusetts colony, eight out of ten of the voters in Concord agreed to boycott all British products. The town became the headquarters of the revolution, alternating with Cambridge, when the colonial legislature, defying General Gage, met there as the Provincial Congress in October, 1774, and again in March, 1775. It was the Congress’s decision to store arms and provisions in Concord that made it a prime target, first for spies sent out by Gage in March, 1775, and then for military action.

The Battle of Lexington

On the evening of April 18, 1775, about seven hundred British troops, known as “redcoats” because of their uniforms, were assembled on Boston Common and ordered to march to Concord. The rebels had spies too and, ironically, the supplies that the redcoats hoped to capture had already been hidden at various places outside the town. Paul Revere was only the most famous of the rebel messengers who spread the word that the troops were coming. When they reached Lexington, a village on the road to Concord, at dawn on April 19, the British were met by 77 rebel fighters, nicknamed Minutemen because they were expected to be ready to fight at a minute’s notice. They had been preparing for the encounter for many weeks and were now lined up on the village green.

There is still dispute even now about who fired the first shot. The redcoats ignored their own commander’s orders not to fire, and thirty minutes later, when they left Lexington, eight of the rebels were dead and nine injured. It seems that, somewhat surprisingly, the redcoats made no attempt to arrest John Hancock or Samuel Adams, the revolutionary leaders who were both staying in a house only a quarter of a mile from the green.

In the meantime hundreds of Minutemen had assembled at Concord, but they had retreated to the hills by the time the redcoats arrived. They stayed there while the British soldiers searched for weapons (and, incidentally, stole property worth 275 English pounds). Then the colonists advanced toward the North Bridge, where they killed three redcoats, injured others, and forced the rest to run away. Four hours after their arrival the British soldiers marched out of Concord, only to be repeatedly ambushed on the road by a force of about 1,100 rebels until they returned to Lexington in disorder, to regroup and join forces with another one thousand redcoats sent out from Boston. They retreated together, still facing heavy opposition, especially at Menotomy, since renamed Arlington. The Revolutionary War had begun.

Concord After the Revolutionary War

After 1775 Concord saw no more fighting but instead became a refuge for rebels fleeing from Boston and Charlestown. They helped to raise the population to nineteen hundred a year after the battle, while men from Concord joined in the siege of Boston, the battle of Bunker Hill, and the assault on Fort Ticonderoga. The inflation that accompanied the war brought economic difficulties to Concord until peace came to the northern colonies in 1780. In 1786 Concord sprang to prominence once again as the only town in eastern Massachusetts where farmers prevented the county court from sitting, in protest against the state’s failure to relieve their debts. Unlike in the western counties, however, where similar protests led to Shays’s Rebellion, no blood was shed this time in Concord.

The townspeople went on to share in the prosperity of the 1790’s, when the French revolutionary wars in Europe gave the neutral American merchants new opportunities. In 1794 the town’s leading men, who had formed a Committee of Public Safety during the Revolution, set up a club, the Social Circle, which soon came to dominate the life of Concord, including such new organizations as the Charitable Library Society, founded in 1795. After another depression around the time of another conflict, the War of 1812, Concord returned to prosperity yet again.

Literary Figures

“Literary Concord,” the home of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, can be said to have begun in the town’s Old Manse. This house had been built around 1770 by William Emerson, the minister of Concord’s church, who had watched the fighting from its windows but had died in the following year. Ezra Ripley, his successor, married Emerson’s widow in 1780 and continued as minister till 1841. In 1832 his stepgrandson Ralph Waldo Emerson (born in 1803) visited Concord and wrote his famous poem about “the embattled farmers” of Concord who “fired the shot heard round the world.” Emerson had briefly been a Unitarian minister before visiting Europe and becoming one of the first Westerners to study Oriental religions. In 1834 he came to stay in the Old Manse again in order to compile his lectures on philosophy into his first book, Nature, and then lived in what is now called Emerson House until his death in 1882.

The elite Social Circle, which Emerson was invited to join in 1838, frequently held its meetings in this house, but it was also one of the venues for the “Transcendental Club,” a looser and more informal group through which Emerson influenced, and was influenced by, his friends Thoreau and Bronson Alcott and others interested in his philosophy, including some of the people who engaged in communal living at Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, between 1841 and 1847. The Transcendentalist movement that Emerson and his allies thus initiated emphasized self-reliance, both for individuals and for American culture, and brought the ideas of Immanuel Kant and other European philosophers of intuition and individualism to the United States.

Emerson’s friend Henry David Thoreau (born in 1817) was the only native of Concord among the four writers whose names are associated with the town. His most famous book, Walden, first published in 1854, describes his experiences between 1845 and 1847 when he lived in a one-room cabin near Walden Pond. This was not, as it may seem, an experiment in isolation, for he went into Concord often and many people visited the cabin. Thoreau’s aim was to discover what he could learn from simplifying his life down to its essentials, and his determination to realize the Transcendentalist ideal of self-reliance was signalled by his moving into the cabin on July 4. In spite of its fame, however, the book has probably had less impact on the world than Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), which grew out of his ventures into radical political action. His family’s home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, the network of abolitionists that helped runaway slaves reach freedom in Canada, and he spent a night in jail in 1846 after refusing to pay the poll tax in protest against slavery and the war with Mexico. Long after his death (in 1862, from tuberculosis) Thoreau’s essay was to inspire the much greater protests of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nathaniel Hawthorne had a more skeptical attitude to Emerson’s philosophy, which he satirized in his story “The Celestial Railroad,” yet he was on good terms with both Emerson and Thoreau and was just as committed as they were to the pursuit of self-reliance. Born in Salem in 1804, he moved into the Old Manse with his wife Sophia in 1842. Avoiding contact with most Concordians apart from Emerson and Thoreau, he concentrated on writing the stories collected as Mosses from an Old Manse. The Hawthornes’ time in the house was cut short when, in 1845, Ezra Ripley’s son decided to move back into it, and Hawthorne’s most famous novels, The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, were written elsewhere. The Hawthornes moved back to Concord in 1852. This time they lived in a house called the Wayside for a year, spent seven years in Europe, then returned to the Wayside, where Hawthorne died in 1864.

Bronson Alcott, another Transcendentalist thinker and a friend to Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne alike, lived in Concord with his wife and daughters during three separate periods. From 1840 to 1843 they rented a cottage, from 1845 to 1848 they preceded the Hawthornes at the Wayside, which they called Hillside, and from 1857 to 1877 they were in Orchard House. His daughters included Louisa May Alcott, who was to base her most famous novel, Little Women, on memories of her life in Concord.

Impact of the Railroad

The town that these writers, their families, and their friends were familiar with was being transformed even in their lifetimes. The railroad reached Concord in 1844, an event that Emerson responded to, intriguingly, by protesting against the damage it did to the landscape and simultaneously buying extremely profitable shares in it. Boston was now only one hour away, not four, and subsistence farming rapidly gave way to commercial production of fruit and vegetables, dairy goods, and ice (from Walden Pond). Since then both Concord and Lexington have moved further still from their Puritan colonial origins to become suburbs of Boston.

Modern Preservation Efforts

There are many physical remnants of the revolutionary and Transcendentalist eras in and around these two historic places. In Lexington the fighting on the Green is reenacted each year on Patriots’ Day, the third Monday in April; the house where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying is now a museum; and other buildings associated with April 19, 1775, are also open to the public. The Minute Man National Historical Park consists of strips of land running on either side of the Battle Road between Lexington and Concord, together with the area around the North Bridge in Concord itself. The Old Manse, Emerson House, the Wayside, and Orchard House can all be visited, and the graves of all four of the writers are to be found in the town’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. However, though some of the furniture that Thoreau made for his cabin is displayed in the Concord Museum, alongside many other relics of Concord history, the cabin itself is long gone. Half a mile away from where it stood there is a replica near a parking lot within the Walden Pond State Reservation.

Clearly, there is still much in Concord and Lexington to commemorate those ideals of independence and self-reliance which the Minutemen fought for and which the nineteenth century writers sought to reformulate and express. Thoreau, for one, reminds people that commemorating them is less important than trying to realize them.

For Further Information

In addition to the books listed here, the major works of the Concord writers are widely available in various editions.

  • Brooks, Paul. The People of Concord: One Year in the Flowering of New England. Chester, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 1990. Uses the events of 1846 as a focus for a study of the relationships among the Alcotts, the Emersons, the Hawthornes, and Thoreau.
  • French, Allen. Historic Concord: A Handbook of Its Story and Its Memorials, with an Account of the Lexington Fight. 2d rev. ed. Concord. Mass.: Friends of the Concord Free Public Library, 1992.
  • Gross, Robert A. The Minutemen and Their World. New York: Hill & Wang, 1992. A detailed and absorbing study of life in Concord around 1775.